It might be one of those ‘my, how the times change’ moments, but I was leafing through one of the dustier piles of old CDs at home recently. Stumbling across a copy of Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True and glancing at the cover, I was reminded that the production credit went to “Nick Lowe for Keepitasahobby Productions”. Very droll, of course, and in keeping with the anti-glossy, ‘bang it down on tape and go down the pub’ spirit of the era (1977). But when, apart from a dismissive putdown from an X Factor/Britain’s Got Talent/Oh No It Hasn’t audition panel, when did you last hear that as advice?

Nowadays, most of what I read about hobbies – and admittedly, I don’t often browse the Practical Woodworker/Quilting For Pleasure shelves in WH Smith – is urging me to turn them into a business, or encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit. Googling for a few minutes turned up countless more examples: Howto.co.uk telling me all about Kitchen Table Entrepreneurship, Pipex telling me that Two million turn their hobby into a business, CV Tips telling me How to Turn Your Hobby into a Job.

Nothing wrong with any of it, of course, provided that this course of action is for you. The articles themselves, most of which I notice don’t carry a publication date, are a random mixture from the almost-exhorting at one extreme, to the sounding-a-note-of-intelligent-caution at the other. Perhaps mindful that Walter Mitty Inc. isn’t a company name engraved in everyone’s memories, The Guardian pointed out in 2005 that hobbies that turn into businesses have, to some extent at least, stopped being hobbies:

The lesson is that hobbies and interests can make profitable businesses – but once business rules are applied, they are likely to do rather better than they would otherwise have done.”

Having tried that route with a guitar in my hand, that’s excellent advice, but this piece is more about the other side of the coin. What made playing the guitar rewarding and enjoyable wasn’t the money made by playing it, but the actual playing of the guitar. Once playing it became primarily about the kind of notes that are brown or blue and crinkly rather than the kind that come in chords or melodies, it became a job – but it also stopped being a hobby. At the time I was young, and I hadn’t discovered the joys of cooking and gardening (not having a garden didn’t help, obviously): there wasn’t something else to take the place of the purely pleasurable side of guitar playing. I was making money, which was an achievement given that I’d graduated into the early 1980s recession with a degree in English. But my worklife balance – to use a description I sure we didn’t in those days – was tipping the wrong way.

What leaves me wondering with all this contemporary advice – even the well-meaning advice that highlights pitfalls, and stresses the need to take business seriously – is a nagging sense that we might forget what a hobby is about: relaxing, enjoying ourselves, doing something for the sheer pleasure of doing it. I’m all in favour of people doing things that they truly, madly, deeply love – as long as it’s not misquoting Hollywood blockbusters for a living – but I’m not sure the world will support an economy where the majority of us quilt or play golf. Looking at a Harris Interactive list, finding a way for 26% of us to support ourselves by reading is going to be a challenge: how many literary critics, proof readers and continuity announcers does one nation need? (No matter how fragmented its sense of continuity might seem to be.)

Stumbling through the mountains of results on Google to explore the topic, I found a 2007 Examiners Report for CIPD’s Professional Development Scheme Specialist Personnel and Development Career Management and Development (the front page doesn’t make the punctuation any clearer). One of the questions in the sample exam paper was:

What is the theoretical basis for and against establishing a young person’s hobbies and testing their interests before giving career’s guidance? “

To which the examiner commented on the responses:

It is received wisdom that hobbies and interests are directly related to occupational choice decisions, but the theoretical basis for this is less apparent and candidates tackling a similar question to this some years ago had some difficulty in articulating a response. I was interested in seeing if they did better this time. Twenty five attempted it, and 12 achieved a pass mark or better.”

Apart from getting the sinking feeling I’ve commented on received wisdom before (turns out I have, twice), it’s also worth reading a witty article on the BBC website where Laurie Taylor remembers interviewing a prospective sociology student who’d been told to put hobbies on her application form.

While it turns out I’ve made the same comment myself in the past (truth will out, and all that), I don’t want to avoid the main point I’m looking to make. If your hobbies – photography, music, lettering, cooking – can find an occasional outlet at work rather than becoming your work (taking pictures for the website, making cakes for a celebration), that’s great: a source of pride as well as enjoyment. If it does mean you have some sense of ‘self’ other than just your defined job role with those you work with, that’s great – but there’s nothing wrong with it just being ‘fun’. Fun has yet to be entirely outlawed. But don’t forget to have something to go home to – a hobby that provides recreation, a break, and the ‘balance’ in that work/life balance equation.

We’re familiar with the problem of people reaching retirement and finding themselves lost with all that time, as they’ve never had any active interests outside work. Faced with entire weeks to fill, the challenge is very real: I remember my Mum dreading my Dad’s impending retirement (“Oh Christ, he’s going to be here the whole time!” were pretty much her exact words) before he thankfully discovered some new interests in the world.

But it’s equally sad that many of us make it that far without having something to fill the slightly smaller gaps in our weeks. As the endless slew of articles point out, there’s a whole wide world of hobbies out there – indeed, the whole wide world is one of them. You can choose the endorphin-boosting variety or just go for something that, as the article points out, keeps you sane. My advice: just get one. Or more. Have something you can go home to at the end of a bad day (we all have them) that isn’t just dinner and the telly, something that uplifts, or just distracts with some simple pleasure. Encourage other people too – not to pick your choice, necessarily, but to have something in their lives as a source of personal joy or comfort. All work and no play and all that I guess that means I’m turning into my grandmother: growing my own blueberries and telling people ‘You’ll thank me when you’re old”. Well, just because she’s no longer with us doesn’t mean I’m not grateful.

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