Are you good enough at your hobby?

Leisure has been a status symbol throughout modern history. While the poor worked all hours, the wealthy spent time reading, enjoying art and taking their tortoises for a promenade (fact). Now this paradigm has been reversed, and the time-poor businessmen eagerly turn what little free time they have left into yet more work. But why?

Have you ever worried if you are good enough at something you do for pleasure? Perhaps you were striving to improve your running performance, grow social media following or reach a page number goal in a reading challenge, when, in a moment of self-doubt, you compared your performance to others and considered quitting?

Some may argue that the drive for improvement is an innate human trait essential for the survival of our species. After all, social recognition and the feeling of accomplishment form a part of our basic psychological needs, topped with the desire for self-expression and self-actualisation. But while people always sought to satisfy these needs through work (paid or voluntary), the concept of competitive fun is largely a product of our time.

Our parents, not to mention grandparents, albeit proud of our achievements, must surely be baffled by our competitiveness and the pressure we put ourselves under in order to hit some arbitrary targets and maintain the streak of continuously doing our best. Take my grandparents as an example — a well educated couple with a reasonable income, they enjoyed many hobbies: both liked hiking, read extensively, took photographs, collected postcards of cinema stars and played chess. But, as far as I can tell, they did all this for the sheer joy of it and never aspired to be particularly good at any of their hobbies. When it came to leisure, they didn’t track their time, map their journeys, maintain lists of goals and achievement and they certainly didn’t worry how their performance ranked in comparison to random strangers. So why do we?

Why do we treat leisure like work?

While the underlying reasons for this behavioural change will undoubtedly occupy scholars for many years to come, here are some contributing factors (particularly in the Western society):

  1. Because greatness is within our reach. The availability of tools and resources has blurred the line between professionals and amateurs. From media equipment and software to sport gear and nutrition, we have many of the best tools of the trade at our disposal. This, plus the extensive educational resources available online, mean that the only thing stopping you from improving is your own self.
  2. Because it can be measured. Thanks to the new technologies that have become an integral part of our lives, everything from the number of steps you take to the quality of your sleep gets measured and recorded by default. With so much data in our hands, it’s hard not to spot patterns and start comparing…
  3. Because it can be compared. While there is nothing like a bit of a competition to boost your motivation, the fact that our efforts can (and will) be compared to achievements of random strangers sets unrealistic expectations. The global competition facilitated by the social media is a losing game for most of us and a hard battle for the few who can take on the challenge.
  4. Because we are told we should. The pressure to compete and win comes in many shapes and forms. Social media has successfully amplified the good old story of the American dream — a narrative about an ordinary person doing extraordinary things. Instagram is full of stories of people seemingly effortlessly doing what they love and receiving a lot of recognition, and so when our drawing/baking/knitting skills fail to match their success, we naturally feel like we should try harder. Every app that uses gamification to help you maintain your exercise routine or learn a language sends the same message — there are badges to be earned, goals to be achieved and streaks to be maintained. If you can’t keep up, well — bad for you.
  5. Because it’s fun. All of the above feeds into our hardwired desires to learn and improve, to express ourselves, excel and be recognised for it. Many of us enjoy competition and nearly everyone likes winning, which is why we accept the tradeoff and give up on relaxation for a chance to win. But at what cost?

So what is the problem?

OK, so we do treat our hobbies more seriously, but why is this a problem?

The rise of the ‘professional amateur’ has pushed the boundary of the human achievement, but the constant drive for more, faster and better comes at a cost. While we have indeed witnessed some ordinary people achieve incredible things, they are exceptions and not the norm. To the vast majority, the change has brought additional pressure, yet more work and a nagging worry that, despite all our efforts, we just aren’t good enough. It took away the precious time of doing nothing and the pleasure of doing something for the sheer fun of it. But is it worth is?

I will leave you with this quote from a great article on a similar subject:

The culture of metrics has migrated from the business world into our leisure time via education and public services. Schools have become more results-oriented. In an attempt to make the important measurable, we have instead made the measurable important.

UX designer at Make it Clear. Runner. Minimalist. Environmentalist. Rationalist.