Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | Finding pleasure in hobbies rather than excellence is where success lies

Do you remember the last time you pursued a hobby solely for pleasure? As we surrender our lives at the altar of hustle, even leisure and relaxation have become like competitive sports. Even while pursuing hobbies we feel compelled to prove that we are having a great time and winning the race of life.

Our pursuit of excellence, as suggested by Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, has infiltrated all aspects of our lives and corrupted the world of leisure. He believes most people either don’t have hobbies or don’t find time to pursue them because we are afraid of being bad at them.

Even while relaxing and pursuing things with no short-term impact on our daily lives, chasing excellence has become the hallmark of the 21st century. We aspire to be great partners, inspiring co-workers and memorable party starters. Being mediocre, average or good-enough doesn’t quite feel right.

Research conducted at Harvard and INSEAD Business School suggests that happiness comes from progress. Excellence is an outcome of consistent progress, but the inverse is often not true. Unfortunately, the pursuit of excellence is far more in vogue than the pursuit of progress. This trickles down even to leisure activities as we tend to link our identities and self-worth with them.

Leisure used to be part of our personal space, but it is far more public now. We track numbers, keep scores and measure relative progress. That’s perhaps how leisure became hard work. AngelList co-founder Naval Ravikant once wrote that we should find three hobbies: one that makes you fit, one that makes you money and one that makes you smart. I found this three-pronged life hack immensely helpful but couldn’t help to wonder if hobbies need to have a goal.

Where happiness lies

There is abundant research that suggests pursuing hobbies can make us better at our jobs. Wharton professor Adam Grant says hobbies train us to think creatively and give us access to new ways of solving problems. Shark Tank investor Kevin O’Leary pursues photography, film-making and cooking seriously. Turns out Nobel laureate scientists are twice as likely to play a musical instrument as their peers, and seven times as likely to paint or draw. Galileo recognized the moon’s mountains through a telescope because of his training in art. While it is clear that hobbies have practical benefits, I hope we don’t indulge in them with an ulterior motive. Doing so will irreparably sully our creativity in the long run.

Let us explore the advantages and disadvantages of goal-driven, utilitarian approach to hobbies. The advantage is that we tend to pursue them more seriously and consistently put efforts even if just to prove a point. The disadvantage is that the joy of experience is replaced by the pressure of performance.

Right after high school, largely on a whim, I decided to take up theatre. Since then it has become an integral part of my life. Although I am a better theatre actor now, I cherish my first set of rehearsals and the unmatched exhilaration of stepping on stage. At the time all I cared about was the sheer pleasure of pursuit. Today I hear my inner voice telling me to try and excel. I wonder if it is just me or we are all part of this hustle revolution together.

As Prof. Wu explains, the demands of excellence—deliberate practice, coaching, competition—are at odds with freedom. If we only pursue hobbies and personal projects where we can excel, our field of exploration will reduce significantly. While we may fail fewer times, but it will come at the cost of tinkering and experimentation. Eventually we might even stop learning new things because of risk of falling short of our expectations.

How can we design our lives to leave room for wanton whims and hobbies? It comes down to letting our curiosity shape our path ahead. Legislating curiosity can stifle innovation and personal growth. It can deprive us of the joy of discovering our true selves.

I still remember the summer I took to theatre. I ended up with a small role in a production, but it was one of the defining moments of my life. Over the years, theatre has helped me in many ways at work but that is not why I got into it. Perhaps that is why I got so much out of the experience.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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