People ask, ‘How do you make a dance?’ The answer is simple, put yourself in motion.Twyla Tharp*
In edition six, Andy wrote about how journaling is his favorite tool for self-discovery. His advice about using Twitter to learn had me wondering what my network looked like, and while I was researching Twitter graphing tools (like Neo4J, Gephi, and others in this roundup), a friend retweeted a piece of advice about the importance of having “other crops of friends” outside your career focus.
But it’s not always so simple to grow that crop of non-work friends. I’ve found that the older I get (and the further away from the friendship pressure cooker of college), making friends can get, well, awkward. As an extroverted introvert, I don’t strike up new connections easily. Even if you’re a full-throttle extrovert, you might be thinking, “How do I even do that? All I do is work!” The tech hiring process rewards after-hours effort dominated by “side projects,” and no one seems curious to find out you knit or have mastered perfect sous vide poached eggs. Learning how to do things like these can be a great way to make friends outside work. I’ve had one tool that’s connected me with a vast array of other experiences and perspectives, and it’s a habit for having hobbies.
When passion for work is lauded everywhere you look, passion for other things can be deemed a distraction, frivolous, or a sign you’re not committed. But I’ve found that finding a hobby you’re passionate about can you give you perspective on your work, relationships that inspire you, and, crucially, a break. You might be surprised to learn what rest from work can do for your brain. Over the course of my life, I’ve picked up skiing, salsa dancing, playing the bass (poorly), mountain biking, gardening, and was even foolish enough to earnestly try to learn to surf in my 40s.
Mountain biking has stuck around more than any other, and has garnered a wildly variable cadre of friends who can instantly transport me from tech, tools, and Twitter, to rocks, roots, and a dose of brain-jolting adrenaline. I’ve turned pedals with students, artists, mechanics, geologists, anesthesiologists, writers, chefs, firefighters, lawyers, hourly retail workers, and nearly any other profession imaginable (yes, including fellow tech workers). And, incredibly, we rarely talk about work—we chat new bikes, the best trails, and the weather. But more than anything, we talk about flow. About that magical moment when your tires hook up perfectly in a turn; when you’re balanced and weightless in the air before touching down; when rhythm, speed, and focus fuse so perfectly that nothing can occupy your mind other than what is right in front of you.
I’m biased toward physical, skill-based hobbies, largely because it’s what I’m drawn to— I’ve learned my mind through my body my whole life—but also for the copious research that shows how regularly moving our bodies influences the length and quality of our lives. Exercise is the #1 rule in Brain Rules by molecular biologist John Medina, a book that collects what scientists know with near certainty about how our brains work and how to make them work better. He translates the recent explosion of neuroscientific research into understandable principles (the “Rules”), which are useful for parents, teachers, employees, and anyone who wants to learn, remember, or otherwise use their brain better. By far, my favorite rule is #12, Exploration. Medina points out that only in the last decade or two did we discover that our brains are not static, that we are not born with a fixed number of neurons which we steadily lose until we die. We grow neurons, we build new connections between them each time we learn or do something new.
Any hobby outside work increases your brain’s network graph, and that’s what matters. If all you do, think, talk, read, and hear about is your work, you don’t give your brain a chance to make good on all those new connections. One of my favorite authors, Steven Johnson, refers to this as having “porous borders” in your life, where lots of new ideas and inspirations can leak and creep in through seemingly unrelated activities.
As for my Twitter network, you’re a well-rounded bunch, at least when it comes to hobbies.
[3m] Sometimes your brain needs an even bigger break, like maybe a sabbatical. Alice Goldfuss posed the question on Twitter if people’s companies have a sabbatical policy and I was pretty surprised how many did, and how codified the majority of them were.
[8m] Two things from “Why CEOs Devote So Much Time to Their Hobbies” connected with my favorite aspects of my hobbies: full detachment from the endless mind loop about work, and humility. One CEO who practices jiu jitsu said that “when someone’s trying to take your head off, you pretty much can only think about that.” And while some might not feel this way, being bad at something frees you from a multitude of pressures—for me, nothing has been as humbling as learning to surf, and there’s so much less stress to perform when you’re simply terrible at it to begin with.