“When your identity is linked to your hobby — you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber — you’d better be good at it, or else who are you?…” – Tim Wu, In Praise of Mediocrity
Last year, the NY TImes published an opinion piece in which author Tim Wu theorizes that the actual reason no one has hobbies anymore is because they feel such pressure to excel at their hobbies, they choose not to try at all. Apparently no one wants to be known as the painter/ quilter/ embroiderer/ etc who sucks at painting/ quilting/ embroidering/ etc. Leisure for leisure’s sake is no longer a worthy pursuit.
As far back as I can remember, I have consistently heard people say, “I wish I could draw/ sew/ etc, but I’m just not creative,” which always seems puzzling, like creativity is some kind of unattainable prerequisite to making things with your hands. They are convinced they won’t be any good at it so they never give it a chance. People’s identities seem to hinge on what they’re good at, but in a very specific way. She’s good at math or He’s a good artist. Rarely do you hear people labeled with qualities like gives everything a try, which may never lead you to be great, but still enjoy the challenge and variety of experience.
Nowadays when you’re good at something creative, you post it to social media, where everyone showers you with praise. And so you do more. Post more. Before you know it, you’re a great crocheter/ scrapbooker/ hand letterer, with a newfound desire (or is it pressure) to post more and more content, until the hobby is no longer enjoyable, or even really creative. It quickly devolves from a creative hobby to 10% creative/ 90% content creation. What a strange time we live in.
Truthfully, until I read Wu’s op-ed, I don’t think I ever realized that people’s hobbies do often become their identities, despite the fact that I’ve been a serious knitter almost my entire adult life. Maybe it’s because I started knit blogging (hello 2005!) back when it was still a bunch of people just posting their projects, updating their progress from start to finish. We found people with similar interests through blog rings (remember those?) and made fast friendships through meaningful conversations under each others posts. We shared right from the beginning (our very first wonky scarves!), proud that we’d made it through an entire project. We cast on our first sweaters, sharing the mistakes we’ve all made, laughing with each other when we realized one sleeve was way longer than the other, or the sizing was totally wrong. We attempted more challenging skills, like cables or steeks, where you knit a complicated pattern of colors and then grab your scissors and cut through the fabric you’d just created. Not for the faint of heart, but so incredibly satisfying when you do it and it works like the magic everyone assures you it is. And we shared it all together, cheering each other on, commiserating on common struggles, and so proud of our wins.
But then as we all entered different seasons of life, things changed, We had less time for blogging about our pursuits, because we were struggling to find time to do the knitting itself. More and more posts were about planning weddings, getting ready for babies, graduating college or grad school. Some of us still blogged, but it wasn’t the same. Some people stopped altogether, while other solely documented their projects on Ravelry, while others would do an annual post in an attempt to catch up that always seemed to start with, “sorry I haven’t posted in so long.”
Some time between then and now, social media became a thing and sharing crafty pursuits completely changed. Instagram feeds changed from spontaneous to curated and everyone was sharing their hobbies but in a different way. Some may say a less authentic way, but to me it just feels less raw, like the creative energy that went into the project has been removed. The photo is beautiful but lacks a soul, because there is no more spontaneity, no incredulous LOOK AT WHAT I JUST MADE, only carefully styled and filtered scenes meant to fit into a grid of other carefully styled and filtered scenes.
But here’s the thing. The perceived perfection of IG hobbyists has rendered many people feeling they will never be good enough at their chosen hobby because they are judging themselves by impossible standards. They won’t even try because they are too self conscious. And they are missing out on the best part of being creative – the process.
“Lost here is the gentle pursuit of a modest competence, the doing of something just because you enjoy it, not because you are good at it. Hobbies, let me remind you, are supposed to be something different from work. But alien values like “the pursuit of excellence” have crept into and corrupted what was once the realm of leisure, leaving little room for the true amateur. The population of our country now seems divided between the semi pro hobbyists (some as devoted as Olympic athletes) and those who retreat into the passive, screeny leisure that is the signature of our technological moment…” ***
This. The doing of something just because you enjoy it. The process, to me, is the payoff, not the finished object. You have an idea about what you want to make, and then as if by magic, you can manifest that idea into existence. Isn’t that amazing? And no matter what the item looks like or its functionality (too big, too small, color isn’t quite right), the process of making is totally worthwhile whether you end up using the item or not.
Think of the way all children are inherently creative. They don’t put any thought into what they are doing. They just make. And it’s a beautiful thing to watch. Adults need to approach hobbies like children and just go for it. Stay out of your head and just lose yourself in the creative process.
“But what if I mess up?” you may be thinking. No need to fret, it’s not the end of the world. Let’s say you knit a hat and it’s too small. You can unravel your yarn and start again. You probably learned something about the necessity of proper gauge. You knit again and accidentally drop a stitch. You either rip back, pick up the stitch, and then redo what you just ripped out, or you somehow figure out how to fix it/ hide the mistake and continue. All these mistakes build and build knowledge in the knitter who keeps trying. Even if it takes a bunch of do-overs, a lot of patience and frustration, it is not a waste. It is time spent learning.
“But demanding excellence in all that we do can undermine that; it can threaten and even destroy freedom. It steals from us one of life’s greatest rewards — the simple pleasure of doing something you merely, but truly, enjoy.” ***
One of life’s greatest rewards. It really is. If there is one thing you get out of this article, it’s this – put your phone down and just try something creative today. It doesn’t have to be anything huge, just one thing where you use your hands and make something. And then do the same thing tomorrow. And the next day. Try all sorts of new things. You know that random bucket list we all have – I’d love to learn how to weld someday -that someday is now.
If you try a hobby and it’s not for you, don’t force yourself to stick with it. You need to find the right hobby for you, the one that you look forward to all day long while you are at work. The one that makes you feel peaceful inside while doing it. The one that gives you joy. That gives YOU joy. No one else. If you feel weird about sharing with others, THEN DON’T. It’s as simple as that. Now get to it.
*** Quotes taken from Tim Wu’s In Praise of Mediocrity