Jamie Lawrence


A hobby is considered to be a regular activity that is done for enjoyment, typically during one’s leisure time — Wikipedia

I’m on a one month sabbatical from work so I’m reflecting a bit on what hobbies are, what they mean to me, and how they fit into my life.

What are my hobbies? By time spent, swimming is easily my top hobby though I’m unclear if exercising can really be a hobby. It’s just a little too required for my mental and physical health to be considered 100% “hobby”.

The first week of sabbatical was tough. I have an injured ankle so I can’t swim, I can’t work, the kids are off school so… what do I do with myself?

I guess this is hobby time?

My other hobbies are keeping tropical fish in planted aquariums (currently a 200L and 120L tank), and painting Warhammer 40k Orks. Occasionally I weave items from paracord, build things from wood (like a patio I built 2 years ago), and in the past I’ve done a lot of landscape photography. I’ve also tinkered with electronics and have been known to occasionally write code for fun.

What is a hobby?

The main things that tie all these hobbies together are that they are skill-based but don’t have any monetary compensation (in fact, they normally have a substantial outlay). They offer a chance to ride that skills ramp up to an expert-level of competence, driven only by our own desire to do so.

Keeping tropical fish has a relatively easy route to getting started: buy a tank, filter, heater etc, fill it up, and throw the fish in. Within days (or probably hours) you are getting a crash course in the nitrogen cycle, bacteria, fish anatomy, water chemistry, weird diseases like dropsy, and so on. This knowledge gets deeper and deeper over the years of intense debugging trying to work out why this small 1” fish has a spinal deformity, that fish looks a bit fat (pregnant or sick?), that fish is aggressive to the other fish, and wait-a-second-didn’t-I-buy-10-panda-corydoras? Why is the aquarium suddenly filled with green algae? How do I stop the black beard algae from growing? The patient can’t talk or communicate and you can’t physically see any of the factors at play. It’s nuts. This level of work is the same as debugging multi-threaded race conditions, which pays tens or hundreds of thousands of euro a year, but I do it for free for no apparent reason.

Aaron Patterson kicked off his RailsConf keynote this year with an anecdote about his mushroom-hunting hobby. After he saw some mushrooms in a shop and decided they were too expensive, he embarked on a quest to gain the knowledge and find them in the wild for “free”—though it took several months, driving hundreds of miles, and becoming a licensed mycologist. Clearly, from our perspective, this was a costly decision that doesn’t seem to make any sense.

And that, dear reader, is what a hobby is.

A friend is making tiny miniature flowers for her tiny model flower shop. My wife knits and crochets. Another friend brews beer. At Brighton Ruby last week even more hobbies were on display: Joe Hart built a “useless API” of pride flags (his words), and Paul Battley recreated the same Ruby script on versions going back 20 years, which involved patching 20 year old ruby versions and writing his own JSON parser.

All very very skilled work that, from an outside perspective, appears to have absolutely no apparent value.

So, why?

I was sitting down to paint yet another Ork during my first week of sabbatical and I hesitated: why am I doing this? What’s the point? When I’m dead, will anyone remember these little miniatures? Will I remember and cherish the hours I spend here?

It doesn’t matter. This is time I don’t have to optimise—and I shouldn’t be trying to. At work I’m always optimising for how to ship projects faster, how to maximise our small team, how to make the best use of my own day, how to solve this problem in the best way for the team / company / product etc. When painting Orks, I can just live in the moment and get lost in the flow of painting.

I keep fish because I enjoy it and I can’t even really explain why! They are even more emotionally distant than cats, and much harder to keep, but I like watching them, I enjoy the creative challenge of aquascaping, and I appreciate the beauty of seeing the aquariums in the house. I even went to Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta and made a beeline—past the giant shark tanks— to the inconspicuous tank containing Rummy-nosed tetras, Serpae tetra, Otos, Corydoras, and Angelfish. These were my friends from home!

And so it is with all the other hobbies. There really is no rational reason for spending hundreds of euros on Warhammer figures, then spending hundreds of hours painting them, to a dubious artistic standard, and then not even using them to play the Warhammer 40K game!

I can buy paracord keyrings on Etsy, or order a catio from a local supplier, or purchase a professional print of any landscape vista in the world for a fraction of the cost of a camera. Hell, these days an AI can vomit up a picture of any landscape, mood, and lighting I can imagine. My wife spends multiples on the wool she uses for knitting & crochet than it would cost her to just buy an equivalent garment. None of this makes logical sense to an outsider!

We do it for the internal, intrinsic motivation. We do it for the joy. For the feeling of accomplishment, without the external pressure of having an obligation to anyone else. It’s work, often hard and frustrating work, and it’s highly skilled, but we also have complete freedom to tackle it in our way, at our own pace, and learn along the way. That freedom from commitments is what divides hobbies and work.

Not hobbies

Some things look like hobbies, or we pretend they fill the same gap, but they really aren’t.

I also have two cats and two kids. Both take up some time and energy but they don’t really fulfil my need for skilled work so they definitely aren’t in the “hobby” category.

We moved into a new home six months ago and gardening was definitely a hobby for the previous owner. It is not, unfortunately, one of my hobbies so the maintenance and upkeep of the garden is a chore not a hobby. I just don’t have that intrinsic motivation for weeding the beds, dead-heading the flowers, or learning what each of the plants are. I will be replacing the irrigation system in the polytunnel though and that begins to tickle that maker-itch in me.

“Work” is usually a little easier to identify but we have a temptation to optimise our hobbies and make them valuable to other people. After all, when you are incredibly skilled at your hobby and this skill could be valuable, why shouldn’t you earn money from it? This is how a hobby turns into work.

That open source library you hack on for fun is a hobby but it becomes work as soon as it becomes popular and people start reporting bugs and creating PRs for improvements. Or when you decide to turn that little app you built for fun into a side-business. Congratulations, you’ve just replaced a hobby with more work.

And maybe that’s great because it’s work that you enjoy but what hobby will replace it? What “useless” activity will you dedicate time to purely for your own enjoyment?

I think the main revelation I’m arriving at is that my life has been too optimised for work, with the remaining time dedicated to the necessary chores of being a human / dad / husband / parent / cat owner / home owner / manager etc. Exercising, which for me is swimming, is hard to categorise because I do enjoy it for myself (strongly in hobby-land) but it’s also kind of a necessity (drifting into chore-territory). Some days it’s a hobby, some days it’s a chore.


I need to set aside time for activities with no apparent value, solely for my own enjoyment. Long live the hobbies!