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My dad has played guitar for 20 years and I’ve never heard him play a song.
It used to infuriate me. He’d just be there, noodling away, making sounds he found satisfying. From where I was sitting, stewing, he wasn’t trying to get “better”. He was just enjoying himself.
And I didn’t get it.
Embrace hobbies to find freedom
Here’s my dad’s secret: he has a hobby.
No pressure to be productive, no set end goal to hit. He just… enjoys music. He likes playing guitar. It’s just for him. And that’s enough.
I cannot overstate how confusing I found that for a long time. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t feel pressure to be “good” at it (even though, if pressed, I couldn’t have said what “good” meant in this case).
I couldn’t comprehend that the playing itself was the point. Not learning songs, not performing for people or achieving something outside of the act of playing.
It was a hobby. And the hobby was its own delight.
I didn’t know it at the time but I was stuck in a productivity mindset. You do a thing to achieve certain goals: you work to make money, you learn guitar to join a band and become a professional musician. The act itself isn’t the point; the point is to achieve something else.
Here’s the thing: it’s hard to be truly free if you’re chasing productivity (even if you don’t know that’s what you’re doing). When productivity is always the goal, you’re propping someone else up.
You’re either making money for someone or making money to buy something. Productivity is inexorably linked to capitalism and consumption. Can’t escape them.
Now, both of them are fine in small doses. Our systems of capitalism have produced some pretty incredible things. But it’s not enough to create a fulfilling life. Capitalism alone won’t set people free.
Here’s how philosopher Byung-Chun Han explains freedom in his book Psychopolitics:
Freedom could only come from a mode of living that is no longer a mode of production – indeed, from something altogether unproductive. The course our future takes will depend on whether we prove able to, beyond the world of production, to make use of the useless.
Han goes on to define luxury (which, really, has been turned into something we consume rather than experience):
The human being is a creature of luxury. In the original and authentic sense, luxury is not a practice of consumption. Rather, it means a mode of living that is free of necessity.
Luxury as freedom – like play that is truly free – can be thought only beyond the world of work and consumption.
Luxury isn’t the crisp sheets and marble bench tops of a 5-star hotel. It’s a moment to yourself; time spent doing nothing in particular (and not feeling weird about it).
Luxury could even be a hobby.
Hobbies are dorky but nurturing
Somewhere along the line, the list of socially “normal” things to do as an adult narrowed to things people say they want to do less: watch TV, play video games, that sort of thing.
Myself included. I feel genuinely weird about any time spent playing video games if it’s not a social thing. Surely, I think, I could be doing something more productive.
Journalist Oliver Burkeman talks about how hobbies became something spurious (or even shameful) in his book Four thousand weeks:
Yet it’s surely no coincidence that hobbies have acquired this embarrassing reputation in an era so committed to using time instrumentally. In an age of instrumentalisation, the hobbyist is subversive: he insists that some things are worth doing for themselves alone, despite offering no pay-offs in terms of productivity or profit.
This helps explain why it’s far less embarrassing (indeed, positively fashionable) to have a ‘side hustle’, a hobby-like activity explicitly pursued with profit in mind.
The distinction between “hobby” and “side hustle” is helpful. Let’s use Unzen as an example.
If this newsletter is a hobby, it’s totally fine. Every moment I spend doing research for it and writing articles is a treat. It’s mere existence is a delight.
If it’s a side hustle, well, I need to get my act together. My distribution plan is non-existent, my brand could use some finessing and my publication schedule is sketchy. What’s the growth strategy, Zanoni?
This isn’t an argument for taking your hobbies or passion and turning them into your day job. That’s a great way to ruin them, honestly.
The point is simple: you won’t find freedom or fulfilment if everything you do is about being “productive”. Every action you take can’t be about money or growth. A life can’t be about consumption.
Here’s how Burkeman put it:
Where’s the logic in constantly postponing fulfilment until some later point in l time when soon enough you won’t have any ‘later’ left?
We spend our lives being told we need to be “productive members of society”. All that got us was debt, depression, and derangement.
Maybe it’s time to be a deviant instead. Hobbies can be nurturing acts, helping us find balance and contentment. And they might be the more noble path, anyway. As M. Scott Peck put it in his book The road less travelled, “saints must sleep and even prophets must play.”
The privilege of actual luxury
The tragedy, of course, is that this type of freedom is more readily available to people with the space to pursue it. That space can take many forms: financial, temporal, literal, physical and mental. Class, gender, race, health and disability all influence the hobbies that are “okay” for people to have and their ability to do them.
That way of “living that is free of necessity” that Han mentions has become a privilege – not a right.
Part of it is deliberate (if not necessarily conscious). Our political and economic systems are set up to promote particular behaviours. Productivity is the goal; consumption is the dream.
It’s even built into our days. As Burkeman describes in Four thousand weeks:
Ironically, the union leaders and labour reformers who campaigned for more time off, eventually securing the eight-hour workday and two-day weekend, helped entrench this instrumental attitude towards leisure, according to which it could be justified only on the grounds of something other than pure enjoyment. They argued that workers would use any additional free time they might be given to improve themselves – that they’d use it, in other words, for more than just relaxing.
The same priorities that turn hobbies into a shameful little secrets shape our day-to-day into a narrow little lane for productive little workers.
It was a problem from the get-go. Burkeman cites a quote from a textile worker in the nineteenth century, who told a researcher that they yearned to “look around to see what is going on”. They wanted actual leisure time – not just productivity of another name.
We can change our culture to allow (and value) that part of our lives. And we can do it in a way that let more people, in more situations, have the space to be free. That’s the work.
Just make sure you take some inspiration from my dad and have a hobby or two on the side.
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