This I Believe

Last year, I wrote and recorded a ‘This I Believe” statement for the local public radio station here in State College. For a variety of reasons, I never made it to the WPSU office to record my piece, so instead I think I will just post it here:

“I believe in being a collector, even though I’ve never been one for antiques or garage sales. I have no fascination with trading cards or stamps or comic books, either.

But still, I believe in being a collector. I believe in collecting hobbies. My passion is for talents and skills that won’t turn into a career, won’t make me rich, and probably don’t strike most people as useful at all.

My trove of useless talents ranges from juggling to printmaking, from yo-yo tricks to tailoring. And if I never make it big or impress anyone with these skills, I still won’t have wasted my time. Because to me, it’s the process that I am actually after.

I believe in collecting hobbies, because it quenches my thirst for knowledge and shows me what I am capable of doing and creating with my own two hands and some time spent browsing instructional videos on Youtube.

To me, the most fascinating part of practicing a craft is the tiny improvements that occur, almost imperceptibly as I devote more time honing my skills.  There’s the potter, for example, who learns to alter the shape of her hands and apply pressure at just the right moment to effortlessly create the lip of a mug. Or the experienced fisherman, who can tie lines with a deft flick of the wrist that the novice has no hope of replicating. Movements become simple, economical and elegant. The process eventually becomes mindless, a kind of skilled meditation that is both relaxing and invigorating.

Taking up a new hobby can be an absorbing process, but it can also have social benefits. It’s a surefire way to make new friends through a shared interest. And I’ve found that the smallest, most obscure hobbies have the communities with the tightest threads. I’ve played hacky sack competitively for five years (seriously — even traveling to the world championships on two occasions) and learned that the community of serious players is only several hundred strong. Because of that, I’m on a first-name basis with almost all of them, and I have plenty of couches to sleep on across the country.

Of course, my infidelity to any one craft has it’s downfalls as well. Recent research by Malcolm Gladwell and others has concluded that to truly master an art or craft, it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. At three hours a day, this is roughly 10 years of effort. This is the type of effort it takes to become a world-class professional in the mold of the Beatles, Bobby Fischer or Bill Gates. This is what it takes to compete at the Olympics.

It’s a single-mindedness I don’t think I possess. But while there is pride and honor to be had in dedicating yourself to true expertise, I think there is also pride in spreading yourself too thin. It’s OK to give up dreams of mastery, instead opting to write a book, learn to knit and join a volleyball team all at once. Perhaps you will never become an expert writer, knitter or volleyball player, but you’ll learn just as much from the practice. For me, I realized this when I discovered that the process, not the result, is where I find fulfillment. First the failures, then the slow but sure signs of improvement, as well as the friends I make as I learn the ropes of my latest hobby — this is what keeps me interested, at least until something else piques my interest. After all, I believe in collecting hobbies. I can’t stick to just one.”

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