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Every year in November, four people who are friends and also business partners gather in rural Portugal to discuss – whatever we want. We go on walks in pretty countryside and chat as we walk, discussing a topic, and, most importantly, accompanied by one or two dogs. This year Greg surprised us by announcing he wanted to talk about hobbies. Hobbies? What, I thought to myself, is the point of discussing hobbies? At least I would enjoy the walk.

But it turned out I was wrong – the talk was lively and productive.

‘When I need to be at peace,’ Greg started, ‘I think about carburettors.’ Greg is a bit quirky, and he whipped out his phone and insisted on showing us photos of an ugly, black engine piece; and then, mercifully, a beautiful 1941 Lancia Ardea he had just acquired. This car, he said, was one of the world’s few high-quality small cars. Whenever Greg felt in need of a jolt of happiness or tranquillity, he thought about his hobby – vintage Lancia cars.

Gradually – Greg never gets to the point immediately – he (and we collectively) advanced four propositions:

One, Peace of Mind

Having at least one hobby is essential for mental health, and therefore for creativity at work. ‘We all need a break from our busy lives, from work and home responsibilities, and a hobby provides exactly that. It’s time out, pure personal indulgence and refreshment.’

Two, Solitude or Identity

Contrary to popular opinion, our consensus was that the ideal number of people involved in a hobby is one or two. One if you really want to be alone with your hobby. Two, if one other person exactly shares your passion and is excited by it the same way. The other person must not be a colleague or family member – otherwise you will end up talking about work or home and that will spoil the immersion in something ‘other’.

Three, the Joy of Useless Knowledge

Over time, the hobby must be deepened by your acquiring more and more knowledge about it. If you don’t acquire greater expertise – which is probably useless, except to yourself and perhaps other enthusiasts with whom you share your knowledge – you don’t really approach the potential value of the hobby. The value is in building knowledge which is useless – except to yourself and a few other weird people.

Four, the Possibility of a Hobby Turning into a Vocation

At the same time, there may be faint possibility that at some stage in your life, the hobby becomes your vocation or even a business which you set up. ‘Some of the happiest people I know,’ I said, ‘have turned their hobby into a vocation.’ They might not make much money, but they are engaged and excited by their work all the time. I was thinking about my friend Patrick, who loves horses and betting, and is a successful racing journalist and tipster.

But, What Is a Hobby?

We wanted to define what is and is not a hobby. Again, we hit upon four guidelines:

1. As indicated by point three above, a hobby is something you know about, and build greater knowledge over time. Any form of collecting qualifies – stamps, coin, art of a specialized period and type, porcelain – even carburettors. Other subjects where you can build knowledge include sporting or intellectual interests – angling, basketball, games such as bridge or chess or more rare games such as Perudo (Peruvian liar dice), unusual bridges in Europe – almost anything at all that takes your fancy and where your expertise can be deepened.

2. A hobby must be a personal indulgence where you don’t have to consider the feelings or interests of other people, except maybe one fellow-enthusiast.

3. A hobby can involve taking exercise, but only if exercise is not the primary goal. Going to the gym is not a hobby; but weekend walking in the hills of Umbria (or anywhere specific) might be, if you are interested in the region and building up more and more knowledge about it, or some particular aspect of it (‘the monasteries of Umbria’ as one of us suggested, perhaps rather pretentiously).

4. A hobby must not be related to your work, unless your work becomes an extension of your hobby.

How the Walk Modified my Life

It didn’t turn my life upside down, but it did add – or rather restore – something valuable. You see, since the age of thirteen, I’ve had a lifelong love affair with horse-racing and gambling – on horses and cards. But since I moved away from England nine years ago, I rarely indulged my hobby, and it atrophied. My knowledge fell away, as I felt I couldn’t justify the time and expense of following my hobby. I was too busy. But now I realize the value of my hobby, I’ve taken specific steps to reactivate it – and it’s made my life richer in every way except financially!

Action Implications

1. Ask yourself – do I have a hobby – as defined above?

2. Find or add one hobby now or every few years, and see if it enriches your life.

3. Do you have a neglected or latent interest or talent, which you used to have and may perhaps want to take up again? Playing the piano, the history of the Roman Empire, the novels of Evelyn Waugh, supporting your local football or baseball team – they and anything similar all qualify.

The best way of enriching your future is often to borrow from your past.

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