Want to make yourself smarter? Master a new hobby.
Some people enjoy playing the guitar in their free time. Others enjoy studying foreign languages. Others like to play tennis or cook gourmet meals or paint watercolor landscapes. Whatever hobby you seriously pursue, you are teaching yourself a new set of skills that you will be able to use across every area of your life.
Some hobby collectors become polymaths.
We call someone who is multi-talented a polymath. A polymath is not someone who simply has numerous hobbies; rather, they excel and are an expert in each of those fields. Leonardo da Vinci is probably the most famous example (and his life inspired the synonym for polymath: a Renaissance Man). Da Vinci was a leader in the fields of painting, sculpture, architecture, mathematics, engineering, anatomy, geology, and cartography (to name just a few).
Of course, da Vinci is something of an anomaly. Most people only become skilled in one field; some have the willpower, focus, motivation, and talent to become skilled in two related fields; but it’s rare to become skilled in multiple unrelated fields.
Why can’t everyone be a polymath?
Unfortunately, you need to devote a tremendous amount of time to practice in order to become skilled in any one of your hobbies. Finding the time to practice can be incredibly difficult. And if you want to master several different hobbies that means you need to double the practice time.
So if it’s ridiculously hard to become a polymath, does that mean we should specialize instead and only focus on improving our skills in one field? Should we just pick one hobby, rather than attempting to be a Renaissance man or Renaissance woman?
Surprisingly the answer is no. Even if you may not be able to become a world-class pianist and a brain surgeon and the world expert on ancient medieval art, that does not mean you should focus all of your energy in only one field.
In fact, having multiple hobbies can help you become more skilled in that one field where you have the most talent.
According to this fascinating article from CNN, “Your brain, it turns out, isn’t a fixed mass that shapes your behavior. Your behavior also shapes your brain. If a gardener takes up a serious interest in engineering, for instance, her neurons form new pathways between previously isolated regions.”
The article goes on to quote Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School: “It may well be a mistake to do just one thing. If you practice multiple things you actually get better at any one of those things.”
And that shines light on da Vinci’s success.
The skills he learned in one field were transferrable to the other fields, meaning that mastery in one field led to mastery in another.
Indeed, the CNN article points out: “In a study published in 2004 in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Rachael Seidler at the University of Michigan cast doubt on the traditional thinking that any motor skill we learn is limited to a particular context and task. She found instead that after having subjects learn five different motor skills using joysticks, ‘subjects exposed to a variety of motor learning paradigms may be able to acquire general, transferable knowledge about skill learning processes.’”
Little Known Hobbies of Successful People
Several years ago, I visited West Point in Upstate New York. The military academy is home to the oldest military museum in the United States. While there, I had the opportunity to see several impressive paintings by West Point graduates. Did you know that Ulysses S. Grant was a skilled watercolor painter? At West Point, he studied painting under Robert Walter Weir (who also taught the famous James Whistler). By practicing with watercolor and pen-and-ink landscapes, Grant strengthened his artistic talent and also became a skilled military cartographer. This undoubtedly aided him when he became the commander of the Union army during the Civil War.
Grant is not the only famous person who became highly skilled at a hobby.
Lewis Carroll (his real name was Charles Dodgson) is now famous for his Alice in Wonderland stories, but literature was actually his side hobby while he pursued a career as a mathematician and logician (he was also a talented photographer).
Academy award winning actor Jimmy Stewart was fascinated by aviation as a young boy. He earned a Private Pilot certificate and a Commercial Pilot certificate and had flown over 400 miles before the U.S. entered WWII. As an expert pilot, Stewart ended up rising to the rank of Brigadier General in the United States Air Force Reserves.
The CNN article observes: “Science is showing evidence for what some have long felt are the benefits of cross-training your brain. Ask Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, why his undergraduate training in nuclear propulsion systems remains indispensable. ‘I’m not applying those exact skills every day, but it taught me ways to think through problems – visualizing, conceptualizing – that I do use every day,’ he told Fortune last year. ‘Your mind touches on these resources and you’re not even conscious of it.’”
Choose Your Hobbies CarefullyImportantly, the article stresses that “to strengthen those neural pathways, however, we have to repeatedly do something…Leafing through a how-to book on nuclear propulsion systems won’t do it.”
Thus, the best hobbies are those where we are figuratively (and sometimes literally) getting our hands dirty, practicing skills that we can transfer to other areas of our life. Of course, as the lives of Jimmy Stewart and Ulysses S. Grant demonstrated, sometimes one never knows when the skills one learns for a hobby will come in handy. And sometimes, as Lewis Carroll discovered, a hobby can in fact become one’s career.
Ultimately, hobbies give us a constructive way to redeem our time while also having fun. Hobbies make us well-rounded individuals who are able to converse on a wide range of topics, and they teach us invaluable skills.
How do you spend your free time? Do you have a hobby you enjoy? Think about the skills you have learned from your hobby and how they’ve helped you in other areas of your life.
It’s never too late to pick up a new hobby. Why not find something you’re passionate about and start becoming a hobby collector today?