The reward of unrewarding hobbies

As a child, nothing compared to the joy of waking up and remembering that it was one of the two days a week in which both choir and orchestra rehearsal fell on the same day. Music was a vibrant outlet in my life, and I associated a day filled with rehearsals as a day full of happiness and excitement. 

My attitude towards music, however, gradually changed as I progressed towards adulthood, and the disparity between the musical abilities of myself and my classmates grew more apparent. Without access to the same private lessons and prestigious music programs of some of my classmates, myself and others alike began to feel a growing sense of alienation. I watched each semester as a handful of students from the back chairs failed to return. 

I shocked myself when I too selected the ‘drop course’ option for orchestra one semester, following a subpar solo performance at a competition I entered for fun. While I was content with my mediocre score, I had never felt more shunned in a musical community than I did when my public school orchestra teacher informed me, in front of my entire class, how badly I had humiliated her. Although music was something I had joyfully pursued for much of my life, this solidified the growing sense of unwelcomeness that had been building for years, and I felt like the right thing to do was to leave. 

It took me a couple of years to pick up an instrument again — this time a new one at Lawrence. Starting an unfamiliar instrument at one of the top liberal arts conservatories in the country was an intimidating process, to say the least. I felt like an imposter crossing the road to the conservatory and using the same practice rooms as incredibly proficient musicians, going at odd hours in the night to avoid being heard. However, with the help of my amazing professor, I began to experience the newfound joy of being terribly mediocre at something. 

While music may not be a natural aptitude of mine, art was always something that felt instinctual to me. Unlike my inability to hear a pitch and reproduce it, I could see almost anything and recreate it on paper with ease. Art medals hung from my walls and yearbooks with covers I drew sat on my shelves. Although this should have made me happy, I slowly began to lose touch with art just like I had with music. 

As my artistic skill grew with time, more opportunities opened up for me. From commissions to advanced high school classes and competitions, a multitude of opportunities began to appear. Though exciting, I slowly stopped making art for myself and began making art that would further myself as a professional. I grappled at anything that would let me climb up the ladder. Over time, I lost sight of what art was and why I made it. Like music, it simply was not fun anymore. 

In taking the time to learn a new instrument as an adult at Lawrence, much later than most, I felt freedom from such things. While at first I felt a loss from not being able to participate in many aspects of the conservatory and other opportunities, I then began to realize the benefits that came with the absence of such pressure to do so. Not having any other motive, I was forced to see the joy in pursuing something simply for the sake of my own amusement. This new hobby of mine could not turn into a career, and it could not be monetized; I, instead, had to find the motivation to learn within myself. I was forced to love an activity for what it is and not what I can gain from it. 

More recently, I have noticed a lack of hobbies within our generation, myself included. If someone does have a hobby, it is usually within the realm of something they specialize in, like a major or a job. Instead of filling our free time with activities that we enjoy, most of us partake in the endless consumption of media. While the reasons for this range from exhaustion to phone addictions to escapism, one thing to note is that this is not an activity we can be skilled at. Watching TV, scrolling through social media and browsing news sites are all passive actions. None of these require us to produce or perform anything that others will see and have the potential to criticize us for. To put it simply, these activities are guaranteed to both keep us entertained and to keep us from feeling embarrassed. 

To understand why we gravitate towards such safe options, it is important to take a look at where we are at and how we got here. The experience I had in orchestra is likely something that we all went through at some point in one way or another. Most of us have been pushed to be perfect at our hobbies and to chase the highest successes we can achieve. Given that we have all ended up at a moderately selective institution, it is safe to say that we all felt pressured to be excellent at anything and everything we enjoy, whether it be a class or a hobby, in order to make it here.  Back then, the motive was to use these things to get into college. Today, it is to get into prestigious internships, graduate schools or careers. It never stops. In this world, being bad at a hobby can mean losing many opportunities that we want. It is no wonder that we avoid them. 

Now that we are here, we are surrounded by people pursuing what they specialize in, and it can be difficult to try hobbies that many of your peers excel in. Like my experience of getting involved with the conservatory, it is easy to feel like an imposter when encircled by incredibly skilled individuals. However, I encourage you to try something that you are terribly mediocre at, whether it be a class, club, hobby or instrument, solely for the sake of your own amusement. I hope that doing so pushes you to reevaluate your own values and goals, helping you find lost joy in other areas of your life, like it did for me with music.

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