Until l discovered ‘relevant complexity’ I absolutely didn’t get ‘hobbies’. Now I am persuaded – hobbies maketh the woman or the man.

The big mistake in life, I reckon – observing overwork, depression and recessions hit even the most high powered around me, is to have your work completely define who you are.

As one of my heroes, the great Greek philosopher Aristotle said 2500 years ago: all paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.

Sure we all have to earn a living. Or most of us do at some stage in our lives anyway. And if a trick of fate and a twist of ability takes any of us to major responsibility, so be it. But Aristotle will also tell you no man can be ‘excellent’ who only works; much less ‘happy’.

Who we really are, is often better indicated by what we do for leisure and pleasure. Of course being a ‘wage slave’ doesn’t always leave much space or time – and in antiquity, for most, there’d have been no time for any leisure or pleasure at all.

But what we do ‘freely’ is a window to a person’s soul. Or perhaps better – as a typing mistake as I wrote this suggested – a window to a persons ‘souk’: the bazaar of stuff we do, and like, when left to our own devices.

Lots of hobbies are conventional: sports, music, walking, reading etc. and none-the-worse for that. Some are apparently bonkers. I know a man who has laboriously constructed a perfect scale railway in his back garden which his own child is forbidden to touch.

Some hobbies are sociable – choirs, ensembles, ramblers. Some are quite solitary – stamps and the myriad forms of collecting. Some border on sociopathic; certain travelling football fans notably. But what they all have in common, is they endlessly fascinate the aficionado and generally bemuse the disinterested onlooker.

Of course once you spot it, the driver is ‘complexity’. Hobbies enable us to collect deep knowledge, unique complex skills and relevant (at least to the enthusiast) complexity. Hobbies are Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ par excellence – high challenge met with high skill.

“Who scored the winner against Scunthorpe in 1974?”, “What was the printing error in the 4d Commonwealth Games commemorative stamp?”, “What’s the winter plumage of that bird?”, “Can you play Schubert?”, “Is that a class 47 locomotive?”, “Is that a Bordeaux or a Burgundy?”

All of of these bring ‘flow’ to the expert. They are validated, either, by one’s personal appreciation of oneself, or the appreciation of the ‘community’ of expert practitioners, fruitcakes and obsessives who share our particular interest.

But the art of life – and hobbies – I suggest is to weave together our passions with the other things we care about: family, friends and communities. There is joy to be had in literally any hobby – with practice we progress and develop mastery of its complexity.

As Aristotle said: ‘Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.’ Or maybe a hobby?

But there is also a trap – eccentricity and sheer oddness. The trick is in making at least some of our hobbies cohere into ‘relevant complexity’, so they define and develop us, as much as our work does.

A friend described how he and his teenage son seek the ultimate ‘fried breakfast’, every Saturday. It’s about the only thing which always brings them together; relevant complexity. Building a garden railway; for me at least, irrelevant complexity. Writing for pleasure, relevant; long stints staring at the telly, for me irrelevant.

Albeit, as Aristotle said: “different men seek after happiness in different ways”, I think stitching (or knitting for my other half) ‘relevantly complex’ hobbies into the fabric of our lives, is essential to properly embroidering life’s rich tapestry.

As Aristotle said of education, but might have said of hobbies (if he’d read Csikszentmihalyi):

“Education is [Hobbies are?] an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity.”


“Education is [Hobbies are?] the best provision for old age.”

But, of course, who am I to say. As the great Greek also points out:

“Happiness depends upon ourselves.”

And, the fact I am secretly proud that I know what a Class 47 locomotive (above) is, shows the perils and pleasures of hobbies. Keep it relevant.


Required Reading:

The Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford World’s Classics) Aristotle – Trust me it’s as crisp and fresh as a cucumber and feta salad.


Flow: The Psychology of Happiness: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – a book which changes the way you see anything and everything.


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