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Nobel prize winners are much more likely to have hobbies compared to their peers

Somebody with broad interests

Hobbies are not distractions: people with broad interests routinely outperform their peers.

I used to think that people who had lots of hobbies were unfocused and “scattered.”

If somebody had too long of an answer to the “what do you enjoy doing outside of work?” interview question, I’d assume that they were not serious about their career.

Geeze buddy, between all these different activities where do you find the time to… uh…. do your job?

But, thankfully, I’ve become slightly less of a judgemental prick and have refined my opinion.

In my own case, I have two “real” hobbies: reading and writing.

I used to feel guilty about how much time I spend doing both each week because the stuff I read and write about often appears to be unrelated to my day job.

But now enough time has passed for me to connect the dots and see how each hobby has directly helped me in my career.

Reading has exposed me to a wide range of ideas that, almost by accident, end up inspiring new solutions for problems at work.

For example, I once stumbled across an obscure paper in Nature on how hunter-gatherers valued storytelling skills over hunting and gathering skills…

I immediately saw how some of my challenges at work might be solved if I told better stories to align and motivate people instead of instilling a new process or recurring meeting.

I didn’t read that paper assuming it’d help me at work, I picked it up because one of my hobbies is reading random crap on the internet.

Through writing, I’ve become a stronger communicator.

As a manager at work, my words have leverage. I can confuse and potentially set dozens of people off on a slightly-wrong track if I don’t communicate ideas clearly.

My writing hobby has helped me sharpen my communication skills, even if I’m just rambling about how stupid Baby On Board bumper stickers are.

But, I’m just one data point… here’s some mind-blowing data on how the world’s leading scientists often have many hobbies. From David Epstein’s Range:

Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least twenty-two times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or other type of performer.

Nationally recognized scientists are much more likely than other scientists to be musicians, sculptors, painters, printmakers, woodworkers, mechanics, electronics tinkerers, glassblowers, poets, or writers, of both fiction and nonfiction.

Pretty wild.

As psychologist and prominent creativity researcher Dean Keith Simonton observed, “rather than obsessively focus[ing] on a narrow topic,” creative achievers tend to have broad interests.

“This breadth often supports insights that cannot be attributed to domain-specific expertise alone.”

Both tidbits called to mind Richard Feynman, who was an amateur bongo player, painter, and safe-cracking hobbyist while he rose to become one of the eminent physicists of all time.

I’ll get into what I think is going on here in a future email, but for now go out there and build a model train set, paint, knit, fix your car’s engine, or do whatever odd, seemingly-trivial activity you feel compelled to do.

Let the losers specialize.


This post was first sent in a Stew’s Letter, a weekly-ish email for ambitious, curious people. You can join below:

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