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Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein
Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

The Amateur License: Making a Hobby of Creativity

Amateur arts and crafts affect personal and professional creativity.

amateur licenseWhen it comes to creativity, what's the dirtiest word you know? "Amateur" is certainly right up there with the best of them. Think of all the times you've heard the put-down, "Oh, he (or she) is just an amateur." In other words, no good, not serious, maybe even a goof-off, certainly unprofessional. As if professional expertise were the only allowable license to engage in any number of arts and crafts! It's time we washed that particular notion out of our mind...and embraced the amateur spirit.

There was a time when amateurism was a virtue. Michael Kimmelman made this point a few years ago in an article in the New York Times (July 19, 2006). Reviewing an exhibit of old American drawing manuals, he recalled their 19th century heyday, when everyone, it seems, could draw with a facility that we would find astonishing today. But think about it. Before the invention of the camera, an able hand with pen or pencil was the only means available for visually preserving information or experiences of personal significance. Technology has since done in the practical need to record treasured moments in this way - for many of us, the cell phone camera is handier than the pen. In other recreations, other technologies have likewise served to distance us, as adults, from music making or weaving or pick-up games of football and soccer.

Victorian drawing manualAs much as can be said for front row seats in your living room and intimate access to the best in show, something has been lost along the way to instant replay. Kimmelman puts it this way: we have "acquiesced to playing the passive role of receivers" of art or sport created by others, by professionals. And by conceding that "culture is something specialists produce," we have relinquished the idea that art and craft and sport is the birthright of us all. We have forsaken the truth that the doing of these things is intrinsic to what we are as human beings, to who we are as particular individuals.

Into this void steps the hobbyist, who knows, without doubt, that if we cannot all be professional artists or craftsmen, we can all engage actively in pastimes that please and feed us. In recreation we can explore and sustain the re-creation of experiences we find personally significant, whether we record them with pen and ink or camera, with verse or music or movement. We can immerse ourselves in the present moment of making and doing, and mysterious as it may seem, in the process we can find something of our own "true selves" as individuals.

Easier said than done. The hobbyist does not necessarily have it easy these days. In a culture obsessed with work, it is difficult to carve out time for play; in a society focused on competitive edge, it is difficult to justify common achievements; in a world increasingly dedicated to technological simulation, it is difficult to experience things first hand. But consider this: evidence increases that the arts, crafts and other recreational activities we pursue for pure fun may have significant, if hidden, impact on our professional skills and accomplishments as well as other areas of our lives.

Much of our own research, for instance, suggests that top flight thinkers in many fields are much more likely than the rest of us to have important hobbies and avocations, which they pursue in tandem with their "real" work. These amateur arts seem to benefit them in a couple of ways.

First, amateur activities may simply provide stress relief of a kind that is personally enjoyable and meaningful. Roger Sperry, the neurobiologist who discovered right brain/left brain lateralization, referred to his own hobby drawing, painting and sculpting as "anti brain strain." (Frederick Banting, discoverer of insulin, felt the same.)

Second, amateur arts and crafts may exercise imaginative skills that come in handy in the workplace. The surgeon who draws flowers in her spare time enhances her powers of observation for small and intricate things; the composer who goes bird-watching on vacation adds natural rhythms and melodies to his repertory; the chemist who writes poetry in the evenings sharpens his sensitivity to the nuances of scientific words and concepts.

Einstein playing the violinThird, hobbies and avocations help cultivate our personal creativity and, indirectly at least, contribute to the creative capital of society at large. Einstein may not have been a stellar violinist, but evidence suggests that his recreative bent had much to do with the impulses that enabled him to innovate on a public scale in physics.

There may be another benefit to amateurism as well, what we might call a learning benefit of value to us all. We hear a lot these days that one way to keep the mind sharp as we age is to take on mental challenge. Hobbies provide that challenge in spades, all the more so because they nearly always involve the bodily enactment of ideas. You can't learn to ride a bike by reading about it in a book; you need to experience the balancing act for yourself. Likewise, you can't assemble model airplanes or knit intricate designs without testing inner images and expectations against outer, real world consequences.

Hobby knowledge of this sort is practical, procedural, and intuitive - the kind that keeps you on your toes. Having an ongoing and challenging hobby as a young adult, one psychologist found, is a better predictor of professional success than IQ scores or school grades (Milgrim & Hong, 1993). And it's beginning to look like the lack of arts and crafts activity even earlier in life may place children at risk for certain deficits in school readiness. A recent news report suggests that children who do not begin to develop motor control of the hand before entering school may experience delays in learning to write, which in turn can frustrate reading and verbal thinking (Tyre, February 25, 2010).

No doubt there are other arguments to be made for the presence of arts, crafts and other recreational activities in our lives. Here we simply suggest that hobbies and avocations may make important contributions not only to our emotional well-being, but to early and life-long learning, to imaginative thinking and professional success, and to society's pool of creative talent and potential. It's time we rewrite the hobbyist's bad rap. When it comes to creativity, "amateurism" by any name - whether hobby, recreation or avocation - really is sweet.

© Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein 2010

Resources, Links and Previous Posts:

Kimmelman, Michael. (July 19, 2006). An Exhibition About Drawing Conjures a Time When Amateurs Roamed the Earth. The New York Times.…

Milgrim, Roberta & E. Hong. 1993. Creative Thinking and Creative Performance in Adolescents as Predictors of Creative Attainments in Adults: A Follow-up Study after 18 Years. In R. Subotnik & K. Arnold (eds.). Beyond Terman: Longitudinal Studies in Contemporary Gifted Education. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Tyre, Peg. (February 25, 2010). Watch How You Hold That Crayon. The New York Times.…

On Frederick Banting and hobbies as stress relief: Need a Creative New Year's Resolution? Recreate! @…

On hobbies, imaginative skills and professional productivity: Arts and Crafts: Keys to Scientific Creativity @…

On embracing amateurism: Hobbies: the Personal Path to Creativity @…

About the Author
Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein are co-authors of Sparks of Genius, The 13 Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People.

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