Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Imagine That!

Hobbies: The Personal Path to Creativity

A hobby is the first step toward cultivating personal creativity.

Posted Dec 02, 2008

CCO Public Domain

To ride one's hobby horse means to follow a favorite pastime. .

Source: CCO Public Domain

To be or become "creative" is a familiar imperative in our society, but many people are often at a loss as to how to proceed. We believe the first step is to find time for imaginative play. The second (which is really more of the first) is to get a hobby (horse).

In our last post, we revealed how a visit to a New Zealand school called The Learning Connection directly inspired our poetry and photography. We thought it time we gave a nod to the humble hobby.

Hobbies come in all shapes and sizes: people collect stamps, build matchstick castles, carve whistles, turn wood, knit potholders or socks or intricately designed sweaters, put pen or paintbrush or scissors to paper, fold paper, make paper; devote each sunrise to the treadmill, each evening to yoga; plan floral landscapes each winter; plant seeds in spring; draw maps of imaginary places; rebuild vintage cars; make music, piece quilts, bake bread. Simple or not-so-simple, esoteric or commonplace, quixotic or downright practical, hobbies range through all the domestic arts, the physical arts, the fine arts, and the technological arts. Whether we spend hours a day or days a month or weeks a year, we call any voluntary "specialized pursuit" that takes place outside one's occupation a hobby.

Hobbyists are amateurs - that is to say, the most intrinsically motivated of lovers. They court their pastime, not for conquest or for gain, but for pure pleasure. Hobbies are, quintessentially, forms of play, much like the rough and tumble, make-believe and constructive games that fill early and middle childhood. And as play, hobbies involve us in 1) making things of our own (such as poems, pies, photographs), 2) gaining personal knowledge (a lifetime bird list becomes an introduction to ornithology; collecting baseball cards or coins or stamps, introductions to culture and history and 3) learning new skills (carpentry, calligraphy, and embroidery all teach fine motor control and hand-eye coordination). In the doing, hobbies also cultivate personal creativity, that capacity we all share for heartfelt experience, unique thought and meaningful expression of what matters to us most.

Consider the moon-struck testimony of Winston Churchill, an eminent politician and statesman of the twentieth century, who fell in love with painting in midlife. In a small book called Painting as a Pastime, he wrote:
    "To have reached the age of forty without ever handling a brush or fiddling with a pencil, to have regarded with mature eye the painting of pictures of any kind as a mystery, to have stood agape before the chalk of the pavement artist, and then suddenly to find oneself plunged in the middle of a new and intense form of interest and action with paints and palettes and canvases, and not to be discouraged by results, is an astonishing and enriching experience. I hope it may be shared by others. I should be glad if these lines induced others to try the experiment which I have tried, and if some at least were to find themselves dowered with an absorbing new amusement delightful to themselves...
    "I hope this is modest enough: because there is no subject on which I feel more humble or yet at the same time more natural. I do not presume to explain how to paint, but only how to get enjoyment. Do not turn the superior eye of critical passivity upon these efforts. Buy a paint-box and have a try...[T]here is close at hand a wonderful new world of thought and craft, a sunlit garden gleaming with light and colour... [And if you are inclined to reconnoiter this sphere], then be persuaded that the first [and only] quality that is needed is Audacity... We [who are hobbyists] must not be too ambitious. We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content ourselves with a joy ride in a paint-box..."

Churchill was being modest. Many of his paintings were quite lovely-nice enough to be reprinted and sold in England on note cards and ceramic vases. Well, perhaps his stature as a politician has had something to do with that, but his paintings were certainly as worthy of hanging on the living room wall as Aunt Sally's calligraphy. The point Churchill wanted to make, and which we want to make, too, is that if you cultivate your hobby with all the love and devotion of a true amateur, recreation becomes a form of creation that recreates you.

And that re-creation can set you on the path towards novel invention and discovery. There is, in fact, connection between little c or personal creativity and Big C or what we might call public creativity- innovations in art, science, technology, politics and just about any other area of cultural life that affect wide circles of the human community. Every world-renowned poet, every Nobel-Prize winning scientist, first impressed much smaller circles of family and friends, perhaps when she was a child or he was a young adult. Everyone who achieves creative impact at the highest levels has, simply, developed personal creativity into public commitment and contribution.

There's a lot here that we'd like to address in coming posts: the necessity for self-invented play and the come-back of the amateur; the importance of artistic hobbies for many top-flight thinkers in the sciences; and the role of that polymathy as an educational and creative strategy.

For now, our focus is on the private joy-rides to be found in humble hobbies. Whether we take classes, read how-to books or go it alone, whatever hobby we choose, we open ourselves up to imaginative thinking, discovery and exploration. And because that learning is self-choice, it is also (or should be!) by definition fun. In our work-driven world, that may make hobby something of a dirty word, but take a hint from Churchill. Throw into your avocational mix a pinch of arrogance, which in the best sense means to take upon yourself the right to do and be, and add a dash of audacity to make and to invent your own way.

Because when it comes right down to it, you have to believe you can be creative before you can be creative, a poser we intend to explore in our next post.

(c) 2008/2015 Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein


Winston S. Churchill, Painting as a Pastime. New York: McGraw Hill Book Co. Inc., 1950.

Painting as a Pastime, Winston Churchill-His Life as a Painter, Sotheby's Exhibition Catalogue, 5-th - 17th January 1998.