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Hobbies are more than just a hobby

“Maybe you can do it as a hobby?” posed my high school counselor when I said I wanted to be a writer, the pitch of her voice climbing to denote she was asking a question, not declaring a statement. She may have wondered if writing was even a worthwhile leisure activity. After all, if you can’t really make money from it—many successful writers still need a day job—why do it?

By no means is she to blame, but I quickly gave up on the prospect of writing for a living, specifically, as a novelist. It just didn’t seem plausible, and the romanticism of the starving artist was totally lost on me. But I never stopped writing for my own enjoyment. And if somehow you’re reading this Mrs. Redacted: yes, you can do that as a hobby. And I thank my lucky stars because writing has kept me happy, productive—and during the more difficult times—centered.

I’m not unique. Oftentimes, there’s no way to make a living from it, or if there is, we aren’t good enough or lucky enough to make it happen—circumstances likely have prevented us from having the requisite time to hone our skills or network effectively to make our passion the primary source of income.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop what we love. In fact, there is quantitative data that indicates that hobbies make us better employees, and anecdotal data that they make us better people.

There is quantitative data that indicates that hobbies make us better employees, and anecdotal data that they make us better people.

Play well, work better

It may sound counterproductive, but managers should encourage their employees to participate in hobbies outside of work. The everyday stress of work can take its toll on a person’s mental health and personal well-being. If not properly addressed, this can lead to a variety of health problems, and of course, a decrease in an employee’s work performance.

A study in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology indicates a positive correlation between creative activities outside of work (such as cooking and playing sports) and the ability to complete demanding tasks at work. “Organizations may consider professional development opportunities for employees that involve creative activities while away from work. Creative activities are likely to provide valuable experiences of mastery and control, but may also provide employees experiences of discovery that uniquely influence performance-related outcomes.”

If managers only care about work performance, this data might be the only information needed to convince them of the value of hobbies. But many managers, and certainly all of the great leaders I know, genuinely care about their employees, and don’t want to see them suffer the negative effects of burnout. Coming in early, staying late, working on the weekends; all of these practices might seem like behaviors firmly in the province of young, hungry workaholics trying to make their mark, but the fact is this type of overwork is all too common.

Greater demand for constant improvement, both of the individual and company, often drives this level of commitment, but there is something more. There is also the need to feel that one is pulling his or her own weight, the pressure of looking around the office at 6:30 and seeing that most people are still at their desks, that can lead people to work around the clock.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, working longer and eschewing passions might actually lead to lower quality work, as compared to knowing when to step away from the computer and pick up the chef’s knife/tennis racket/saxophone.

Everyone needs a third place

I should probably out myself as the source of the earlier reference to “anecdotal data.” But before getting into the specifics, now is a good time to discuss Ray Oldenburg and his concept the “third place.” An urban sociologist, Oldenburg focused on the need for gathering spaces outside of 1) home and, 2) work. The third place is a location designed for social interactions that require no obligation of its inhabitants, like a park or cafe.

I think that a hobby can exist as a third place, even if the hobby isn’t inherently social, because it’s a voluntary activity that isn’t necessarily tied to work but can improve your ability to perform at work.

I think that a hobby can exist as a third place, even if the hobby isn’t inherently social, because it’s a voluntary activity that isn’t necessarily tied to work but can improve your ability to perform at work.

We all need a third place, and not just to be better at our jobs.

When going through a very tough time in my life, I needed a third place. For me, it wasn’t so much a physical place, but a mental (or to those inclined, spiritual) place that existed outside of work, family, friends, or commitments. I could only get to that place when I wrote. Fiction, to be specific.

I don’t have objective data to back this up, and perhaps, I ironically lack the words to articulate what it meant. But without having a hobby that I loved to do, to get better at, to spring out of bed for each morning because I couldn’t wait to get started, something to do that required no outside permission, wasn’t tethered to a deadline, and for which the only approval I needed was my own, I don’t know what kind of shape I would have been on the other side of my ordeal. Certainly not the kind of person who could perform well at work.

For me, a hobby made me a better employee, a better person.

Andrew Gori is an editor and content marketer at Zendesk. He is an avid writer of fiction, and his collected works can be found scattered around his apartment. Find him on Twitter: @agori.