Now Is the Time for Low-Stakes Hobbies

We’re often surprisingly good at things we don’t care that much about

Rear view of a woman in a red dress playing the piano.
Rear view of a woman in a red dress playing the piano.

SShould you suddenly find yourself with more time on your hands, perhaps for pandemic-related reasons, consider this: Studies have found that enjoyable leisure activities are actually good for your health.

In this cultural moment when we’re all trying to be really good at a lot of things, it can be deeply freeing to just do something we don’t care that much about. For one, we tend to be better at those things.

I’ve heard plenty of other anecdotes from people who didn’t care about being successful in a particular area, only to find that disregard helped them nail it, from playing video games to folding fitted sheets to playing the dulcimer. Katy Kelleher, a Maine-based writer, once went skeet shooting on a whim. She wasn’t particularly invested in the outcome, yet she turned out to be the best shot in her group. “Our old Mainer guide who ran the class told me that women are often great at this sport because they don’t try as hard,” she said. “Apparently with skeet shooting it pays to just shoot your shot and not worry too much about aiming.”

“I definitely notice this dynamic more with people who want to be good, and struggle with it,” says Erica Lanier, a state park ranger who teaches archery lessons to kids and adults at Panola Mountain State Park in Georgia. “We have people who are striving for perfection, and archery is not one of those things that’s easy to perfect.”

The art of “not caring” is part of music teacher Deidre Struck’s personal teaching methodology, especially with older students who might be more susceptible to their own egos and inner critics. Struck is a New York-based musician with an undergraduate degree in piano performance and pedagogy, and over 20 years of experience teaching both kids and adults. “With my adult students, I try to help them get to a place of not caring, so that they can break through and play,” she says.

But it’s not as easy as simply deciding not to care. Denise Shull, founder of the ReThink Group, is a performance, strategy and decision advisor whose clients include Wall Street hedge fund managers and professional athletes — high-stakes performers who, for the most part, are deeply invested in their success. I asked Shull if it was possible to channel that sense of easy nonchalance into something you genuinely care about being good at. She challenged me to reframe that: It’s not about teaching yourself to not care, but about digging deeper into why it’s important for you to be good at something. “The vast majority of advice comes from the idea that if you change your thought about it, you’re going to be able to make it less important to you,” says Shull. “And the vast majority of advice is wrong.”

So if not caring could help you improve, but you can’t simply choose to not care, what can be done?

Own your nerves

As Shull notes, choosing to ignore or shy away from performance anxiety is not only futile, but counterproductive. “What the research shows is, if it’s something that really matters to you, reframing it not only doesn’t work but makes it worse,” she explains. “The best way to deal with this is just to admit how badly you want it.”

A fundamental challenge, Shull says, is that people are uncomfortable with the idea of desire. “They don’t want to admit they basically want something, and I’m like, ‘screw that,’” she says. “Want what you want, understand why you want it, understand why it’s so important to you. Admit it to yourself. That’s self-affirming, and it gives you more power to redirect the anxiety.”

Lower the stakes

Struck has anxious piano students improvise on the black keys. “No matter what you play on the black keys, it sounds really awesome,” she says. It’s an easy confidence boost with no baggage: no rules to be broken, no mistakes to be made, and no expectations. “It’s just a way for them to practice the movement of playing something that already sounds really awesome,” Struck says.

Lanier often finds that archery students who struggle to hit a bull’s-eye on a target can hit a balloon over the bull’s-eye with perfect precision on their first attempt. “A lot of times it’s a mental game, and you have to take your head out of the mental game, and stop focusing on a specific number or specific color and just say, my only goal is to hit the target,” she says. “Their only focus is in popping the balloon.”

Finding a way to engage in the activity without expectations of “succeeding” can help build a little more confidence, and a little more ease, over time.

Be easy on yourself

I’m a professional writer, so when I write something that doesn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped, I’m really hard on myself about it. But I totally cut myself slack when I play piano for fun and make a bunch of silly mistakes. My own unscientific theory for why we struggle with self-doubt and frustration when we do things we really care about? Ego.

Struck thinks I might be onto something “As we get older, those internal voices get really loud,” she says. When she teaches children who are on stage for the first time, almost none of them experience stage fright. “I feel like adults are less game. It’s much harder to become vulnerable, because of ego.”

Look for joy in simplicity

And remember that basics don’t have to be boring. “There’s joy in learning simple things,” says Struck. Whether it’s a piece of music or a still life, mastering one of those simple things will yield confidence and validation far quicker, and with far less frustration, than struggling through the hard stuff.

Freelance writer. www.graywrites.com

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