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The Plight of the Serial Hobbyist

Posted by on Feb 27, 2013 | 16 Comments

I’ve spent the last few months trying to figure out why I seemingly lost motivation to run. Over time, I came to a few conclusions ranging from burnout to “distraction with life circumstances.” Lately I’ve come to a different conclusion-

Running has always been a hobby. I’m an undeniable serial hobbyist. Interest in hobbies increases rapidly, plateaus, then wanes.

It’s less about the actual activity and more about the process of learning. Here’s a graph that approximates the experience of learning a new skill, body of knowledge, or other such hobby:

serial hobbyist

In the beginning, the hobby is new and unfamiliar (zone 1.) It takes some time to learn the “lay of the land.” This usually includes things like basic terminology, major ideas… whatever.

Once the basics are learned, progress occurs rapidly (zone 2.) This is a time of deep immersion. Shelly may say I’m “obsessed” with the activity at this point… which is probably accurate. This pattern continue until I gain a fair degree of mastery. I’m usually not great at the hobby, but I’m usually significantly better than a casual participant.

After attaining decent mastery, gains come slower (zone 3). More effort is required to progress, which is the basic “law of diminishing returns” idea. An hour of study or practice used to result is observable results. Now the same progress may take ten hours.

Since I’m more motivated about the process of learning versus the actual activity, I get bored when the progress slows significantly in zone 3. At that point, I usually find a new activity and the cycle repeats.

It’s rare for me to totally give up a hobby or activity… I still practice many of them on occasion. They become part of me. They’re just no longer the subject of intense focus.

When I started thinking of my past hobbies, I decided to make a list. I was shocked it turned out to be as long as it is. These are the hobbies I could think of in about five minutes:

  • paintball
  • kicking footballs
  • variety of video games
  • fantasy football
  • free throw shooting
  • air rifles
  • hunting
  • snowmobiling
  • quad riding
  • wrestling
  • magic
  • woodworking
  • barefoot running
  • ultrarunning
  • golf
  • bowling
  • computer building
  • writing
  • blogging
  • website coding
  • Linux
  • Crossfit
  • photography
  • wiffleball
  • drawing
  • paining
  • professional wrestling
  • baseball and football card collecting
  • poker
  • history
  • movie making
  • survivalism
  • badminton
  • hacky sac
  • skeet shooting
  • psychology
  • pitching baseballs
  • jiu jitsu
  • model rockets
  • self-publishing
  • radio controlled cars
  • boomerang making
  • gardening
  • fortune telling
  • archery
  • fresh water aquariums
  • hypnosis
  • skateboarding
  • bowfishing
  • beach volleyball
  • euchre

For most of these activities, I reached that “zone 3″ of mastery. I’m not great at any of these, but I’m pretty decent at most. I abandoned all of them before reaching “expert” status.

There are two major advantages to being a serial hobbyist. First, it gives me an incredibly diverse set of experiences which can be useful throughout life. Or random conversation topics in social situations.

Second, the continual high rate of learning is great training for… well, learning to learn. Since I spend A LOT of time in zone 2 learning a great deal of information in a short time, I’ve developed all kinds of strategies to learn more efficiently. As a result, I tend to pick up new activities pretty quickly. This has been a huge advantage when traveling the country or starting new jobs.

Back to running.

I realized running was a hobby just like all the rest. Specifically, barefoot and ultrarunning were two fairly distinct hobbies I just happened to do at the same time. I reached a level of proficiency at both to the point where additional mastery would take a disproportionate amount of time… time that could be better spent learning something new.

I haven’t done a lot of barefoot running over the last few years. Why? I reached a point where I found the easier-to-accomplish boundaries (ran a few ultras, ran through the winter, etc.) I could have continued to push those boundaries, but it would have required A LOT more time and effort. Instead, I focused on 100 milers.

Hundos presented a unique challenge because there were so many variables to learn. That was obvious when experiencing serious problems in a few races. Eventually I ran a near-perfect race (Grindstone 2012.) It wasn’t fast, but I did almost everything right. I felt I passed that threshold between zone 2 and 3.

I could continue to run hundos to get faster, but it would require significantly more time and effort. Like the other hobbies, I’d rather spend that time doing something new.

Does it mean I’m going to totally stop running? Not at all. I’m just not going to spend every waking moment obsessing about the details of the sport. There’s a world of new experiences out there; I need that time to explore!

Anyone else with me on this? I know there has to be at least a few other serial hobbyists out there.What has been your experiences with running, barefoot or otherwise?

What about those that AREN’T serial hobbyists? It’s evident many of my running friends are perfectly happy spending years continuing deep into zone 3. Describe YOUR experiences in the comments!

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16 Comments

  1. Bare Lee
    February 28, 2013

    If I treat living as a hobby, and grow bored with it, is it time to give up the hobby, or time to get to work?

  2. Kevin
    February 27, 2013

    I was fixated/obsessed in the first two years of my ultra-exposure. I read the books, subscribed to numerous blogs, subscribed to the magazine, experimented with footwear and footstrikes and fueling, and thought about it ALL the time. Traveled far just for the opportunity to pace complete strangers. These people were incredible, oddities, fascinating abnormalities! Their achievements unfathomable and beyond my grasp!

    Then I ran my first ultra.

    The obsession ended. BUT, it did reshape my whole relationship to running, exploded my own sense of what I can accomplish (it’s nice to be able to still surprise yourself), and I’ll probably always train for an ultra or two every year just because I like to be “that guy” (for myself) and for my body to be able to perform at that level. But the obsession or intensity of a hobby?

    Moved on to other things (horseback riding…made a new insane, obsessed horse-owner).

    • Kevin
      February 27, 2013

      …err…made a new horse-owner FRIEND.
      Guess I gave up on writing this post before becoming an expert at it.

  3. Michael
    February 27, 2013

    Like a previous poster said, could it be the ‘business’ side of things that ruins it? I used to spend all my time windsurfing, was pretty good, got sponsored, won a few things, then I found that instead of going windsurfing, I was going training. It totally ruined it for me, haven’t done it in over 10 years.
    Now I never go for a training run, don’t force it, and just go out for a run. Sometimes it’s nice to just do something for the moment, rather that to get better at it?

    • Jason
      February 27, 2013

      I doubt it. I usually require intrinsic motivation to do pretty much anything, including those things that result in income. It’s a major part of my life strategy. It also helps that I get far more enjoyment from the journey versus the end result.

  4. Chris Fielding
    February 27, 2013

    I get it Jason. I am an enthusiast addicted to the steep part of the curve. I then lose interest. It was reading a post of your a little while ago that made me realise that it is what I do. I feel like modern day Mr. Toad

  5. Matt M
    February 27, 2013

    I’m definitely in your boat, Jason, although my list is much shorter, and in terms of physical activities I usually just rotate the sports I like into the foreground, because if I’m away long enough, I get rusty, and getting back into form and remembering it all again is similar enough to learning it for the first time that it holds my attention, but this time I have a cheat sheet.

    I’m also a teacher, or as I like to say, a “lifelong learner who shares professionally.” Perhaps that has something to do with it, but I do know some teachers who have singular passions that never bore them. In my case, I have always had mixed feelings about my jumping from one thing to another, because as you said, I love the variety of knowledge and skill, but annoy myself that I’ve never truly excelled at an elite level in anything. I guess I still lean on the variety aspect more.

    Life is too short to perseverate on one thing the entire time, so why not obsess about one thing for a while and then move that passion to something else later on? We’ll see if I continue ultrarunning once I reach my initial goal of running a 50-miler. I’d love to get back to climbing more, and doing more Parkour. My kayak is also rather neglected. After the last few years of barefoot and minimalist distance, however, I know that they will both stick with me the rest of my life. Great post, and keep up the good work!

  6. StephenB
    February 27, 2013

    Did you foresee that you would lose interest in fortune telling? I mean, if you didn’t, maybe you haven’t really mastered it yet. ;)

  7. Juha Myllylä
    February 27, 2013

    I have noticed that other things get more interesting if I slack at training. Running every day and 100 km weeks, that’s when I best keep interested in running and my motivation is highest. If I take side hobbies, sooner or later my motivation goes down and my overall training suffers. So, crosstraining is not a good idea. Before running I practised martial arts, and because there were great variety of differents arts available, every time I had to take about one week break from training, I got very interested about other arts.

  8. chris
    February 27, 2013

    Screw zone 3…I’m trying to move into zone 4 for running! Approaching 100 ultramarathons and still learning like crazy! Love all the variables (some under control, some not) that come with ultra races. Wish me luck at the Umstead 100 in April. This may be my “final exam” for stage 4 learning. Trying to break 24 hours.

    Hope you keep running, and writing about running. Love your stuff.

    -Chris

  9. BF in AZ
    February 27, 2013

    I’m definitely the same way, but I’ve never been sure it’s a good thing. What’s that expression–”when the going gets tough, the serial hobbyist looks for a new hobby with an easier learning curve”?

    • BF in AZ
      February 27, 2013

      What I’ve been struggling to do–not always successfully–is identify those hobbies that actually enrich my life and then push myself not to abandon them without a good reason.

    • Jason
      February 27, 2013

      I don’t know that it could be classified as “good” or “bad.” There are definite pros and cons associated with serial hobbyists. I’m very adaprtable and have a wide range of experiences, but I’m more of a “good enough” versus “this has to be perfect” sort of person.

      As a society, we probably need both.

  10. Skippy
    February 27, 2013

    Aside from free sneakers to reviews Merrell’s lack support for your hobby has sucked the fun out of it for ya… I get it. Idea, new site name “barefootrunninghobbyist.com” think about it.

  11. Rob Y
    February 27, 2013

    I’m definitely in the non-serial hobbyist camp. I’ve been running for over 22 years from track to ultramarathons. I’ve dabbled in mountain biking almost since I learned to ride and unicycled for the past 8 years. So while I do discover new activities I tend to stick with them. For me, with respect to running/ultrarunning, I’ve found that there is A LOT of potential areas for mastery within this genre. While you talk about achieving level 3 mastery at the 100 mile distance and now have seemingly grown bored I can relate. But the 100 mile distance is just ONE specific type of event within the genre. Why stop there? For me everything changed when I embarked on a supported, multi-day fast pack of the 335 mile Pinhoti Trail a few years ago. This experience really opened my eyes to other possibilities for me within the sport. The multi-day aspect became very intriguing as was running official races beyond 100 miles; there are a growing number of 200km+ races out there. I’ve also discovered winter ultramarathons; these are an entirely new and separate experience from anything I’ve ever done. So, what I’m trying to say is that while I might be a level 3 master at the 100 mile and shorter distance, I feel like I’m back to level 1 when it comes to these other ultrarunning challenges… longer distances (beyond the 100 mile), self-supported (winter ultras). The sky is the limit; why stop at 100 miles? At the same time, during a different time of the year I’ve also desired to get faster at the opposite end of the race distance spectrum. From the mile to half marathon I’ve had the desire to attempt to improve my PRs; even though I’m solidly along the level 3 curve. I’ve found that it isn’t necessarily the end result that matters in all of this, but the enjoyment I get through the process!

  12. mark lofquist
    February 27, 2013

    what’s a ‘euchre’?