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“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”
— Richard Feynman

We should spend more of our time dabbling. Dabbling in side-interests nourishes us as individuals and makes us more likely to be able to contribute in a way that helps others.

When we spend time and effort on a pursuit that we find meaningful, outside of our vocation, we’re dabbling.1

Dabbling is something in-between work and play.

It’s not work. It’s not a job. And that makes a difference. It takes the pressure off.

But it’s not exactly leisure either.

Dabbling is about spending time and effort on a pursuit that you could choose to make your main thing, but which you’ve chosen not to make your main thing.

When we dabble in a field of art or science, we’re not trying to make money. We dabble in fields that interest us, because we find the fields compelling in and of themselves.

We can dabble in any field we want. We don’t need credentials to dabble. And in the internet age, it usually doesn’t cost money to dabble.

Also, dabbling is a fun sounding word. It should sound fun. Dabbling is closer to play than to work, even if what one person dabbles in is another person’s profession.

You might say, “Sure, dabble away. Who says that we shouldn’t dabble?”

The thing is, yes, nobody explicitly says that we shouldn’t dabble. But we tend to worry that we have finite mental resources. And then we get stingy with our mental resources.

The thinking goes like this: If we want to get ahead in our careers, maybe diverting our energy to a hobby is a waste. Hobbies are nice, but they are a luxury. In this view, only children and aristocrats can dabble, not responsible adults.

But perhaps this view is wrong. Or at least, short-sighted. Maybe we should place more value on our dabbling that we currently do.

Work-life balance is complicated. When we’ve tapped out of the energy that we can put towards our main job, there’s an open question of what we should do with the rest of our time and energy.

There’s a paradox that plays out in our brains. Dabbling in side-interests that demand some energy and intentionality can seem an awful lot like work. So, when we’ve already finished our main work for the day, it can seem like dabbling might take away from the little energy that we have left. Dabbling can seem subtractive from our well-being.

But perhaps it’s not subtractive. Maybe we could reframe dabbling and choose to see it as additive. Maybe even multiplicative, if we get lucky.

Could dabbling help us recharge even more than leisure does?

We when we finish our work for the day, we intuitively sense that we need to relax and recharge. Leisure that demands nothing of us seems at face like the best way to relax, so that we can be prepared for tomorrow, when we need to work again. So, we watch TV, or scroll through our phones. We do this so that we don’t wear ourselves thin. We do this to chill.

But we’ve all experienced the sensation of too much leisure leading to a feeling of bloat. Sometimes chilling can be a lot like numbing.

It’s not that leisure can’t be nourishing. But there’s a limit on how much leisure we can engage in before it goes from being nourishing to being numbing. That’s where dabbling comes in. It’s another way to nourish ourselves.

We can recharge during our free time by dabbling in side-interests. Dabbling does require more effort than pure leisure. But the benefits of dabbling outweigh the extra effort involved. Dabbling takes some effort up front, but it recharges us.

It’s a balancing act. We don’t need to spend all of our free time dabbling in side-interests outside of our work. But we also don’t need to spend all of our free time on pure leisure. Again, this in and of itself is not a controversial opinion. But maybe we should encourage ourselves to spend more of our free time dabbling than we currently do. We can do a lot more dabbling if we watch a bit less TV.

Could dabbling make us better at our jobs?

Many of us feel a nagging sense that we should be spending more time working. This feeling can be omnipresent anytime we’re not actually working. In its worst form, we feel like we should be working when we’re relaxing during our free time and we feel like we should relax a bit more when we’re trying to work.

This sense can make us feel like we should really work it up or really chill out, at any given time. Dabbling in side-interests lives somewhere in-between these two states.

Dabbling isn’t subtractive from our work. It also isn’t subtractive from our leisure. It’s additive to both. It’s somewhere in-between both.

In the short-term, from the perspective of your work-brain, it can feel like time spent on dabbling would be better spent on doing more work. It can feel like dabbling is subtractive from our overall productivity.

But the research seems to indicate that this isn’t the case.

In Range, David Epstein demonstrates the value of dabbling, writing that:

“Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least twenty-two times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or other type of performer. Nationally recognized scientists are much more likely than other scientists to be musicians, sculptors, painters, printmakers, woodworkers, mechanics, electronics tinkerers, glassblowers, poets, or writers, of both fiction and nonfiction. And, again, Nobel laureates are far more likely still. The most successful experts also belong to the wider world.”

We may not be Nobel Prize contenders, but we could all benefit from the possibility of being able to make more of a contribution through our work. Perhaps, like these highly successful scientists, we too could create better results at work by spending more time dabbling in things that aren’t our main work. Maybe we too could see additive benefits to our work if we choose to spend more of our time dabbling.

In the best-case scenario, maybe our dabbling could be more than just additive to our work and life. Dabbling, done right, has the potential to be multiplicative.

Dabbling can help us make decisions from an interdisciplinary perspective. It can help us see solutions to problems that lie at the cross-section of two worlds that otherwise wouldn’t cross paths. This multiplicative effect isn’t guaranteed, especially in the short term. But in the long- term, we probably increase our chances of stumbling upon unique ideas and solutions by dabbling.

Work before you dabble

If we were all independently wealthy, we would be free to dabble all the time. But we’re not.

Richard Feynman says that you should “study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”

But, since we need to be able to support ourselves financially, Feynman’s advice is only half of the equation.

We should, indeed, dabble. We should dabble guilt-free. But we can only really do that once we’ve finished the work that we need to do on any given day.2

How much work do we need to do on any given day in order to support ourselves? The answer to that question depends on each of our personal contexts. But there’s some equilibrium of what’s “enough”.

Once we’ve done “enough” for the day, we all have some hours left in the day.

These are the hours that we can dabble with. This is our free time.3

How we choose to spend our free time

We can choose to spend our free time connecting with family and friends, relaxing through something that lets us go on autopilot, or by dabbling.

We each get to decide how we intend to spend our free time. We all have a different ratio of how we’d like to spend it.

Perhaps we might surprise ourselves if we were to spend more of our free time dabbling. In the short run, we may find that dabbling energizes us more than we might intuit it would. In the long run we might find that our dabbling helps us make the world a better place.

So, the next time you have some free time, consider dabbling.


Special thanks to Sam Mitchell for his help with this piece! He often helps me make my writing better and his efforts on this piece were particularly helpful in organizing and structuring my thoughts.


Footnotes

  1. Why am I using the word dabbling instead of the word hobby? The word “hobby” implies a narrower set of traditional activities. For instance, if a lawyer uses her spare time to learn calculus or astrophysics, it feels right to call it dabbling instead of calling it a hobby. The same goes for a welder who regularly spends his evenings learning about Roman history.
  2. People who have figured out how to monetize their dabbling are exempt from this rule. Though even they may find themselves wanting to dabble beyond the dabbling that they’ve monetized.
  3. Some people truly don’t have free time. Others have free time, but have absolutely no energy left after work. A single mother who works two jobs probably doesn’t have time to dabble. Dabbling is a privilege that’s not available to everyone. But for those of us lucky enough to have some free time and some energy left after work and family obligations, we can choose to spend some of that free time dabbling.