Updated on 09.18.14

Synergizing Hobbies and Career to Succeed

Trent Hamm

outliersSince reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (and reviewing it), the concept of what makes an individual exceptionally successful in a particular area has been heavy on my mind.

In the book, Gladwell mostly argues that exceptional success is the result mostly of factors outside of our control: demographics, genetics, and so on. However, he does point to a few tantalizing clues of things we can control for increasing our own chances at personal success.

How to Increase Personal Success, According to Malcolm Gladwell

1. Practice constantly

Gladwell estimates that, in order to become world class at something, one needs to invest 10,000 hours of practice. That amounts to two hours of practice a day for roughly fifteen years – a pretty tall order, indeed.

2. Improve listening and interpersonal communication

Being able to pay attention to what others have to say – actually listening and incorporating their statements into your own thoughts – is another big key, as is the ability to communicate with others in a respectful fashion. Doing both of these will help you to naturally build a social network around yourself, which is a big part of the puzzle.

3. Push yourself creatively

The more you use creativity in your daily life, the more likely you are to succeed. Putting effort into coming up with unusual or unorthodox solutions almost always pays dividends, even if the end result turns out not to be the best solution.

4. Adopting a culture of learning and growth

The personal aspects of your life – what you do with your spare time, who you associate with – should focus heavily on promoting learning and growth. If you find that you spend much of your spare time idling away the hours, or if your friends engage in activities that don’t help you to grow, you’re going to fall short.

So, how can one take these elements together and use them to improve our career standing? I’d argue that the best way to do all of these things is to find an intellectually stimulating hobby, preferably one that intersects with your professional life in some useful way. Here are some examples of hobbies that pull in all of these elements and can also interact well with your chosen profession.

6 Hobbies That Can Improve Your Career

1. Attending lectures

If you live near a university or live in a large city, there’s usually an abundance of lectures open to the public on all sorts of topics. Attend these and pay careful attention, trying to understand what the speaker is saying. Try to draw your own conclusions, and follow up on your own with additional reading. Participate in the questions and answers. Keep your eyes open for regular attendees and introduce yourself to them in an attempt to build friendships.

2. Joining a book club

A book club not only encourages you to use your spare time to read, but during the meetings, it also gives you an opportunity to push your understanding of what you read, come up with creative explanations and ideas, and build relationships with people doing the same things.

3. Programming computers

I have several friends who spend quite a few spare hours each week involved in open source software projects. Not only does this force them to address programming problems in a different situation than their professional lives, it also pushes their creativity and forces them to communicate complex ideas. Virtually all of them have improved in some fashion because of their involvement.

4. Learning a musical instrument

Playing music requires creativity, focus, and a lot of practice, plus it provides many social opportunities when you’ve mastered it. Try selecting an instrument that’s convenient to play publicly, like a guitar.

5. Volunteering for leadership

Leadership positions in volunteer groups force you to communicate with others, listen to what they have to say, and be creative with solutions to the problems presented to you. Many volunteer groups can fill your hours quite easily, giving you plenty of practice as well.

6. Mastering a simple task

If all else fails, focus on mastering one simple task with your spare time. I have a close friend who devoted many, many hours to mastering the Rubik’s Cube. To some of you, this may seem like a waste of time, but he’s gotten a ton of usefulness out of it. Not only did it teach him how to focus his mind on a complex problem before him, he’s also earned money from putting information online about Rubik’s Cube solving as well as using his ability to quickly solve a cube as an icebreaker and a nifty party trick, enabling him to build relationships.

What’s the take-home message here? Choosing the right hobby can synergize very well with your career choices and point you right down the path to great success. You have a choice to make: do I want to spend my spare time idling, or do I want to spend it doing something fun that, at the same time, teaches me valuable lessons I can utilize in every aspect of my life? The choice is up to you.

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  1. Curt says:

    If I had to pick one thing that leads to success, I would say “Adopting a culture of learning”.

  2. I was reading the labels on a water bottle a couple days ago that something to the effect of “do something that makes you feel uncomfortable every day.” I think that tells a lot if you want to stand out from everyone else since most people stay in their comfort zone and never discover new ideas and activities they can do with their time.

  3. Daily repetition or practicing can really help you progress towards success with whatever you are doing once it becomes a habit. Once you stop, it becomes that much harder to continue with it.

    BTW- I am surprised you don’t have blogging on the list, which can allow you to push yourself creatively, and practice a hobby- (writing) regularly.

  4. I do have to agree that ustained focus is something that many people in our society lack and is a key to success.
    Gladwell attributes the cultural work ethic and ability to focus for longer periods of time as part of the reason that Asian’s are better at Math than Americans.

  5. Anne KD says:

    If you can sing, look into joining a community chorus. No instrument involved there and a definite for using your mind and body. Money tight? The community choruses I’ve been in have/had a need-based allowance for letting people sing for free. Community choruses can always use more singers especially singers who are willing to help out with helping the club run smoothly- various leadership opportunities available at all levels from joining fundraising committees to becoming officers of the club. And tenors ;). My husband and I have been expanding our network mainly via the chorus. If you’d like, substitute the words ‘community chorus’ with ‘hobby club’, ‘online cooking community that meets in the real world’, ‘running club’, etc. There’s something out there for everybody.

  6. matt @ Thrive says:

    I think you’re right, Trent, that linking your personal growth to the things you enjoy is critical, though perhaps for different reasons that you think. One of the hallmarks of successful people is there ability to capitalize on opportunity (which is part of what underlies the “birth era” effect), and engaging in activities that manifest that personality is critical.

    Linking the things you enjoy to the process is key, because it both

    a) increases the availability of opportunities


    b) your intrinsic enjoyment encourages you to take advantage of those opportunities.

    So for something like a book club, it only really works if you actually LIKE reading, because of point B. If you are doing just because you want to try and “grow”, chances are that you won’t, simply because you won’t recognize and take advantage of the opportunities inherent in the practice.

  7. doctor S says:

    I think we see the most personal growth with situations we enjoy more. The main problem is finding the ideal situation in which you are working on something or doing something that you enjoy. I work as a programmer, it is not my passion. On the side, I am a basketball referee, I have been a bball junkie for 20 years, its all i ever did. I have seen more growth in my reffing than me programming skills since it is my passion. It all falls into place.

  8. Saver Queen says:

    How about blogging? :)
    It’s given me so much more than I ever thought it would! Started as a hobby and morphed into a great learning opportunity.

  9. Michael says:

    Those six ideas don’t have anything to do with becoming an outlier as you have presented them. Doing any of those is an easy way to not become exceptional.

    You recommend:
    -Attending lectures when you should recommend years of difficult, demanding study under a world-class master.
    -A book club when you should recommend a complete liberal arts education, including classical languages.
    -Programming computers – this shouldn’t even be on there. Maybe a doctorate in computer engineering, learning machine language or how to design and build one’s own processors?
    Learning a musical instrument – this is good if one devotes years to it and has an excellent teacher, but I think you have in mind those YouTube videos on playing the piano.
    -Volunteering – this is how you give back after you have something extraordinary to offer. Doing it before, as you say, “fills your hours” too easily.
    -Mastering a simply task – a Rubik’s cube? No! Master a complicated, extremely difficult task. Your friend wasted his time because he could have learned something better.

    This article offers dangerous advice. People who want to become exceptional, dedicate yourselves to your chief goal and don’t get distracted by these “hobbies.” It’s fine to enjoy multiple pursuits, but Trent’s suggestions won’t help you become an “outlier.”

  10. Kevin WIlson says:

    One great outside-work activity for learning and growing I discovered a few years ago is Toastmasters. It’s not just public speaking, though you’ll certainly learn a lot about that (and who doesn’t have to occasionally stand up in front of people and speak?) – as well, you’ll learn a great deal about giving and getting effective feedback, communication in general, and there’s plenty of leadership roles to take on too, as well as a formal leadership training track.

    Bonus is, the people are great and it’s a lot of fun. Visit your local club and try it out!

  11. Laura In Atlanta says:

    Ah . . . Rubik’s cube. yes, problem solving, forcing yourself to solve complex problems, etc . . . the best part of knowing how to solve a Rubik’s cube? It’s COOL. ;-)

    I agree on your points about Book Clubs. I am a member of one, and I am getting a chance to read books I probably wouldnt have chosen on my own, and to interact with people that I dont really know. Great fun too. ;-) Plus, we eat pizza. Who can so no to pizza?


  12. tarits says:

    i agree with “adopting a culture of learning and growth.” it doesn’t have to be lectures, since some people would prefer the skill-based approach of workshops and practicums. a lot of people seem to think that graduating from high school or college is the end of the learning process… this shouldn’t be. also, teaching other people (as a volunteer or as part of your job) is a great way to give back and refresh one’s knowledge.

    about the learning a musical instrument.. i’ve been part of a church choir for the past 8 years now, and it has been one of the best and most frugal learning experience i’ve had. aside from the challenge of singing alto (which is waaay more complicated than singing soprano melody parts)and gaining an appreciation of sacred/classical music, the friends i’ve made in the choir are priceless.

  13. Really good article!!!!
    Hobbies are fun, but hobbies that make money are fantastic.Synergizing hobbies with careers can provide an alternate form of income that most people over look.

    Blogging is a great hobby that can generate money with no startup costs.

    Check out my blog “Live for Improvement” and learn how to enjoy life.

  14. imelda says:

    Trent, is this book a good book for learning about becoming excellent and successful, or is it really more a sociological, historical kind of book? Is it worth reading if I’m looking for something about how to excel in my career and life? If not, what would you recommend instead?


  15. TStrump says:

    I think listening is perhaps once of the most under-rated skills.
    I used to be a terrible listener but now, I practice everyday and frequently have to remind myself to keep my mouth shut!

  16. Chris says:

    I think this book is rather one-sided. Exceptional success comes at an exceptional price. I work with successful people and I know a lot of them sacrificed their health, personal life etc. just to shine at work. Also, if you are passionate about your work (like me), you can burn-out even before you realize. To me: a balanced life is a healthy life.

  17. Alisa says:

    These are all great. I am always trying to develop my skills, but I never though about linking it to the things that I enjoy! This is food for thought, because, quite honestly, I find myself focusing so much on my weaknesses, and I think if I can find a way to link this to what I really enjoy…. the growth may be a little less painful. :)

    Be well!

  18. I think that creativity is sadly lacking in many god employees, many because many jobs are becoming more standardised or operative based and are driven by technology rather than being driven by creative individuals. In businesses rush to cut costs they often lose the creative element that gives them an edge in their business sector

  19. Normally these posts bore me, but I agree on this one. Blogging as a hobby has directly lead to successes in the workplace and has opened a door in my career I thought would take another 4 years to unlock.

  20. Craig says:

    In the middle of reading it right now and am enjoying it. Written the same way his other two books were written. The only thing I don’t like is he sometimes puts things into categories too much. For example the only way you can be successful is through a, b, c. Clearly there are examples against it but for the purpose of the book he sticks to certain factors. Nice read, recommend to everyone.

  21. Patricia Tucker says:

    Once again, I love the list you have made here. It definitely gives me a spring board. Great way to create some new years resolutions as a beginning.

  22. Nate says:

    Great post Trent.

    My two areas of growth are in my workout routine and learning Spanish. I just started both and am fairly consistent and both and the results are starting to show in small ways.


  23. Chris @ BuildMyBudget says:

    I agree that expanding your horizons is important for personal growth and this list provides some great suggestions. I also agree with the few that warned that too much of this can become a distraction which can wind up keeping you from reaching your toughest goals. Ultimately, perseverance is the key to attaining any goal- not education, talent, or genetics.

  24. Jillian says:

    I tend to agree with Chris. Being extremely successful at something (to the degree to which Gladwell seems to be talking about) requires more sacrifice than most people are willing to give, and far more than you could ever anticipate when you first set out to do it. I think I’d rather be a jack of all trades than a master of one. I wonder if it’s possible to excel at not excelling at anything?

  25. Ishtar says:

    I agree with Michael et al: most of the advice posted will help you to become a well-balanced human being. But are we not striving for excellence?

    Jillian, the Renaissance men excelled at more than one thing. I’m sure it’s still possible today. More difficult but not impossible.

  26. I took some programming classes in college and it’s amazing how you turn on parts of your brain in different ways. People don’t think of it as “creative” work, but it really is.

    And another thing about book clubs: they expand what you read beyond what you would find on your own. Would my wife have read a book about corn on her own? No, but she sure was glad she did.

  27. Victor says:

    Among all the points mentioned, I agree that Adopting a culture of learning and growth is very important. We live in an ever changing environment. Change is the only constant. By adopting this culture, you’ll be giving yourself a passport to excel in the world. Many successful company and organizations excel in their field are using this method. I hope to met more people of similar traits in order to network more. These will be a very good network oppurtunity for each other to learn each other ways of working etc.

    Anyone in Malaysia having the same characteristics ?

  28. Jane says:

    I truly liked this article. I love photography spend a lot of time learning about my camera, using photoshop, and it brings a sense of joy in my life. God gave us all talents use them and you won’t be bored.

  29. Kelly says:

    Detailed visual how to’s; DIY projects; Tip lists; personal antecdotes; interviews & economic books would be my preference in that order. Thanks for giving us such valuable & practical information. I love to read and have read on many varied topics, I don’t always agree w/the author’s point, but it does one good to see different perspectives. Personal growth is a lifetime project and I hope to never stop learning.

  30. Shaine Mata says:

    This is probably one of your best posts. No doubt that some of the practices you list here are a great help. I would say that following the idea of “Jack of all trades, master of none. Oft thought better than master of one” summarizes your post.

  31. deRuiter says:

    Some hobbies (oddly all of mine) lead to making money. Learn to ride horses? End up part time teaching beginners at a riding stable and also privately. Gardening? There’s so much extra that it gets sold to get rid of the surplus. Collect and restore antique furniture? What to do with the extras? Sell them! Some hobies work out to generate money, some to hemoraghe it, it’s your choice, and neither one is wrong. Interested in learning about real estate as a hobby? You can end up owning a lucrative rental. Please don’t tell me all the boring annecdotes about friends who failed at real estate rentals. They PROGRAMMED themselves to fail by not having a good lease, taking people who were obviously bad tenants, not leaping into action when the rent was a day late or there are obvious problems. I can’t stomache another “I’m a victim so I failed as a landlord.” sob story. Back to the thread, a hobby’s a great thing! You meet people, get your mind off work, get refreshed, and maybe it helps in your career. Tiger Woods’s daddy had the hobby of golf and that worked out pretty good until a couple of weeks ago.

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