Post 3

Unprofitable Talents: Reflections on Hobbies

I understand that there was a time when the word ‘profession’ referred to just three types of work: doctor, lawyer and priest. These were distinguished from the trades. This lasted for a long time. (Even in 1990, law students were being asked to research and discuss why law was one of the few occupations referred to as a ‘profession.’) Then, one by one, other disciplines wanted to be referred to as professions. Of course, once it started, it didn’t stop, and the word ‘profession’ came to mean anything you did for a living. A professional came to be defined as someone whose day job was that line of work. A professional hair-dresser means someone who cuts and styles hair for a living. A professional actor implies that the person makes enough money as an actor that he can forgo other types of income.

So along with this comes the notion that if you are really good at something, then you should be able to do it professionally. And then of course, not far behind is the conclusion that if you’re not making money at it, then you must not be all that great at it in the first place. Money equals talent.

So money becomes the final arbiter. The more money you make at something, the better you probably are at it, is the assumption that we make, often without realizing it. The truth is, however, that in pretty much every line of work, there are way more talented people than the number of available positions. Only a small percentage of women work as full-time models, but meanwhile, in countless small forgotten towns and villages, women equally beautiful are busy fetching water or walking a dog. And the same goes for the other disciplines. Who is to say that the community-theatre actor isn’t in fact as talented as a Hollywood name? Even when it comes to the cardiac doctor working in Chicago and renowned through the medical world, we have to admit it’s an unequal playing field. The world has a lot of young people with brilliant minds and a lot of drive, but those first stepping stones to success and recognition weren’t there for them.

But I digress. I had intended to talk about hobbies.

Money as measurement means that we almost consider it ‘thrown-away talent’ or a ‘waste of talent’ when money does not rise up to bless our side endeavors. It’s considered a great compliment to say to someone that they could “do it professionally!” But the truth is, we should celebrate those many talents that we all have by pursuing them as hobbies in our leisure time, giving no thought to the money that they will bring us. In fact, money would taint and spoil these pursuits. That’s the point G.K. Chesterton makes.

In his autobiography, he has a chapter called, “The Man with the Golden Key.” The name of the chapter has a double meaning: it describes a 6-inch-tall prince, made of cardboard and wearing a crown, but it also describes his father, who made the prince.

Chesterton’s father was a house-agent living in Kensington, England. I think nowadays we’d call him a realtor? In his leisure time, however, he turned to his many other interests. Chesterton describes how at one point his father wrote a book:

The book was one my father had written and illustrated himself, merely for home consumption. It was typical of him that, in the Pugin period he had worked at Gothic illumination; but when he tried again, it was in another style of the dark Dutch renaissance, the grotesque scroll-work that suggests woodcarving more than stone-cutting. He was the sort of man who likes to try everything once. This was the only book he ever wrote; and he never bothered to publish it.

Chesterton’s father had a workshop, and the inventions that he made there “created for children the permanent anticipation of what is profoundly called a Surprise.

His versatility both as an experimentalist and a handy man, in all such matters, was amazing. His den or study was piled high with the stratified layers of about ten or twelve creative amusements; water-colour painting and modelling and photography and stained glass and fretwork and magic lanterns and mediaeval illumination.
. . . [I]n my own household, it was not a question of one hobby but a hundred hobbies, piled on top of each other . . .

And then Chesterton says that at one time there was talk of his father using his talents as the basis for a career, but practical considerations prevailed:

There had been some talk of his studying art professionally in his youth; but the family business was obviously safer; and his life followed the lines of a certain contented and ungrasping prudence . . . He never dreamed of turning any of these plastic talents to any mercenary account, or of using them for anything but his own private pleasure and ours.

He created worlds of wonder for his family, while meanwhile the outside world viewed him as “a very reliable and capable though rather unambitious business man.

Chesteron writes:

On the whole I am glad that he was never an artist. It might have stood in his way in becoming an amateur. It might have spoilt his career; his private career. He could have made a vulgar success of all the thousand things he did successfully.

Chesterton identifies it as an American trait that all hobbies get reframed in terms of profit:

When the American begins to suggest that ‘salesmanship can be an art,’ he means that an artist ought to put all his art into his salesmanship. The old-fashioned Englishman, like my father, sold houses for his living but filled his own house with his life.


A hobby is not a holiday . . . a hobby is not half a day but half a life-time. It would be truer to accuse the hobbyist of living a double life. And hobbies . . . have a character that runs parallel to practical professional effort . . . it is doing work . . . it is an exercising of the rest of the mind.

So it is not a matter for discouragement that we cannot turn every single ability into a lucrative thing. In fact, it’s a wonderful thing that you remain an amateur baker, an amateur gardener, an amateur home-organizer. With these talents, undamaged by profit and concerns of profit, you’ll have new ways of sharing yourself with your family and friends. The outside world will know you by your day-job, but your inner circle will know so much more.