Copywriter. Designer. Illustrator. Filmmaker. With how competitive the world has become, it’s no wonder why we’re obsessed with titles.
Focusing on a speciality makes you more appealing to employers and shows clearly where your skills lie. It’s easier to focus on doing one thing great. Yet a growing crop of research and anecdotal evidence suggests that spending time and energy on unrelated tasks, hobbies, and interests can actually supercharge our ability to learn and grow, making us even better at all our work.
Here’s the excuse you need to branch out and try something new:
The Specialist Versus The Generalist
From the day we start kindergarten, it seems, we’re told to pick a niche or a specialty. “Do you want to be a firefighter, or a doctor?” But that’s increasingly not how we work. As the And.co team found in their latest survey, 61% of freelancers “specialize” in two or three talents.
In a blog post for 99U, cognitive scientist Art Markman calls these people “Expert Generalists.” They’re often the best workers–they “have a wide variety of knowledge… [and] are able to use this knowledge to suggest new ways to look at problems [and] are also good at translating across areas of expertise.” The wider range of knowledge you have, the more dots you’ll have to connect.
Your Hobbies Create A “Ripple Effect” Of Learning
You probably think your hobby has no effect of the rest of your life. But according to San Francisco State University assistant psychology professor Dr. Kevin Eschleman’s study on the correlation between hobbies and job performance, that’s just not the case.
Practicing your hobby “gives you a sense of mastery,” Eschleman explains. “You’re developing new skills, new thought processes and really challenging yourself to learn something new and develop your skill set.”
While Eschleman highlights yoga, improv, and playing team sports, the hobby with the most far-reaching benefits is learning to play an instrument. The benefits of learning an instrument run the gamut from improving your memory to keeping your brain healthy as you get older. Musical endeavours can also help with one of the most important workplace skills: writing.
For author Dani Shapiro, her childhood music lessons were “just as important as any writing workshop.” Those piano lessons prepared her for a lifetime of working with words. “The phrasing, the pauses, the crescendos, keeping time, the creating of shape, the coaxing out of a tonal quality. All of these are with me as I approach the page,” says Shapiro.
Your Weekend Side Hustle Amps You Up For The Workweek
Modern research shows that those people who spend time on passion projects are happier, work harder in general, and are actually 12% more productive than those who don’t have an outlet for their passion.
One example is Seattle-based digital marketer David Mulqueen, whose love of winter sports prompted him to open his own snowboard school side hustle on nights and weekends. Mulqueen explains how one benefits the other: “I think it makes me a more well-rounded individual; you take so much passion and pride into your side hustle that it energizes you, and that energy flows over into your day job.”
Your Unrelated Interests Open Your Mind To Innovative Ideas
So far, we’ve looked at practical skills like taking on a hobby or starting a side hustle, but what about the other completely unrelated interests you might have like watching anime, reading 1930s crime noir novellas or going to avant-garde art exhibits? Turns out, these can also have a positive effect on your work and creativity.
According to a study by University of Pennsylvania researcher Scott Barry Kaufman, high levels of openness to experience–or “the degree to which someone is willing to consider and experience new ideas”–can be related to creative output.
The more rich and diverse experiences you have, the higher the likelihood of you creating something truly unique and innovative. Entrepreneur James Altucher gives the example of inventor Stan Weston, who took two seemingly unrelated interests, dolls and the army, to create the first “doll for boys” (The G.I. Joe action figure).
While they might seem completely unrelated to the work you do, those random interests combined with your day-to-day tasks can easily become the catalyst for uncovering something truly new and creative.
A 3-Step Guide To Setting Up Your Own Creative Cross-Training Routine
Hobbies and interests help. They just might be the creative spark you need. So how do you build them into your routine?
Here are a few ways to start creative cross-training:
1. Pick One Keystone Hobby, Hustle, Or Interest
Just like training for a marathon, your creative cross training needs to have some sort of order and system behind it. Just randomly plunking at a guitar once every few months won’t instantly make you a better writer.
In his book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg suggests commiting to a keystone habit–a routine or system that you stick to no matter what. This could be writing 1,000 words a day, practicing piano for 20 minutes after dinner, spending your Sunday building your side hustle, or even going to an art show every week.
2. Work On More Than One Project At A Time
When creativity researchers Howard Gruber and Sara Davis looked at some of the world’s most successful creatives, they found a strong connection between their output and their tendency to work on multiple projects at once. Gruber and Davis have called this melting pot of different, sometimes seemingly unrelated projects a “network of enterprises,” which they say has four main benefits:
- Multiple projects cross-fertilize. The benefits from doing one make their way to the other.
- Switching between tasks keeps you excited and motivated.
- Our ideas have a chance to incubate. While we’re paying close attention to one project, we may be unconsciously processing another (this is the basis of the “aha” moment that seems to always happen at the strangest times).
- Each project in the network of enterprises provides an escape from the others.
3. Create Guidelines To Keep Your Multitasking Anxiety At Bay
With multiple interests and multiple projects on the go, it’s easy to never actually get anything done. There’s ample proof that we can’t really multitask.
So if you’re considering a creative cross-training routine, set it up with caution. Only take on as much as you feel you can realistically do. If you find yourself spiraling out of control stop, take a step back, and reassess your choices.
We all need a strong sense of focus to be able to do our best work. But denying ourselves hobbies, hustles, and other interests in the service of specialization can actually hold us back from doing our best.
The next time you feel a pang of guilt for spending time on something other than work, remember that you’re still moving forward.
The destination is the same, you’re just taking a new path.