OT: Hobbies and diversions

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Photography for me started off as a diversion – just as it probably did for many of you. It was the ideal hobby for a busy corporate person: without predictable chunks of free time, looking for something piecemeal that could be satisfying in a ten minute gap or stretched to fill an unexpected day. It combined elements of unpredictability, reward for improvement in skill, as well as instant gratification (between instant results and gear lust). As I developed my skills and found other things I wanted too communicate, it turned into a tool to let me express ideas in a way that could be understood by others. And then it became both a calling and a career. But at some point in the last couple of years, it also became all-consuming – to the point that there was no longer any boundary between work and not-work, and thus between photography for creative fulfilment and photography (and related activities) for a living. Photography used to be a break that forced me to refocus my thoughts and allow for creative experimentation; inspiration would flow between different kinds of photography, different approaches for different subjects (i.e. client-subjects and personal-subjects) and different creative processes – photography and non-photography. But without the break: how does one you find inspiration?

I’ve probably talked about this in a previous post – for some time now I’ve been looking for other hobbies to serve as a diversion from the primary focus, so to speak. My other problem – and again, I suspect this applies to many business owners – is that once you turn on the switch that enables you to view everything from an entrepreneurial point of view – it’s hard to turn it off. You tend to see commercial opportunities in everything you do, or start to evaluate things from a quantitative return on investment perspective rather than just enjoying them. If there’s no tangible ROI, then you tend not to do them at all. On top of that, the effort threshold gets higher: if something requires a lot of effort to do or go to, then you’re far less likely to be inclined to do it when you’re already running flat out with little spare bandwidth. Unsurprisingly, whilst this attitude keeps you in business, it isn’t very healthy because it also means you tend not to do anything that doesn’t become work. This happened with a lot of things: camera bags, watches, creative consulting, etc. And all of those things I previously loved are at at high risk of becoming not enjoyable.

I use the term ‘work’ in a fairly strict sense here: something you do that’s primarily for income over pleasure; you might enjoy it but the primary purpose remains profit. That tradeoff is of course a continuum – you might do some things you really don’t enjoy if they pay well (most people in corporate jobs) or take less pay if your basic needs are met but the tasks are personally interesting to you.

My challenge has been to find something that is has no realistic possible scope for commercialisation: this is impossible since obtaining the materials is already implicit that somebody makes them and presumably for a profit; however in most cases the barriers to entry may be so high as to be impractical. But at the same time, there has to be enough open-endedness and sense of intellectual fulfilment such that the activity doesn’t become boring. This rules out a lot of passive things that are solely consumptive; movies, for example. I don’t particularly want to produce a film, but nor do I want to do nothing but watch them and waste time in two to three hour chunks. Plus it isn’t the same when you have to pause at a critical point and resume the next day. The same goes for books – I reserve both of these for when I’m stuck on an aircraft and can’t do anything else. Let’s not talk about writing, because I get more than my fill of that from this site – something like the equivalent of 30 paperback novels, by my last calculation. Music is a constant background thing, and I’m tone deaf and have no interest in making my own.

I rather enjoyed driving and racing karts for a while, but the latter is pretty dangerous and resulted in the back injury that necessitated my move to smaller and lighter equipment, and still creates occasional issues to this day. Plus the temptation to try to go professional was starting to get quite strong. Full size cars are an endless monetary black hole, though some investment opportunities exist in Malaysia due to the state of the market (finite numbers of interesting cars, import limits, high taxes, polarised buying etc.) – but the minute you start buying one of these things as a financial instrument, you’re not going to drive it due to risk and it’s no more fun than owning some share certificates. Worse, actually, since share certificates don’t suffer from entropy through disuse or overuse. I did however find my ideal weekend toy in the process, but that’s best left for another day.

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I did however recently revisit Lego again due to an interest expressed by my daughter – and not Technic which I’d previously used to create functional large-scale cars (that yes, I sold and built on commission, but turned out to yield financially terrible return). I feel old, as I remember plates and beams and 2x4s – occasionally some hinges and angled slopes – but the variety of components available now is simply mind boggling. There are specialised parts that can be applied to all sorts of non-canonical uses. On top of that, a whole building language has emerged called SNOT – ‘Studs Not On Top’ – which means building sideways or upside down rather than purely upwards in layers. I realise I am showing my age here. Creatively, it’s the Lego equivalent of going from designing watches in two dimensions in PS to full 3D CAD. Whilst some of the things serious builders are doing with these new possibilities are truly epic – tens or hundreds of thousands of parts, whole dedicated build rooms etc – I have neither the time, skill or budget to build to that extent. Plus the desire for small piecemeal diversions that could occupy half an hour to a couple of hours whilst waiting for other things remained strong. I discovered their fairly recent series of small-scale cars: 6 studs wide, ~200 pieces per car, and full of very creative ways of attaching bricks together. Plus, at $20 or so per car – not too painful.

What you see in the photograph for this post is a mix of things: builds from official sets and my own vehicles, which started out intended to be existing cars but turned into my own adaptations during the build process. Some have been rebuilt several times. Sometimes I try to stick with the masochistic challenge of taking an existing set and using only those components; the GT40-like thing was built from a Fiesta. At other times I dig into the growing box of spares made of leftovers and sacrificial cars to build to an ideal. Of course it’s never possible to build anything other than chibi caricatures; that’s the point: a stud either way can make a surprisingly large difference to proportions. The challenge is to distil and key features of the target vehicle and present only its essence – sounds quite a lot like conscious exclusion, doesn’t it? With the benefit of experience and hindsight – we can probably use fewer pieces or simpler techniques to make something that’s visually more impactful, too. Furthermore, we are working within the confines of existing building blocks: we can’t make parts that don’t exist, but we can creatively arrange them in a nearly infinite number of ways – sound much like photography as a whole? Needless to say, for the past couple of months I’ve been pleasantly distracted.

More than ever, I still believe that we need to have something outside work to make our work better – inspiration, by definition, has to come from outside the normal circle; without going outside that circle, it’s impossible to be inspired. Inspiration is the result of applying something unexpected to make something new. Inventiveness is conditioning your mind to make connections where there are no obvious ones – be it conscious or subconscious. A good hobby either provides inspiration directly, or distracts you enough from thinking active about work (and falling down the same conclusions repeatedly) such that your subconscious can work things out. Perhaps there is some truth after all to the old adage ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’… MT


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  1. Hope your back feels better

  2. I’m intrigued about your lego car building ‘business’ – would be good to see a post about this if you have pics.

    • Fortunately, I have not been able to turn it into a business. I also admit I have not been trying. That said, I know it’s possible as I’ve made and sold large scale functional Technic models in the past on commission…and yes, it absolutely took the fun out of it.

  3. Loved the article (I am LEGO fan too, mainly for destressing) but how did you get such DOF in the first picture!

  4. “My challenge has been to find something that is has no realistic possible scope for commercialisation” <– my first instinctive thought was "he should try photography" 😀

  5. I love Lego too, it’s perfect for occasions when I can’t really go outside (bad weather or not enough time), and I don’t want to look at an electronic screen (ruling out films, TV , internet, plus books these days as well as I mostly Reed ebooks). I found a few years back that every time I passed a Lego shop I was stopping to look at the window displays. So I started buying small sets and never looked back 🙂
    Plus Lego is surprisingly good for small apartments as once you’ve made a model, you can photograph it then take it apart and put the pieces away in a fairly small box (and/ or reuse them for the next model)- which is not true of most craft / modelling hobbies – I have a relative whose house is gradually filling up with hand crafted wooden furniture, for example!
    But hope you continue to get enjoyment from non commerical photography and maintaining this site – certainly your audience does!

    • You can always increase density of builds, I suppose – but the temptation to buy the bigger/ more exciting sets is always there (and, eventually, unavoidable…! 🙂 )

  6. Once I had a perfect mix, being half-time a security officer, often just stopping people to go inside buldings, ships, TV studios, whatever.
    Never debate anything, just say yes, or no, mentally relaxing.

    I also was, roughly half-time, personal assistant to a disabled boy 10 years younger than me, but with immense knowledge about languages (spoke three languages fluently), knew all worth to know about buildings (his dad was an architect), art, thoroughly knowledgeable about our history, and naturally literature. He had read almost all the classics, and almost all in their original language, not least French and English authors, even the really heavy ones.

    We had discussions about anything and everything (I had better knowledge about technology, like cameras), from the smallest to the biggest issues, he was an expert at linguistics and writing letters to authorities and societies asking for this or that (he always got what he wanted, sometimes from several societies at once) and we became good friends, traveled through US and Canada, and France, at times staying with old friends of mine.

    He knew he was frail and had a weak voice, so getting a Master in French didn’t lead to any jobs, and that hurt him a lot. A New Year’s Eve he sat discussing various subjects with a new friend at a very noisy party, exhausting him totally and leading to a number of issues, including pneumonia, He was 23 then and a year later he was gone. He was 16 when the doctors told him they didn’t know how long he time he had left.

    After that tragic chain of events, the security jobs became mindnumbing boring, and I switched to something completely different.
    The new job was intensive all day long, handling people, customers, traffic, bosses, and irate bikers. Then it was lovely to not meet anyone in the time off and just relax. The cameras, and paddling (even in the Hybridies), became the new offtime occupation, and the cameras still are, but no job no more. Great!

  7. Hello Ming, for the last few days I have been contemplating whether it would be fun to build Legos again (I really don’t know where this thought originated from). This morning, I am visiting your blog again – et voilà! What’s it with photographers and Lego? 😉

    • I think it’s probably more to do with some latent suppressed creativity or something…which I imagine could manifest in many possible forms, Lego being one of them…

      • That might very well be true. I have to say that I do share your views on “corporate” jobs…happy building!

  8. Yeah Lego! I had shared the fun of Lego with my boys when they were growing up. A little over 3+ years ago I had cancer. Once home from hospital after surgery and during a 3+ month recovery time, my older son sent me a large box of Lego sets (from the City series). HOOKED! I’ve been buying and building Lego sets (mostly architecture), just for fun and to creatively pass the time (in addition to my photography time). Now 67 I find Lego just as fun to build now as I did 30+ years ago.

  9. A OT comment in a OT thread: I remember some time ago that you made a post about the Hario coffee dripper, but could not find it again. Do you have the link?

  10. Hi Ming
    Sorry for your back troubles. Your thoughts struck a chord with me. My whole life I worked in finance. It started as means to earn living, but became interesting in itself. All the developments and disruptions in the industry meant, that the job always kept evolving. Maybe humans have something in their heads, that helps to see things which have to be as interesting? I still read about new developments, but not having influence and impact on things, I re-discovered the hobby of old – photography. The hobby connected with another old love of me; mountaneering. Daughter being grown up, my wife and me are free to follow our inklings. It is funny, she uses her iPhone and me, you know what I use… 🙂
    At first, I found, that learning the technical side and trying to get better was (and still is) enough to find inspiration, but more and more I find that looking at images of other photographers gave birth to the question what is one’s own style – is it monumental photography (came by chance as a result of trying to acquire technical skills needed to do a good stitch), is it minimalistic photography (came up as a result of sitting somewhere and just looking at something), is it something what has not yet arrived … ?
    So for a retiree it is hardly possible to profit from a combination of work and hobby and let both thrive on that combination. At least at the moment I think, that a hobby open new dimensions, lead to new activities and in such way enhance itself. Let us see, where it is going.
    Take care, Robert

    • I think at the very least it is having the faculties to ask that question in the first place (“what is my style?”) as well as the determination to pursue it 🙂

      • Will think about it building not LEGO but wooden boat models.

        • I’ve seen some amazing boats in various museums – the techniques required to bend the mini-planks to build those can’t be that different from a real boat…

          • I keep returning to Greenwich every now and then. But mine are smaller and easier ones.
            Btw: A stitch of a mountain with Hassy is something! (But the weight… I have doubled my times of ascents)

            • On the plus side, you don’t need so many files to start with, so the stitching is easier (and less likely to have errors from moving foliage etc…I remember this no-so-fondly when I was trying to do the Forest series with the D810.)

              • Oh, I remember those images very well. Had a look once again. It feels like standing in the real forest and just being there! Beautiful is not the right word, Maybe immersing?
                One of these days, I shall try myself 🙂

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