Jack of all trades

Over the last decade and a half, I've spent a lot of time trying out different hobbies. I've gotten pretty good at many of them, but never excellent at any. Now that I've left university, I've decided that I should explore a bit less and focus a bit more, both because I'll have less free time while working, and because you get more out of things when you're very good at them and are very involved in a community around them. But how to choose the optimal combination of hobbies? This is something I think people don't plan well enough, especially for their children. So many girls end up spending a huge amount of time on ballet or gymnastics or figure skating - perhaps the three sports which it's most difficult to continue past childhood, since they're so hard on your body and so youth-focused. And the vast majority of kids who learn instruments - even those who really enjoy playing - end up dropping them a few years down the line. It's true that there is value in experimenting with new things, but I don't want to be an eternal dilettante. Let's see if, from my current position, I can do a bit better in finding things I'll want to do for a long time.

At least one should be a cardio-intensive sport, for the sake of my health. Some people enjoy running, but I find it very difficult to motivate myself to do endurance sports - I just don't get any "runner's high" or particular feeling of achievement. Also, I think I have more fast-twitch muscles than slow-twitch ones - I can exercise at high intensity for a long time, but only if I have frequent breaks. This also rules out cycling, swimming and rowing. There are other outdoorsy sports like hiking, scuba diving and kayaking which aren't such slogs, but unfortunately I don't enjoy nature enough to commit to those.

Team sports are still a good workout while also providing an automatic social environment. Some, like basketball and volleyball, favour tall people too much for my taste. Fortunately, that's less true of sports like rugby, football and field hockey. The former is a bit too physical for me, and the latter not particularly common, but I think it'd be fun to join a casual football team, ideally along with some coworkers. (Actually, for the last few years I've played irregularly for the Oxford Vietnamese Society football team, which I enjoyed a lot). I don't want football to be my main sport though, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it's too dependent on having an organisational structure - I can imagine changing jobs or cities and not finding a new team to play with. Secondly, I'm quite individualistic at heart, and am more motivated when I'm the one responsible for winning or losing. And thirdly, it's just not as intense as other sports - you spend most of your time without the ball, and some of it on the bench. (To be fair, sports like cricket and baseball are much worse on this metric, to the point where I can't imagine myself actually playing them).

By contrast, when playing racquet sports you're engaged 100% of the time. This is one of the reasons I enjoy them so much - at various points I've played reasonable amounts of tennis, squash, badminton and table tennis. Tennis is obviously the most popular, but I never enjoyed it as much as the others because it's easier to hit the ball out, making the average rally significantly shorter (also true of table tennis). In squash and badminton, on the other hand, rallies can be much longer and very intense. I think I'd enjoy getting better at badminton, but it makes more sense to focus on squash, since I've played it for over a decade now. By default, this is the sport I spend most time on - but I do worry that after another decade or two of squash, I'd end up accumulating knee injuries from constantly sprinting around the court. So perhaps I should play it for a few years more, but phase it out as I get older.

The same is true for my two other favourite sports, ice hockey and skiing. They're both rather tough on the body, and I think it'd be frustrating to be getting worse at them every time I play, so I'll stop before I reach that point. Actually, if I didn't already love skiing, I probably wouldn't let myself do it, because I prefer to avoid sports which are expensive, dangerous, or require travel to special locations - ruling out many water sports, all variants of flying and riding, and most other "exotic" sports (I'd still like to try most of these once or twice, but not as regular hobbies). Speaking of danger, boxing is out for obvious reasons; while less dangerous martial arts require far too much time training, instead of doing the thing you're training to do. This is also true for juggling - keeping a pattern of balls in the air is really fun (and a prime example of being in a state of "flow"), but it's just way too much work to get beyond five. (This is one of the very few cases where the phrase "the difficulty increases exponentially" is mathematically accurate).

Fortunately, I've stumbled on a sport which ticks all the boxes: it's intense, but not hard on your body; individual, but still social; and available everywhere I plan to live. That sport is dancing. Two years ago, I joined the Oxford Dancesport Beginners team, mostly because I felt that it would make my life more aesthetic. I ended up really enjoying both dancing itself and the community around it, and decided to continue dancing outside the team - but of course it wasn't as simple as that. There are dozens of different dance styles - which ones to focus on? So far I've tried waltz, quickstep, tango, jive, rock and roll, swing, rumba, samba, cha-cha, salsa, and bachata. The first three require a statuesque elegance which I'm never going to possess. The next three are American Jazz dances, which tend to be lively and jumpy, and the last five are Latin dances, which tend to be slower and more sensual. In terms of social dancing, the main contenders are swing and salsa, which have regular social nights in most major cities. Personally, I prefer the latter - it's more technically interesting (with fast spins and intricate arm movements), more passionate, and is often played at dance parties which also feature bachata, a particularly romantic dance that's lovely to do with a partner.

Okay, so that's sports sorted. What about more cerebral pursuits? For the last decade I was a competitive debater (and, more recently, a debating coach), but that's very much a student-focused activity, and one which I'd gotten a little bored of besides. Over the same time period I'd also been exploring a variety of classic board games, trying to find one which I wanted to play seriously. I have quite pronounced tastes when it comes to games: I particularly like those with great strategic depth, but without complex or arbitrary rules. The former criterion rules out games like backgammon and checkers; the latter rules out Scrabble and most other modern board games. I also prefer games where the complexity comes from analysing the game itself, not the other players, unlike Diplomacy and poker. Out of the classic strategic games, I played chess at school and Chinese chess with my father. However, for both aesthetic and practical reasons I don't like games where draws are very common, or where it's necessary to memorise many opening sequences to do well. That meant I got bored of those two, and wanted to move on. In my first year at university, I learned shogi from a former US amateur champion, and found it pretty interesting: the fact that captured pieces can be dropped back on the board for the other player adds a whole new level of tactics compared with other forms of chess. The next year, though, I transferred to Oxford, and joined a Go club instead. I find Go to be the deepest and most elegant of all the games I've tried - the rules are amazingly simple, but I could study it for decades and still not grasp all the strategic nuances. So if there's any game which I'll play regularly in the long term, that'll be it. It remains to be seen whether I get bored after a decade or two, but for now, it's fortuitous that DeepMind is probably the one company (outside Asia) with the highest concentration of Go players.

Next, in the words of Abba, who could live without music? Back in school, I dabbled in the violin, french horn and flute (the last of which I still play occasionally), but my main instrument has always been piano. However, I think I went about learning the piano quite badly. I've always loved dramatic Romantic pieces, but they're hard to learn and even harder to play well. It would take regular practice just to maintain the half-dozen pieces I know so that I can play them semi-decently, but I find such practice boring. I'm also pretty bad at sight-reading, so learning new ones is quite an effort. If I want to keep playing piano in the long term, I think I'll need to change my approach to either improve greatly at sight-reading, or else focus on some form of improvisation - perhaps jazz. It would be so much fun to be able to sit down and make up a piece from scratch! I don't know if I'll have time to learn that over the next few years, but whenever I start phasing out the intense sports I mentioned above, this is the obvious replacement. There's also singing in a choir, which is low-effort and communal - it'd be worth signing up in a few years if I find one with cool people singing music I enjoy. But for now, music is on the back-burner (except for whistling, which by now is a deeply-ingrained habit).

Lastly, of course, there are my standard intellectual explorations, which of late have mainly been expressed via blogging - definitely the most rewarding hobby I've ever picked up. Coming up on a year of consistent blogging, I feel like I've made a lot of intellectual progress - and more importantly, that it's progress which I can build on. By contrast, during undergrad I had many fascinating conversations with clever people, but later forgot most of them, and ended up going in circles on many issues. Now, when I have such a conversation I usually manage to incorporate the key ideas into some blog post sooner or later. I still need to spend more time reading more books to pick up a wider range of ideas - but that's always true, because you can never read enough books. Actually, it's fitting to end with the one hobby that has most defined me, and which I still consider to be a core part of my identity. At heart, I'm still the little kid who'd go to the library and come back with a stack of books almost as tall as himself.


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