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This is just a report of a personal reaction to this post, but I have to say that it kind of makes me sad. The reason being that authentic engagement with various constructive projects (I think it's called "flow" in the psych. literature) is partly constitutive of a good life, and authentic engagement is pretty much impossible when you are monitoring your hobby-related activities in this fashion.

Of course, we all monitor ourselves to some degree, but it's sad that you have been forced, by the profession, to take this dim view of what can be a joyous and life-affirming project. This is not an argument, more of a reaction.

A final thought is that some of us are constitutionally unable to simply be academics... we work a lot better and smarter when we have a fair amount of non-academic down-time. So, there may not be any one-size-fits-all advice here: you need to learn whether you are the sort of person for whom a particular hobby is a distraction or a rejuvination.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Joe: Thank you for your honest reaction.

I agree with you that it is kind of sad. But here's my counter-reaction.

First, if life in general--not just my own life, but the lives of others I know--has taught me anything, it is that a whole lot of adult life (for better or worse) can require putting aside enjoyable things for responsibility, including (importantly) responsibilities that give one's life great meaning. Marriage requires responsibility. So does having children. There are a lot of fun things one can do prior to marriage or having children that it is very hard to do after. That's life. Many people long for youth, because they long for a time of more freedom and less responsibility. BUT, and this is a big point, more responsibility can also involve more meaning. My life now admittedly contains less joy than it did when I was making music. I *love* creating music. And yet, my life as a whole during that time was kind of disaster, and lacked meaning. Today, my life is a whole lot of hard work--but it is also much more meaningful to me. I truly love the research that I do. Writing my book was the most challenging thing I've ever done, and--whatever anyone else thinks of the end-product--it was a deeply meaningful process of struggle and discovery for me, one that my wife and I shared the joys and disappointments of together (in a way that is deeply meaningful to me, and I will always look back at with fondness).

Second, if life has also taught me anything, it is that, for at least some of us--and again, for better or worse--one must devote oneself to a single thing to be any good at it, in a way that one can be proud of. It would be wonderful if we lived forever and could pursue every one of our dreams. But, in this finite life, we must make choices. When I mixed music and philosophy, I was not good enough at either--in line with the common saying, "Jack of all trades, master of none." I found that I had to make a choice. This is not a choice that was merely forced on my by the profession. It was forced upon me by my own values, and human imperfections. Just like some people decide they want to devote themselves to being a great baseball player, or a great musician, and commit themselves to it 100%, I decided--after mucking around too much trying to balance music and philosophy--that I wanted to give philosophy my all. There are, again, costs to be sure--and you may be right that some people are constitutionally unable to work well without downtime/hobbies. But, it is the choice I made--and part of why I wrote this post is to see how others choose, and whether there is any viable way to balance wholehearted commitment in one craft with side-interests. I have never been able to pull it off, at least not without the side-interest turning into a distraction. Maybe other people are less distractable than I. :) But again, I've seen too many people fall prey to the distraction problem--to their own detriment (which is also why I wrote the post).

In any case, may I ask, how do you balance work and hobbies?


Hi Marcus,

I can't say I disagree with anything you say. As someone who does not yet have a permanent position, I can't really report on whether any of my hobbies has had the sort of seriously detrimental effect that you cite. But it definitely seems to me that I get more done in virtue of having some other projects, and that this is partly due to my *not* reflecting too hard on their value or their potential interference with academic work.

It also sounds like we are agreeing that the correct approach here will depend rather radically on what kind of person one is. I suppose I just wanted to highlight, for others, a potential cost. As academics, we are used to thinking that problems get solved by reflection. Sometimes this is true, but reflection can also make things worse. A person can be so constituted as to work best when they simply do two or three different things, as opposed to trying to consciously or reflectively work out a balance.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Joe: Sounds like we pretty much agree. :]

Helen De Cruz

Hi Marcus - Like you, I find hobbies an important element of being a well-rounded person and I find it regrettable that there is increasing pressure on academics (I wrote some while ago that Tolkien would not be possible in Oxford today, given how academics are under pressure to provide outputs for the REF). I have several hobbies I try to make time for. I am a reasonably good player of the Renaissance lute and am a fair singer (mezzo), I also draw and paint (mainly on the iPad) and hope to make time for drawing on actual paper as well (see my tumblr for iPad drawings http://helendec.tumblr.com/). Recently, I've bought a ukelele and I'm now at the beginner-intermediary stage of this. Sometimes I fold origami models but unfortunately, I am too sloppy with my folds to advance meaningfully in origami.

As a child and teenager I wrote fiction and poetry and won a couple of times third or second prize in a youth prize for poetry in Belgium. I gave up creative writing while in college, but I am hoping to get into fiction again, my hope is to write a philosophy graphic novel. I'm organising a workshop on how to write creative fiction for philosophers (call for participation will be published this fall) and a prize for best philosophical short story (call will be published this summer), so in this way I can link professional and personal interests.

Like you, I was on the job market on a long time and I neglected a lot of my hobbies. But over the past couple of years, I've been trying to cultivate them. Since I have some unhealthy bad work habits, I really consciously have to make time for these hobbies (close my computer, pick up lute and lute books, for example), so for the moment it does not seem that they turn into distractions. One reason I can have these hobbies is that I have a lot of past experience to build on: I was a professional (broke etc) artist before getting into grad school at 25 (maybe it would be good to blog about that experience on the Cocoon one day!) and so I have many hours of drawing and painting under my belt. Similarly, when I took up the lute at age 15, I played several hours a day well into college and it seems that playing a musical instrument is a skill you retain even if you neglect it for several years, so that helps too.

Strangely, drawing and painting is different. I stopped when I had my first child and started grad school (age 25) and only started again a few years ago. I found my skills had atrophied so much I was wasting expensive paper and materials, such a disheartening experience. But the iPad provided an easy and low-threshold way back into drawing, so that has been a good experience.

Sam Duncan

There's actually a pretty serious philosophical question here about whether hobbies are merely a source of fun or whether they can be meaningful in the same way that we suppose an academic career is. I'll put that aside for the moment since I don't have a long time to write a post, though I'd like to come back to it.
But one other issue I wanted to highlight is that I think picking up a new hobby that one is an absolute beginner at can be pretty useful for one's development as a teacher. My wife works in the arts and because of her I've recently taken some classes in woodworking and drawing, neither of which I had much experience in before (well beyond a lot of high school art classes I forgot). What was interesting about both were that those classes gave me some insight into how my students who struggle with philosophy feel and it also gave me some perspective on good and bad teaching (my woodworking instructor was great, as was one of my drawing teachers though the other was absolutely atrocious). Seeing what they did right with a beginner like me as well as what the one drawing instructor did wrong was pretty helpful in thinking about ways to improve my own teaching.

Derek Bowman

Adapting Sam Duncan: There's actually a pretty serious philosophical question here about whether careers are merely a source of income or whether they can be genuine contributions to a meaningful life.


I am finding it difficult to charitably interpret this post. Regarding your own career choices, why is pursuing philosophy somehow better than pursuing music? Is making music somehow less objectively valuable than teaching or writing or thinking about philosophy?

On the career choices of your colleagues: Why isn't philosophy just another hobby, a hobby that a vast minority are paid to perform? Maybe those “distractions” were necessary for their mental health, or provided a significant source of meaning to their life? Are you arguing that “mere distractions” do not provide meaning in life, but “philosophy” does?

I'm sorry if this is a misinterpretation, but the message this post seems to send is: If you want to be a real, good philosopher, having a significant, time-consuming passion outside of philosophy is a determent to your goal of becoming a real professional philosopher; and the more time it takes out of your daily life, the worse it is for your goal of becoming a true philosopher.

It just seems super elitist and judgment to me, sorry if you did not mean it that way.

Trevor Hedberg

How much a hobby becomes a distraction from one's professional pursuits probably varies to some extent on what kind of hobby it is. I was a varsity tennis player during my undergraduate days and took some time away from the game during the first few years of my graduate studies. When I got back to playing tennis regularly, it didn't constitute much of a distraction. In large part, this is because you can't play high-level tennis for more than a couple hours before you become exhausted (unless perhaps you're a professional athlete), and your body will rebel if you try to play every single day of the week. So that's a pretty easy hobby to manage.

A different example of the same phenomenon might be my hobby of watching professional tennis and professional basketball. While there are lots of tournaments and games to watch, these are isolated events that last for a relatively short amount of time. To use a more concrete illustration, during the current NBA season, I have watched many Golden State Warriors games, but a single game only lasts between 2 and 3 hours (except in the rare cases of multiple overtime sessions), and the games are spread out over 7-8 months (depending on how far a team advances in the playoffs). So there's not much danger in this hobby becoming an unhealthy obsession.

Not all my hobbies are like this, though: some of them can be indulged for indefinite periods of time. The most obvious example that comes to mind here is playing video games: there is no set end-point for when you have to stop playing them. (Even once you complete a game, you always have the option of playing through it again or simply shifting your focus to a different game.) Thus, time spent indulging this hobby has to be monitored a little more carefully than others because there's no guarantee that I'll be motivated to stop playing after a couple hours.

My suspicion is that Marcus's music hobby became a distraction in part because it can be done more-or-less indefinitely and was thus more prone to absorb a lot of his time than certain other hobbies. But I certainly don't think this is a reason to put distraction-prone hobbies on "lockdown": at times, a good distraction is precisely what's needed to refresh your mind and allow you to return to your work with renewed vigor. Rather, I take the lesson to be that our hobbies, like many things in life, are best done in moderation.

Marcus Arvan

Hi patrick: The post is not motivated by any sense of elitism or judgmentalism. It is motivated by the serious harm I have seen hobbies-turned-serious-distractions cause--not only in my own life, but in the lives of other graduate students I've known. I almost failed out of graduate school because of a hobby-turned-distraction, and then spent the next near-decade of my life digging myself out of the hole I dug myself as a result of it. I spent seven horrible years on the job-market, while I saw more focused grad students get jobs much more quickly. I also knew more than a few grad students who never finished grad school at least in part because of hobbies-turned-distractions. That's where the post is coming from: not from elitism, but from life-experience. Finally--and importantly--I did *not* say that if you want to be a good philosopher, you cannot have a time-consuming passion outside of philosophy. On the contrary, I asked readers whether they have been able to pull off/balance both. What I did do was say that I have personally seen the dangers of time-consuming hobbies-turned-distractions, and so the point of the post was to draw attention to these dangers, so that people can make careful, informed choices. Like I said, my own hobby started innocently enough. I enjoyed music, and found it a nice outlet. At first. But then it morphed into a distraction that almost caused me to fail out of grad school and spend almost a decade on the academic job-market. and again, I have seen hobbies-turned-distractions have far worse effects on others (who never finished their degree, turned to alcoholism, etc.). So, that's where this post comes from. It is an attempt to help people make careful choices, avoiding the kind of bad outcomes I suffered, and worse outcomes I've seen others suffer. I don't see how there is anything elitist or judgmental about this--particularly when I made a point of asking readers whether they have found a better way.

To answer your specific questions:

1. "Why is pursuing philosophy somehow better than pursuing music?" Answer: it's not intrinsically better. I love them both. Indeed, music and philosophy are the only two things I love to do. If I could make a living at music, I would. But, I found music not to be viable as a career. I tried a career in music for over a decade (I played in bands, released 4+ albums on different record labels, etc.), could not make a living at it, and just about everyone I know who has tried to make a living in the music industry has not been able to do so.

2. Is making music somehow less objectively valuable than teaching or writing or thinking about philosophy?" Answer: not at all. I derive great joy and meaning from music, and miss it dearly. And I do hope to return to it someday. But I could not make a living at it, and found that I could not make a living at philosophy--something I also love--without setting it aside.

3. "Why isn't philosophy just another hobby, a hobby that a vast minority are paid to perform?" Answer: it may well be! Music is something that many people love to do that only a small minority of people can make a living at. Philosophy is also something many people love to do that only a small minority can make a living at. In all of these respects, they are probably on a par (though I would add that I think, as hard as it is to make a living in philosophy, it is even harder in music). My point wasn't that philosophy is an occupation and music a mere hobby. My point was what I found it impossible to balance a career in philosophy with music as a side-hobby--and that I have seen other people seriously set back their careers in philosophy with hobbies that got them nowhere.

4. "Maybe those "distractions" were necessary for their mental health, or provided a significant source of meaning to their life?" Answer: both points here are well taken. I took up music as a hobby in grad school for both of these reasons. I struggled seriously with mental wellbeing and a sleep disorder in grad school, and music gave me an outlet that I found meaningful. That being said, here are several things that are definitely not good for mental wellbeing: worrying about (and almost actually) failing out of grad school after 8 years with great debt, and spending a near decade on the academic job-market. Both of these things happened to me, and I have seen worse for friends of mine whose hobbies-turned-distractions derailed their careers.. In contrast, the people I know who made it through grad school cleanly and quickly, and got permanent jobs relatively quickly, were those who did not fall prey to serious distractions.

5. "Are you arguing that "mere distractions" do not provide meaning in life, but "philosophy" does?" Answer: no, I never suggested or implied this. Playing music provided me with meaning and joy when I did it. It also caused me to dig a big hole for myself that took me over a decade to crawl out of, with a spouse that had to suffer with me all along the way. To repeat: I have nothing against hobbies, and do not deny that they can give life meaning. I am suggesting that they can be very dangerous, and lead to great suffering in the long run if they amount to such a distraction that they derail one's career--something I have seen happen and experienced to some real extent myself.

Marcus Arvan

Trevor: excellent points! The hobbies I have seen derail people are indeed the "indefinite" kinds you mention (one's where one can basically do the hobby for hours/days on end in perpetuity). I think you are absolutely right about moderation, yet following Aristotle, I think it is important to recognize how difficult moderation can be to achieve given our human frailties.

In my experience, perhaps the most common point for grad students to take up hobbies is when they are struggling. This is what I did. I was having a really tough time in grad school, and felt I needed an outlet. But--also in my experience--this is what can make moderation so difficult to maintain. If (A) one is having a difficult time, not enjoying philosophy very much, and (B) one takes up a hobby one enjoys very much, it is incredibly easy to find oneself doing more and more of the hobby (since it is so enjoyable) and less and less of philosophy (since one is having such a tough time with it). This is more or less the pattern that played out in my case, and which I saw others fall prey to as well. What starts out fairly innocent--a few hours a day playing music, brewing beer, or playing videogames--can slowly and increasingly crowd out philosophy. I say this as a person who has always been conscientious and never fell prey to distractions at any other time in my life. It happened to me despite the best of intentions--and so my hope is that, in discussing the topic, it can help others make more careful, well-informed decisions!

Marcus Arvan

Hi Sam: That's a very nice point. I think hobbies can influence one's development not just as a teacher, but also as s philosopher. At least s few of my philosophical ideas (on free will and morality), surprisingly enough, came from music (in quite bizarre and unexpected ways, actually!). This is why, I think, it is important to distinguish hobbies from distractions. Hobbies can make for s fuller, well-rounded life, and contribute to one not just as a person but as a philosopher and teacher. But hobbies can also go bad, lapsing into harmful distractions. The key, as Trevor notes, seems to be a good balance. But my point--and my experience--is that it is all too easy to run afoul of s good balance, snd that this is something to be very mindful about!

Marcus Arvan

Hi Derek: I'm curious if you could elaborate a bit on what you think the serious philosophical question there is. On at least one plausible disambiguatiom, it seems to me that as long as one is not a total nihilist, the answer to the question is "obviously yes, a career can be a genuine contribution to a meaningful life." For instance, if we ask, "can the things one does in one's career--e.g. teaching and writing philosophy (or playing music for a professional musician--contribute to a meaningful life?", then, nihilism aside, it is hard for me to see a serious question here. I derive a great deal of personal meaning from what I do: from making a difference in (at least some) students' lives, writing philosophy I find meaningful, and interacting with other philosophers in ways I find meaningful (including here at the Cocoon). I also think that if I won the lottery tomorrow, I would still teach, write, and try to publish--precisely because I find these things meaningful. Similarly, I know professional musicians who appear to derive great meaning from playing music, and for them making money from it is just a means to that end. This is in part why I think, despite the many problems there are with academia (including its increased commodification), it is still a kind of career worth fighting for: it *can* be a relatively meaningful career, compared to other possible careers (I worked in another industry before grad school, and did not find it meaningful at all). I know, from what you have posted here and elsewhere, that you have many problems with the status quo in academia--as do (I think) most of us. But its problems are just that: problems--things (I think) we should fight to fix.

Alternatively, are you perhaps meaning the question to be disambiguated another way--as it being a serious question whether a career *qua career* can constitute part of a meaningful life? I guess I'm more sympathetic with this being a serious question, as it does seem to me that commodification undermines the "purity" of the thing in question. Anyway, I'm just honestly curious how you're understanding the question!

Marcus Arvan

Hi Helen: it is good to hear that you've found your way back to some hobbies. Like I said, I hope to do the same in the future--hopefully, more beneficially than last time! That's really cool that you were an artist before grad school. I had no idea! :)

Derek Bowman


Yes, I guess I had in mind something like your second disambiguation. The point is precisely to emphasize the distinction between the parts of an academic career that are genuinely meaningful from those that are merely necessary to maintain it as a career. It's not that the latter may not be worth making sacrifices for - it's just that we need to make sure those sacrifices are worth it.

Derek Bowman

Actually, on further reflection, I think I may have been trying to get at something deeper.

What is the difference between a career and a hobby, beyond the question of whether or not one is paid to do it? I guess I don't think we should be too quick to sell "hobbies" short or too quick to elevate "careers," particularly since the very same activities can fall into either category.


Hi Marcus,

Thank you for the long clarification, it put your post in a much different light for me. After reading your post in the real job series I found a lot to relate to in terms of the sacrifices often required from a career in the profession, and I hope you find your ability to have a better work/life balance improves with time.

I'm now thinking, though, that for some of us in grad school (esp. past the funded years) who do not realistically expect to get a TT job in philosophy, philosophy itself might be the hobby-turned-distraction.

Walter Hannah

This post really resonated with me. I had the same problem with music in grad school. I found music to be an especially toxic hobby because it put me in bars with access to free alcohol. It also put me around heavy drug users who weren't very ambitious, and their attitude started rubbing off on me. I've recently gone back to music as a postdoc, mostly as a way to meet new people. However, I can already feel it pulling my attention away from my research. I think imposing limits is the only solution. For me, it's no more than 1 gig a month.

seeking virtue

Walter's remarks are most insightful. Many people seem to assume that there is something deviant about a career in philosophy if it requires you to shut yourself off from other interests. Walter astutely notes that an interest in music, for example, can have subtle devious effects on our behaviors. I have nothing against music, but we must realize that we make life choices, and all of them have repercussions. It may be an empirical fact that it is very hard to reconcile a serious interest in X with the sort of commitment required to have a successful and enjoyable career in philosophy, for example.

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