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"The greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain." Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage

While I loathe to use the word "epic," the pairing of Bob Barker and Chuck Norris - two American icons - is nothing less. The legendary talk show host enlisted the celebrated martial artist to give him karate lessons. Barker earned a black belt - and became the oldest person to star in a weekday television hit and is enjoying a 60+ year career. Good genes, good luck, or the power of a hobby?

In our fiercely competitive, globalized business world, the biggest personal advantage isn't better, faster, sleeker, shinier technology. It isn't big data, or even a big budget. It's a creative and engaged mind. Interests, passions, pursuits - they're a veritable strategic imperative. But lest we miss the point, they should also be fun.

Hobbies: Good for You - Good for Business

Hobbies aren't about killing time. They're about maximizing it, taking full advantage of your free time and leveraging the benefits in other aspects of your life, including - especially - work. If you're wondering what knitting has to do with nailing it in the boardroom or what kiteboarding has to do with handling a tough negotiation, here it is.


That time you spend in the garden, reading, kickboxing, or painting gets the creative juices flowing. Researchers from San Francisco State University found that people who were engaged in hobbies were more likely to think of creative solutions at work.

According to lead author Kevin Eschleman, "[T]he more you engage in creative activities, the better you'll do." Dr. Gabriela Cora, managing partner of the Florida Neuroscience Center, concurs, saying, "Making time for enjoyable activities stimulates parts of the brain associated with creative and positive thinking. You become emotionally and intellectually more motivated."


Dr. Eschleman's team found that the benefits of hobbies extend beyond the person engaging in them. Folks who pursue outside interests were more likely to go out of their way to help colleagues. With the increasing emphasis on teams and the pressing need for effective collaboration, this is a powerful incentive to take up a hobby and encourage your people to do the same.


Ever become so entranced with your hobby that time ceases to exist? (If not, find a passion and pursue it, stat.) This is called a flow state, and it restores energy and mental clarity. According to Carol Kauffman, assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School, there are strong correlations between flow and peak performance. You are able to stay focused and motivated because your brain's kicking up levels of neurotransmitters, like endorphins, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

The San Francisco researchers corroborate the link between hobbies and performance: they studied US Air Force captains, asking about their hobbies. Those who engaged in creative activities (the definition of which ranges from writing to photography to video games) scored 15 to 30 percent higher on performance rankings than those who did not.

Cognitive Skills

As a leader, you're confronted with new - and challenging - situations every day. Hobbies can help you develop the mental agility you need to cope with adversity and conquer opportunities. Psychotherapist and author Gail McMeekin says, "Any time you take a break from routine, you develop new ways of thinking." This can lead to innovative insights and ideas.

Dr. Saj-nicole Joni says, "Passionate hobbies fuel curiosity, fresh and generous thinking, and the ability to look at questions from more than one perspective." Think that might come in handy at work?


Stress: the arch enemy of the business leader! Fortunately, hobbies can help you beat it. According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, people were 34 percent less stressed and 18 percent less sad during the time they spent engaging in their hobbies. They felt happier, and their heart rates were slower. What's more, the benefits lasted for hours after.

Dr. Matthew Zawadzki says, "If we start thinking about that beneficial carryover effect day after day, year after year, it starts to make sense how leisure can help improve health in the long run."


Doing something you like activates the nucleus accumbens, the area of the brain that controls how you feel about life. Dr. S. Ausim Aziz, chairman of the neurology department at Temple University's School of Medicine, adds that pleasure activities also stimulates the septal zone - the "feel good" part of the brain.

Research also shows that people who are happy tend to work harder and more productively. But...happiness is a perfectly acceptable reason in itself to pursue a hobby!

Your company depends on you - and on your positive and engaged brain. Hobbies help you develop and leverage your skills, strengths, and talents to achieve enhanced results. And yes, they're fun too.


Larry Hart

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