The 2-Minute Thought: Pursuing Outside Interests

In a 2017 editorial, David Epstein and Malcolm Gladwell noted that most scientists have about the same number of hobbies as the general public, but that scientists inducted into national academies tend to have more – and Nobel Prize winners still more.  Nobel laureates are at least 22 times more likely than others to have serious hobbies unrelated to their work.  

So, could pursuing outside interests be good for your main line of work?

The co-authors here do no more than muse whimsically on this idea as they introduce a research study on the effect of taking medical students from the University of Pennsylvania to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for art training.  Yes, art training – seemingly wholly unrelated to medicine.  And yet, the study found that after six 90-minute sessions on how to look at art, the medical students made noticeable improvements in their observation and diagnosis skills as physicians. 

It’s risky to draw any conclusions here, since the study -- though randomized and controlled -- involved only 36 medical students.   But the study certainly incites reflection.

The idea behind the study was that observation and description are critical skills for doctors, but that doctors seldom get formal training in these areas and that learning to look at art could improve those skills.  That seems believable. 

Beyond that is the idea that doing something very different in a different environment has benefits.  And what fascinates Epstein and Gladwell is the idea that when you have many interests, you build “networks of enterprises” that help you approach difficult problems.  Creativity grows.

The two authors quote neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal on those with manifold interests outside of work:  “To him who observes them from afar, it appears as though they are scattering and dissipating their energies, while in reality they are challenging and strengthening them.”

Tim Harford, the “undercover economist” at the Financial Times, who first drew my attention to the Philadelphia Art Museum study, also finds it tempting to believe that taking breaks, doing something different, and working on varied projects simultaneously is beneficial.   He brings up David Bowie, who in the build-up to his trilogy of Berlin-based albums, collaborated with John Lennon, starred in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth, drafted his autobiography, and lived in Geneva, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. 

You may be inclined to write off David Bowie as a one-off wonder, but Harford also cites work by Bernice Eiduson, who found that the most successful scientists work on several problems at once -- and of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who found that slow switching among projects was good for creativity. 

The takeaway is simple: Taking a break from your normal job could be good for you.  Pursuing interests outside of work may actually help your work.

As a final note, remember that the very best investors always have made it a point to read widely across disciplines.  On legendary investor Bill Miller’s summer reading list are titles like, Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are, The Art of the Wasted Day, and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.   You can see his team’s complete list here (https://millervalue.com/2018-summer-reading/).

Please Note: The 2-Minute Thought is going bi-weekly, so the next edition will be September 20.  Less quantity, hopefully more quality, definitely less email clutter.