Why You Should Take Up Something Old

You know what’s fun? Things I used to enjoy. It sounds strange, and it doesn’t come naturally to me, but let me explain:

Most of my interests follow a certain cycle. Perhaps you’ll recognize it. The usual form is discovery => obsession => fading => moving on, and the pattern seems to be as natural and uncontrollable as the tides.

I’ve noticed that when an interest begins to fade I often experience a particularly intense feeling, one I struggle to name. It’s as if the disillusionment with that one interest spills over into everything else. Instead of mourning the end of a single passion, I temporarily can’t believe there’s anything else of interest left in the universe.

I know how over-dramatic that sounds. After all, we’re talking about a passing feeling. It rarely lasts long, and it’s often embarrassingly easy to get rid of. Most recently, I shook the feeling off by stumbling across the YouTube channel of a man whose hobby is unblocking street drains and filming the receding floods. If I’m that easy to entertain, then what am I even complaining about?!

But, as temporary as it is, this is always a difficult experience. I hate the feeling of an interest waning, going through the motions as I squeeze the last enjoyment out of an expiring passion. So, when I experienced this feeling recently, I did what I do best: destroyed it with the power of over-analysis.

Labeling old interests as “done”

After some reflection, I realized that I subconsciously label past interests as “finished”—as if everything is a Netflix season that it’s possible to binge:

“Oh, I’ve completed knitting now.”

“There’s nothing left for me in history.”

“Dancing? Binged the whole thing in a week or two.”

Sounds absurd, right? But whenever I’m casting around for some novelty, I clearly believe this—because I mentally disregard everything I’ve ever done. So, how about this for a new idea: take up something old.

Whenever I bother to re-examine an interest I was once completely sick of, I find a hidden well of enthusiasm lurking beneath the surface.

Take physics, for example. I spent four years studying it—and nothing else—at university. By the end of year four I was done. The thought of another partial differential equation or model of the early universe made me feel a little queasy. I shelved it entirely and didn’t look back.

But, as the years went by, my depleted enthusiasm gradually regrew. I started to occasionally check in with the latest discoveries. I subscribed to a newsletter or two. And, lately, I’ve taken an active interest, visiting forums and websites to seek out news and discussion. After being completely emotionally finished with physics, I’m engaging with it in a new way. 

And I’m discovering that there’s a lot of joy to be found in re-exploring old interests.

Familiarity breeds…delight?

Sometimes we leave an interest behind because we desperately need change. But change can work both ways. Coming back to an interest is also a change, and it can be equally refreshing.

Even better, returning to an old interest has the potential to be much more pleasant than starting something new. It feels overwhelmingly comfortable to jump back in, like putting on comfy clothes after wearing a tight suit.

One reason that constantly starting anew is exhausting is because it puts us back at the bottom of the learning curve. But returning to an interest means we’ve already covered that difficult initial distance. Of course there’s always going to be a little rustiness, but muscle memory and lessons learned are still buried somewhere, and it feels fantastic to discover old skills aren’t lost forever.

In fact, returning to an interest can help us to hit higher notes than we did the first time around. Thanks to the passage of time, we’re inevitably a different person than when we put a passion aside. Perhaps we’re more mature, more skilled, or more patient. It’s impossible not to bring new perspectives and new abilities, and these can combine to get us over the humps that left us frustrated last time. 

For example, I picked up my guitar after a decade and was surprised that—far from being as terrible as I remember—I’m actually merely “bad.” The excitement of this realization fed my determination to improve, and it wasn’t long before chords I remembered as “impossible” became second nature. I can now (badly) play more chords than ever!

Don’t burn out, take time out

One model I use to understand waxing and waning interests is that we spend our passion when we repeatedly engage with something, and it replenishes itself when we do something else. This suggests that we can use the concept of returning to an old interest to our advantage, by actively planning to put something down and come back later, even when we’re deeply engaged with it.

It may be counterintuitive to put something down while we’re still enjoying it, but, left to my own devices, I’ll tend to binge something until I’m sick of it, like a dog left with an open bag of food. Instead, consciously scheduling a break can help me avoid burnout and disillusionment. 

But to make this possible, I have to avoid binary thinking, where I’m either “interested” in something, or I’m “not interested.” It’s more nuanced to acknowledge that my interests come and go, and that it’s fine—maybe even better—to take time away and return with renewed energy and a fresh perspective.

“There is nothing new under the sun.”

For some reason, this extremely famous quote from the Old Testament stuck in my head from a very early age and has been lodged there ever since. At first, I thought it was supposed to be depressing. The thought of running out of novelty is difficult for a newness addict like me.

But it also serves as a reminder that there doesn’t have to be anything new. If our past passions are recharging while we’re engaging with our current obsession(s), then there are many, many options for what to do next. There’s a whole list of old hobbies to which we can bring new skills and abilities!

I’d like to encourage you to reflect on the old passions, projects and dreams that you’ve left behind. Maybe there are even some interests from childhood which you could bring a new life to as an adult! 

Can you take up something old today?


[this article was originally written for Puttylike]

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.

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