I sat at the pottery wheel, my thighs braced against its plastic tub and my hands cupping a ball of wet clay, as the wheel started turning faster and faster. I ran through a checklist of my teacher’s instructions: keep my elbows braced, press my pinkies down, push my thumbs into the rotating mound of clay hard enough to start eking out an opening but not so hard that the fragile walls rising slowly between my pointer finger and thumb would break. And for a minute, I was doing it all—the elbows, the pinkies, the thumbs—and I could feel the clay beneath my hands respond, forming under my will as if I were a god.
Then I pushed too hard and one side of my would-be bowl rose too high, which sent the whole lump off-balance, skipping across the wheel and spraying grey flecks of clay all over my leather sandals and feet.
It was my first time taking a pottery class. As it turns out, I am not a pottery savant. I’d need hundreds of hours of practice to turn out bowls as well-balanced as my instructor’s or the tall, artful vases I’d imagined impressing my friends with. But despite the fact that I am, at best, a mediocre potter and that I have a tendency towards perfectionism that usually makes me dislike activities I’m not good at, I was having an absolutely wonderful time.
Letting Go of Expectations
Pottery class is one of the new things I’ve tried this year. Others have included tango lessons, cooking, and rock climbing. I’ve danced with strangers, swallowed my indignation when they made disparaging comments about the smoothness (or lack thereof) of my pivot turn, and enjoyed the music anyway. I’ve tried a new recipe for homemade pretzels and eaten them happily, even when they turned out to be fleshy blobs of formless, colorless dough (I put far too much baking soda in as I boiled them, I now know). I’ve tried to summit the same 5.6 route (hello, Yosemite Decimal System) three times in a row and, when my forearms felt like they were ablaze, given up, rappelled down the wall, and put my all into belaying my partner, feeling just as proud of her eventual summit as I would’ve felt for my own.
I set out to try pottery (and tango and cooking and rock climbing) not because I explicitly wanted to have spaces where I could fail freely. I didn’t plan for any of those activities to become exercises in getting comfortable with having no expectations of success. But that’s exactly what ended up happening.
I was trying those new hobbies because I had free time for the first time in my adult life and I wanted to enjoy it. (One of the beautiful realities of working freelance is that you can take a 3 p.m. pottery class!) Yes, part of me was hoping I’d end up having some kind of hidden talent for sous vide cooking or that the pottery wheel would feel like an extension of myself, but really, I started those things to let myself play around. And when it turned out that I did not have a natural gift for any of them, I still enjoyed the pursuit of new skills and the freedom to explore them.
It was surprising to me, the perfectionist, that I like making pottery even though I am terrible at it. But do you know what was more surprising?
The realization that failing at pottery made me more comfortable with failure at work.
Let me walk you through that. I’m a full-time freelance writer and editor, and while I have a steady set of clients and projects, I still spend a lot of time pitching new ideas to potential clients and publications.
From the beginning, I’ve liked that process. There’s something I deeply enjoy about coming up with ideas, synthesizing them well, and figuring out the right kind of email to send to an editor or a content manager.
What wasn’t so fun? Not getting a response. I’d see Gmail’s automatic flags pop up in my inbox—Katherine, this email was sent five days ago. Follow up?—and feel a little flare of anxiety take root in my stomach.
I had an expectation that, because I’m a good writer with good ideas who had spent time crafting a good email, I’d get a response. When I didn’t, I was disappointed. I’d keep pitching, but with a little chip on my shoulder.
Watching my lump of clay fly off the wheel and thump onto the ground made me realize that things don’t have to go right to be worth it.
A bowl doesn’t have to be perfectly formed, perfectly painted, and perfectly fired for it to still be something I can put nuts in and be proud of. A pitch doesn’t have to end up in a new contract for it to still have been a successful exercise. Every idea I hone and send out is a chance to get better at crafting and selling my ideas, which are vital skills for any freelancer, but particularly for one who lives by the written word.
I now enjoy pitching even more than I did before because I’ve been able to let go of my expectations. I don’t need each email to result in a $5,000 contract or a big byline in order for that email to have been worth the effort; just having written it makes me better at my job, which is a worthy pursuit in and of itself. It’s the process of learning and growing that makes each new part of my freelancing career—and my budding pottery hobby—so fun.
And the irony of it all? I’m pitching more than ever and my career is as strong as it’s ever been.
The Value of Hobbies
I’m not the first person to have figured out that having creative hobbies brings peace and even productivity to our working lives. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology showed that creative activities can both help people recover from the stresses of work, by helping them to relax and giving them opportunities to exert control, for example, and make them more productive on the job, since creativity at work leads to greater efficiency and innovation. Hobbies can also help with better physical well-being, according to a 2009 study that found that people who engaged in enjoyable leisure activities—even if they were low-impact, like knitting or playing the piano—had lower blood pressure, body mass index, and cortisol levels.
And while just-for-fun hobbies can actually make us more productive and healthier, a recent piece in The New York Times warns against seeing hobbies as worthwhile only insofar as they bring us value: “Framing hobbies this way compounds the original problem: We’ve professionalized and productized our respites from the working world.”
Not everything needs to be a side hustle, and not every hobby needs to make us more marketable. Set out to try something new with no expectations attached. Let go of your perfectionist instincts to find the joy and the worthwhileness of experimentation. Maybe it’ll turn out for you, like it did for me, that the freedom to fail outside of work makes you more willing to take risks at work. But even if your hobby doesn’t have an effect on your professional life, it’s still valuable.
You won’t find my bowls on Etsy anytime soon. (Or, let’s be honest, ever.) I make them just for me. I make them for the pleasure of feeling the clay respond to the pressure of my hand, of picking a glaze and painting it carefully, of pulling them out of the kiln and knowing that this final product is something that I dreamed and worked into existence. And that’s beautiful, even if the bowls aren’t.