Ever since quarantine began, I've taken to doing something you might call "hobby-swapping." I'll get obsessed with some niche activity, pouring all of my free time into it for weeks—only to get bored, pivot to something else, and wind up chasing after it just as rabidly and obsessively as whatever hobby came before it.
It all started with antique lighters: A few months ago, I bought an old Zippo from a wooden shack on the side of the road. I wanted to find out when it was made, and after a little digging, I learned that every Zippo has a "date code" on the bottom of it. The font of the logo, the patent number, and a series of tiny, almost undetectable dots and dashes etched into the metal tell you exactly when it was manufactured, once you decipher them. My Zippo—which has a tractor and the words CODELL CONSTRUCTION CO., WINCHESTER, KY, inscribed on its face—was made in 1957. It was a weirdly thrilling discovery: I couldn’t believe that after all these years, a lighter nearly three times as old as I am still worked.
I started buying as many old lighters as I could find—from antique shops, flea markets, eBay—and in researching how to date them, I discovered a whole world of people out there dedicated to collecting them. I learned to fix lighters that hadn't been used in half a century; I learned that mint-condition Zippos from the 1930s sold for up to $10,000; I learned how to date vintage lighters on sight and calculate their value in my head within a few seconds of picking them up. My fascination with lighters turned into a full-blown obsession. By day, I pored over eBay listings looking for rare ones and bidding on them; at night, I thought about them constantly, to the point where it kept me awake. It was, honestly, kind of concerning—and then one day, after a few weeks had passed, my fascination with antique lighters just… disappeared.
It was replaced by an obsession with video games, for reasons I still don't understand. I hadn't owned an Xbox since I was 13 years old, and now suddenly I was consumed by the need to buy one. They were sold out across the country, so I scoured Craigslist for a used one, to no avail. I drove to four different GameStops in a single day, hoping they might have one—no luck there, either. Eventually, I managed to find one online and had it shipped to my house. For about two weeks, playing it was all I wanted to do and all I could think about. And then, just as it had with antique lighters, my infatuation with video games faded.
I've since become obsessed with late-1980s Mercedes convertibles, and I'm going deeper and deeper into that rabbit hole every day. I won't bore you with the details—by now, you get the point. For some reason, I can't stop hobby-swapping, and I don't know why. At best, it brings me some amount of fleeting joy; at worst, it threatens to decimate my bank account, piss off my girlfriend, and make it impossible for me to focus on things that actually matter.
To unpack what the hell is going on inside my brain, I called up Dr. Robert Stebbins, a sociologist who's spent about 50 years studying hobbies and the psychology behind what he calls "serious leisure." He speculated that my issue might have something to do with the pandemic.
"Maybe this is the influence of the virus. In a sense, it opens up a lot of time for hobbies," Stebbins told me. "Being bored is not a hobby. It's not even leisure. In fact, we want to escape it. So you're escaping it, at least in part, by hobby-swapping."
It turns out I'm not the only one with this problem. In an old Ars Technica forum, someone described doing exactly what I've been doing—only instead of lighters, video games, and old cars, their obsessions moved from cooking, to poker, to playing guitar. The forum is littered with comments from dozens of people who say they do the same thing.
I told Stebbins I was worried I might be destined to keep hobby-swapping forever, but in his experience, that's highly uncommon. Sooner or later, he said, at least one of these hobbies is going to stick.
"It seems to me that you're searching for something you could sink your teeth into long-term," he said. "All amateur and hobbyist activities that constitute serious leisure, when pushed, become fulfilling. And in fulfillment, we realize who we really are. We have found something that we can do, that we like to do, and that we do particularly well. It becomes an identity. Most of the people I know get into a hobby—and they may have tried others before—and then they stay with it. Because it's fulfilling."
To attain that kind of fulfillment, Stebbins said, you have to push past dabbling in an activity, and actually commit to it. Take antique lighters as an example: It's not enough to simply buy a dozen of them. It's only after you repair a few—after you spend days working to excavate a corroded, 50-year-old piece of metal from a flint tube, fill the thing with lighter fluid, and finally get it working again—that you feel fulfilled. Experiences like that, Stebbins said, are what bond you to a hobby. If you don't push yourself to have them, no activity you try out will ever last.
"You need to find a way to move forward in a hobby you're currently in," Stebbins said. "Failing to find that way forward suggests you may have to put this on the back burner, if not out the back door, and try something else."
I've been obsessed with late-80s Mercedes for about a month now, and so far, I haven't gotten tired of them. I've spent hours on websites dedicated to the cars; I've made a 21-point checklist for each one I inspect; I've test-driven five of them, and I'm looking at another one this week. Maybe this whole Mercedes thing is going to last—maybe I'll finally buy one and fall in love with it, putting an end to my incessant hobby-swapping once and for all.
Or who knows: Maybe I'm about to get deeply, embarrassingly into flying fancy kites, or riding a unicycle, or learning to speak Klingon. Maybe hobby-swapping… is my hobby.
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