Something amazing happened in American politics in 1992. A young man, nearly unknown on the national political scene, beat out the entire establishment to become president. One reason voters rallied behind the unproven Bill Clinton: he seemed cool. Commenting on candidate Clinton’s saxophone performance on The Arsenio Hall Show just before the election, comedian Dennis Miller made a brilliant observation: “I think the American people found it refreshing that we finally had a politician who could f#@*ing do something.”

Miller was joking. But he was onto something.

What do you think of when I say “politician?” Let me guess: someone older, probably a man, probably a lawyer, wearing a suit and tie, speaking a string of clichés most likely in a monotone voice. Am I close?

Most politicians don’t do anything besides politics. They make speeches. They campaign. They look the same, sound the same and walk the same. Before running for this office, they held that office. They’re one-dimensional. But not Bill Clinton. That guy plays the sax!

Most of us spend most of our time devoted largely to one pursuit—our career, our business, our art. And that’s great. But what about all of the interests we don’t pursue—adventurous hobbies, intellectual endeavors—because they have little or nothing to do with our primary focus in life? Would these pursuits distract us from our big goals? Or might they actually enhance them?

Bill Clinton made himself a gazillion times more interesting—and successful—than most politicians in part because showed us he had pursuits outside of politics, pursuits that gave him a fresh perspective, a different way to look at things from the typical political lifer. It worked for Clinton, and it can work for you.

Here are three huge benefits of adding new pursuits to your life.

1. Broadening your interests makes you more interesting.

Have you ever had the experience of working with someone for a while—say, a sales rep at your company—and then later learning about a whole new side to that person? A whole other life they’re living? It makes the person much more interesting, doesn’t it?

Maybe you find out your sales rep is a former state tennis champion, or that he writes songs or studies astronomy in his spare time. The details don’t matter. What matters is, you used to see the rep as a one-dimensional figure. But now he’s a full-fledged person, three-dimensional, interesting.

2. Broadening your interests can make you more successful.

For a while I worked as a writer (first full-time, then as a remote freelancer) for a wonderful software training company called lynda.com. This is one of the most successful startup businesses I’ve ever seen. And I can’t say for sure that hiring well-rounded talent had any direct effect on the company’s success (or even that they were aware they were doing it), but consider these facts about lynda.com when I was working there:

  • One of the co-founders was also a Hollywood animator, author and teacher. She wasn’t just an entrepreneur.
  • Their CFO held a PhD in Astrophysics. Oh, and she was also the CTO!
  • One of the company’s product managers was a highly accomplished marine biologist.
  • The president was a former professional musician.

And the company’s head of design was also an underwater photographer who traveled the world on diving expeditions, taking photos of real shipwrecks on the ocean floor.

These guys were living the well-rounded-life philosophy. When I was there, just about every employee was able to draw on some unique perspective, some rich experience that I’m sure made them more effective at their jobs than if they did nothing but work and watch TV.

3. Broadening your interests also gives you new insights, new ideas—and opens you up to new opportunities

A good friend of mine, Ben Cardinale, has enjoyed a successful career writing television in Hollywood. He wrote for Family Ties, The Single Guy, Champs and other shows, and he was a story editor on the critics’ favorite Brooklyn Bridge. He’s also sold scripts to DreamWorks and other elite Hollywood players. Ben has succeeded in Hollywood because he’s a damn great writer. His humor and observations relating to family and relationships are spot-on perfect. But why? What’s Ben’s secret?

It should be obvious by now: Ben isn’t only a writer.

Before Hollywood, Ben had a successful accounting practice, specializing in general contractors. Then Ben began to sense that the construction businesses he represented were doing the “real” work, while he was just accounting for it. So he jumped out from behind his desk and started his own construction firm. That’s two—count ‘em, two— careers under his belt before Ben became a writer. That’s a three-dimensional guy.

Today’s typical wannabe screenwriter most likely graduated from an Ivy League school, where he probably wrote a satire column for the school’s paper, and it was probably pretty funny. He almost certainly hung out in an isolated little clique of other smart, over-achieving writers. All his friends had the same take on life. All had the same experiences and made the same observations. Then they all headed to Hollywood or New York to become writers.

That’s why so many sitcoms look and sound the same. These writers aren’t out there living life; they’re mastering the technique of sitcom writing.

Meanwhile, my friend Ben spent the first part of his professional life working the other side of his brain, crunching numbers as an accountant, gaining all sorts of different experiences from those of the typical would-be writer. After that, Ben built houses. The guy built freakin’ houses!

In other words, Ben lived life. And those experiences meant that when he came to Hollywood, Ben brought with him an authentic eye and ear for human nature. Most writers bring only smug sarcasm and a master’s degree in joke-telling mechanics.

Leonardo da Vinci might be the greatest artist in history. But he was also a great mathematician, who studied human faces obsessively—cataloging the distances between mouth and nose, eyes and chin. He was also a botanist. A geologist. An engineer. Think any of those intellectual pursuits gave him a fresh artistic perspective that helped make his paintings more beautiful and profound?

Leonardo da Vinci, Ben Cardinale and my former colleagues at lynda.com all found that the more pursuits they added to their lives, the richer they were able to make each pursuit—and the richer life itself became.

I’ll sum up my advice with a quote from the great columnist (and singer… and radio talk-show host…) Mark Steyn. He’s speaking here to journalists, authors and bloggers, but his sentiment could be applied to any endeavor:

“Don’t just write there. Do something!”

Featured photo credit: Dynamic Movement, Free Runners, Waterloo Bridge/Andrew Moreton via flickr.com

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