Paul Goldsmith plays piano (Image: Mad Chapman)
Paul Goldsmith plays piano (Image: Mad Chapman)

OPINIONPoliticsApril 3, 2024

Every politician should have a hobby

Paul Goldsmith plays piano (Image: Mad Chapman)
Paul Goldsmith plays piano (Image: Mad Chapman)

After watching Paul Goldsmith play piano, Mad Chapman wants to see every politician’s random hobby.

When the minister for arts and culture sits down at the grand piano, he looks comfortable. He strokes the keys in that way only trained pianists do, and tries out a few chords while testing the pedals with his clean black All Birds. Satisfied, he begins playing from a Chopin book of mazurka compositions. It’s lively but not brass, and he plays it well, if a little stilted at first. As he plays, his head sways side to side and he mutters notes silently to himself. A few minutes later and the piece is finished. As with any recital, there is a pause after the final note, then he turns in his chair and stares out from the piano – to more silence.

Auckland commuters bustle past him on Queen Street, some talking loudly on their phones, others giving him a glance before striding on to their weekend. It’s 5.33pm on a Friday and Paul Goldsmith is playing piano to a crowd of six, 10 if you count the two people waiting for a bus nearby. The small group eventually claps, Goldsmith shrugs, bemused, and turns back to the keys to play again.

Scanning through the Auckland Arts Festival programme, I was not expecting to see a government minister’s name listed as a performer. And even after glancing at it, I assumed there was some sort of error, or that he would be doing some soft media “politician learns to play piano” gag. But no, Goldsmith is a trained concert pianist and his performance in the free event, while still a political move, was enjoyable in and of itself. And most importantly for Goldsmith, it served as a reminder to anyone present that he has a hobby and an interest beyond politics.

Goldsmith takes a bow to onlookers

There was a time when people believed that specialising was the key to success. Parents were told that their kids needed to choose their sport or musical instrument by age three and focus entirely on that for at least a decade. Malcolm Gladwell plucked the number 10,000 out of thin air and suddenly everyone was buying baby tennis rackets for their two-year-olds. Now, it’s widely accepted that actually generalisation and diversity of interests is a huge factor in specialised success. Young athletes are encouraged to play a number of sports so that their bodies don’t become too reliant on specific muscles in their main code. Writers are encouraged to paint, painters are encouraged to run, runners are encouraged to read. Essentially, a narrow focus and worldview isn’t particularly helpful, no matter your area of expertise.

And it’s particularly true for politicians. When your work is to make decisions that impact hundreds of thousands of people who you’ll never meet, it can be easy to slip into the “game” of decision-making and of only thinking about the world in the macro. And when everything is about semantics and getting that advantage over your opposition – while at the same time being most often about people’s livelihood – it becomes increasingly easy for regular people to disengage and view politicians as inhuman.

Just like there are hints as to whether someone is an only child, I believe I can reliably guess which adults never played a team sport as a kid, and which politicians don’t have hobbies. There are some skills that can only be learned in a non-work environment.

Many politicians already have interests, but in a way that feels calculated. An “interest” in the All Blacks during the World Cup, for example. Or an “interest” in Beyonce’s latest album. Some are very vocal about having no hobbies or interests whatsoever (David Seymour) and it shows. Because having a hobby or interest means you know how to have fun. And knowing how to have fun is, in my opinion, a requisite for a public representative (and no, finding “the cut and thrust of politics” fun doesn’t count at all).

What I want to see is politicians being open and unashamed of their random interests and hobbies. Goldsmith has almost too many, though to be clear he does not partake in the hobby of being Māori. He’s a tae kwon do black belt, a concert pianist and a novelist (which, given the pay, is basically a hobby). The beauty of the first two is there’s no talking involved and therefore no posturing or politicising. And they both require a commitment, enthusiasm and consistency to maintain. All positive traits, regardless of political perspective.

I’m not fussy about the hobby either. Stuart Nash was a gym guy, which I’m not sure was particularly helpful in his political career but was at least an interest. Golriz Ghahraman liked to knit. Also not helpful in her- OK I’ve just named two politicians who left in scandal but still! Having a hobby or interest beyond work is good, whether that hobby is quilt-making or binge-watching Love Island. It shows range in a person, and an ability to think about things beyond the weeds of their work.

Whatever it is, I want to know about it. Forget the obligatory photo ops, I want to see politicians diving deep on their side-hustles/hobbies. Not only will it be good for their mental health and work-life balance, it’ll remind voters they’re human and likely help them connect. So show me your ugly ceramics; post your run times for all to see; play a grand piano on Queen Street for half an hour while most people ignore you and then looked positively stoked at yourself at the end of it. I want to see it all.

Keep going!