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Transform Your Hobbies Into New Opportunities

Adding to your skills can help you make money and friends

By Debbie Swanson

If being in a classroom brings back memories of snoozing in a lecture hall, think again. The world of learning has exploded, with online and in-person classes available for many recreational pursuits. Several hobbies have measured levels of skill and proficiency: the martial arts belt system, certifications in scuba diving, achieving a master level in a pursuit such as gardening, beekeeping or — if you live in Wisconsin — cheesemaking. Adding formal training to your hobbies is not only fun, but may create avenues for side income, enhance your volunteer potential or expand your social circle.

Credit: Adobe Stock

After retiring at 67 from his career managing textile and equipment manufacturing companies, Buddy May, of Greenville, S.C., delved into his interest in beekeeping. He became a Master Beekeeper with the South Carolina Beekeepers Association, as well as the only EAS (Eastern Apicultural Society) Certified Master Beekeeper in his home state. In 2017, May reached the Master Craftsman level, the highest level of the South Carolina program.

May’s farm produces honey, pollen and blueberries, and he’s active with a weekly farmers’ market.  But May is especially stung by the chance to meet people and share his knowledge.

“I lecture locally, and in other states,” says May, who has also taught classes at Furman University’s OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) program.  “It keeps my mind active, and learning more about the gracious insect.”

He’s also been published; May's buzzy research appeared in the American Bee Journal in 2017 and he has an article coming out in Bee Culture magazine.

Using Career Skills to Hone Hobbies

The knowledge and connections you gain from recreational pursuits can complement skills you’ve already honed, opening up new directions.  After taking an early retirement in 2006 from her career in health insurance, Katherine M. Kosiba, of Colchester, Conn., set her sights on becoming a certified Master Gardener.  She brought her gardening education, combined with the project management skills she’d fine-tuned during her career, to several community endeavors.

“These projects are very enriching, [and] have connected me to my community and the natural world around me,” Kosiba says. She has been active with several garden-related organizations, installing a local food bank garden and butterfly-pollinator garden, organizing educational activities and working as co-chair of a volunteer group to earn Colchester the distinction of being the first Community Wildlife Habitat in Connecticut through the National Wildlife Federation.

“It all began with the first step of taking the UConn Master Gardener Program.  It changed my life, and has positively impacted so many things as a result,” Kosiba says.

Back to (Non-Traditional) Class

Following an established program is one way to learn, but informal classes are another great way to ignite a hobby. After retiring from her career as an English teacher, Judith Schutzman of Harvard, Mass., began studying art — taking classes in watercolor, Asian brush painting, printmaking, sketching with pen and watercolor, pastel and more.

Six years later, she’s had her work on exhibit at a local hospital, and continues to seek learning opportunities.

“I’m currently a pastel artist making the switch to oils.  I love print making, especially relief prints and monotypes.  I paint with confidence and reverence in ink and water colors with Chinese brushes, honoring the traditional practices,” Schutzman says. “I can't resist a new medium.”

Schutzman has sought out different teachers and centers for learning, including the Worcester Art Museum, Falmouth Art Center and Concord Art Association. Depending on the topic, classes are available at university extension schools, community programs, museums or art and music centers.

Even restaurants and farms are responding to people’s quest to learn. Michelle Aronson, chef and teacher at Farmbelly, says retirees are frequent attendees at the farm-to-table cooking classes she offers in the Santa Barbara, Calif., area.


“Popular classes with this demographic are cheese-making and pickling and fermenting. I think that people are excited to learn how to master these forgotten skills,” Aronson says, adding that she also has students host cooking classes as ways to celebrate or gather with friends or family.

Home Schooling, Too

Don’t despair if you can’t find anything nearby or just prefer to go it alone. With today’s abundance of online forums, clubs and videos, it’s easy to take the helm and steer yourself from novice to expert.

Bob Bailey, of Fallon, Nev., embarked on a largely self-taught journey into beer brewing at 59.  “I did some online research and found a bunch of forums, including the American Homebrewers Association. I read everything I could find on the subject, ordered a basic equipment kit and a couple of canned ingredient kits online and brewed my first batch,” he says.

Bailey quickly became hooked. He eventually tried assorted recipes, experimented with specialty grains and hops,and finally formulated his own recipes. He recently added hard cider to his talents. “There are endless possibilities when it comes to different beers to brew,” Bailey says.

Ten years later, it’s been rewarding for Bailey, who has since added a tap to make it easier for friends to come for sampling. He enjoys sharing his brews and his knowledge, occasionally welcoming interested acquaintances to join him in a brewing session.

“It is also fulfilling to go onto the forums where I learned so much, and help those who are just starting,” he says.

Whether you’ve always admired a certain hobby or you’re eager to push your skills to a higher level, the availability of learning opportunities make it easy to amp up your knowledge for fun or gain.

Not Sure Where to Begin?

If you'd like some help starting out, here are five suggestions:

  • Search online for related associations, then contact members of the board and ask them to point you in the right direction.
  • Attend a relevant gathering, such as a trade show, a craft fair, or farmers’ market.
  • Browse a trade or hobby magazine; usually the back of the issue will list upcoming events or educational programs.
  • Local colleges or museums often have continuing education classes, and some offer financial breaks for older students.
  • Check online, such as through or And YouTube is an easy way to find instructional videos.
Debbie Swanson ( is a freelance writer living north of Boston. She often writes about pet care, senior living and family topics. Read More
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