Philosophers should fight and fighters should read philosophy. Otherwise, a fragile society awaits.
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
BJ "The Prodigy" Penn will go down as one of the best in mixed martial arts history. Some of us, however, would like to believe that "The Prodigy" could have gone down as the best ever—possibly in all of combat sports. Yet, the fans have come to know two BJ Penns: the motivated Penn, who is a two-division champion, and the unmotivated Penn, who loses or has draws with lesser-skilled fighters. There have also been the long time-offs taken during Penn's prime, to find his motivation. From the UFC film crew, his former teammates, to the president of the UFC, Dana White himself, have all witnessed Penn's lackluster training. He is a prodigy, and sometimes that means only wanting to do things that come easy, and not the hard things that feel like work.
The Human Condition of Inactivity
Though Penn is a natural fighter, he's human like the rest of us. And like the rest of us, he's susceptible to the same mental trappings. He's a product of the same messaging many of us grew up with in the 80s and 90s; that motivation is the answer to everything, and everything must be fun. (The media needs you to believe this so you feel a need and urgency to keep buying crap. If you were content, you would be a terrible consumer.)
We're told that whatever it is we want to accomplish, we should feel like doing it. And if we don't, we should somehow motivate ourselves to feel like otherwise. Journalist and author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking Oliver Burkeman said this in a talk:
If we take the typical advice for getting things done, it often makes things worse. Doing it and also feeling like doing it; it's a double-whammy of stress. Yes, it may work for some people but the effects are usually temporary. Motivation isn't the same thing as endurance, it's not meant to last. Which is the point of self-help, you must keep returning to consume more motivation because you can't generate the will yourself.
The Monotony of Being a Champion
For most of his professional career, BJ Penn was his own head coach. He had long avoided training with the best camps. After another losing streak followed by another brief retirement, Penn took time to reassess. Like many of his fans, Penn knew he never lived up to the fighter he could have become. Penn sought out Greg Jackson, whom many consider to be the best coach in mixed martial arts, and undeniably one of its best minds.
It was with Jackson when Penn recognized the stumbling block that had been plaguing his career—his misguided perception of boredom. With every loss, Penn made excuses: he accused fighters of cheating, he came up with conspiracy theories, he blamed the athletic commission. Yet, there was no secret conspiracy out there holding him back. (The fans and the UFC itself wanted him to win.) His saboteur was himself, and his weakness wasn't physical, it was mental. He could face extraordinary obstacles without fear; what he couldn't face, what he couldn't defeat were simple and ordinary daily challenges. Penn said this in an interview:
As much natural ability BJ Penn had, he had a mental weakness: endurance. This had not only shown itself physically during his matches, by him gassing out, but also in his inability to maintain his training. He was on-and-off with fighting, staying in shape, and his martial arts progress. Penn could not endure. That's the irony many of his fans could not understand; he could fight men twice his size, people that would make us cower, yet he could not overcome minor things like boredom and emotions. Things most of us overcome regularly. Sometimes, true mental strength is pedestrian. Many fighters fight not because it is a challenge to them, it's often the opposite, they get a "high" off of it. (It is the constant chase for that "high" that is dangerous and self-destructive.) Now, being able to do those things that aren't exciting and fun, that takes courage and grit. But in our society, we are not likely to admire the trash collector or the public high school teacher (but we should).
Bertrand Russell on Fruitful Monotony
This is a life lesson mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) discusses at some length in The Conquest of Happiness. In it, Russell writes:
A life lesson that many of us never learn, but for those that do, a world of accomplishments and happiness awaits. I know it sounds counterintuitive but embracing boredom is how you rob boredom of its powers. Fleeing from boredom only allows it to dominate you. Think for a second what you could achieve if boredom was never an issue? Russell calls the productive embracing of boredom "fruitful monotony." In the realm of martial arts, it's called discipline. It's how people launch companies, build Apple and Facebook, go through a training camp, get their PhDs, and how hard-working fighters defeat prodigies. It's the mistake young lovers make; they think love only means excitement, but love is also the fruitful and tender monotony of spending the rest of your life with another person who wants to do the same with you.
Physical toughness is not the same as mental toughness, though one should be fit in both arenas. Philosophy for the body and martial arts for the mind; philosophers should fight and fighters should read philosophy. Otherwise, a fragile society awaits.
Imagine what few accomplishments there would be if there was no fruitful monotony? Getting anything done would be a mystery. We would chalk anything worthwhile up to the gods. What would it say of us if we could not endure? What of self-reliance? Who would be our heroes? We'll blame our inabilities on others for not making the process to our liking. "I didn't get this done because you didn't make it fun enough"; "I didn't finish school because they made it too boring." Like a fickle child who was never taught the Way, but rather, taught that fickle is the way. So, I say to you, why does it have to be always fun? Why can't it sometimes be boring? Is it still not worthwhile?
Yet boredom makes some people angry. How can something as unsexy as boredom cause such controversy? It's not about the radicalism in the idea—boredom should be too boring to be controversial—but rather, it's the weakness in the receiver. That anything that could possibly change our lives, and actually work—not just a symbolic attempt—scares us. And that we, not anything or anyone else, might be the problem. This idea scared BJ Penn, one of the baddest dudes on the planet. It's why he surrounded himself with "yes-men" and avoided the coaches who would tell him the truth. Sometimes physical fighting is easier than sitting with yourself and examining the dark corners of your soul.
Most people don't have the discipline to be successful, not because it's overwhelming or too difficult, but because they will get bored in their pursuit. And they believe that is wrong. But in reality, it is their expectations that are wrong. Being bored is a natural byproduct of a singular pursuit.
More important than motivation is control. We want to be possessed by some external force so it can happen automatically. To be mindless rather than deliberate and mindful. You rush and it can lead to mania. Endurance takes time, it requires control, and you must remain an active participant in your own development. That is the beauty of fruitful monotony.
Like BJ Penn, we all have unrealized potential. Starting today, how much of it could we claim if we began to embrace fruitful monotony? We talk about motivation, the secret, laws of attraction, positive thinking, and how it has been invaluable for successful people of the past. This may be true, all those things may be helpful, but nothing comes close to matching the success-ratio of those who had the ability to embrace the grind. Nothing is more proven than those who put in the work over and over again. (Whether in MMA, academics, or in life.) Wishing will never, and I don't mean figuratively, I mean literally, will never match the power of doing. And all we have to do is commit to a minor perception change, from boredom as a negative to a form of peace. Negative things have negative consequences (studies have shown positive thinking has more adverse outcomes than boredom) and often boredom does the opposite—it makes us grow. We often try things we know won't work so we can say we tried. Perhaps that's the real root of our disdain for boredom, we fear our potential; who we could become if we endure. You, at your full capacity—a scary thought indeed.
Useful Companions to This Article:
- One of Bertrand Russell's most accessible works is The Conquest of Happiness, a primer on living a fruitful life
- I cannot recommend The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman enough. It's a breath of fresh air in the mania of self-help.
- NPR's Manoush Zomorodi investigates cutting-edge research as well as compelling (and often funny) real-life examples to demonstrate that boredom is actually a crucial tool for making our lives happier, more productive, and more creative in Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self
- What is the cost of our love for distraction and our hate of boredom? According to Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, it's costing us our freedom and autonomy. We become mindless slaves to distraction and ultimately give up our rulers.
- That's Only the Tip of the Iceberg: The Hidden Logic of Success
- Ender's Game and Nick Diaz: On the Realities of Fighting
- On the Enjoyment Paradox: Meaningful Work Is Not Always Fun
- On Discipline, Intelligence, and Stoicism: It's Tough to Be Smart, but Smart to Be Tough
- Beyond Hacking: Why Trying Harder Matters
- On Actions: The Art of Doing