Boredom, BJ Penn, and Bertrand Russell: The Power of Fruitful Monotony

Philosophers should fight and fighters should read philosophy. If not, 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, like to believe that "The Prodigy" could have gone down as the best ever — possibly in all 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.

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.

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 it. Journalist and author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman, said this in a talk:

You do not have to feel like doing something to do it. Such a liberating insight. All those motivational messages ... it seems like they will help you get things done but they actually erect this additional barrier. They say now, not only do you have to do the challenging-important thing, but you got to feel like doing it as well. And I think that’s a lot bigger and unnecessary demand.

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 for more motivation.

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 unproductive perception of boredom. With losses, 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. 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:

The talks Greg and I have together, he tells me, ‘BJ, if you’re going to go out there and do something that no one else has done before and win these three belts you’re going to have to put in [the work]. You’re going to be sitting in the apartment bored, looking at the ceiling and you’re going to have to go through all these things, go through all these emotions.

It’s starting to happen already. I’m getting further into camp, and I’m starting to see the monotony and repetitiveness take place. That’s why I stepped out of the sport before. All that stuff, it all plays, and all those mental mind games. It’s all how you handle it. Being tough mentally. At the end of the day, it’s a mental game, and you’re only as good as you think you are.

As much natural ability BJ Penn had, he had a mental weakness: endurance. This has not just shown itself physically during his matches, by him tiring very early, but also in his inability to maintain his training. He was on-and-off with fighting, staying in shape, and his martial arts practice. 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 put the trash collector or a teacher on a poster.

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:

The capacity to endure a more or less monotonous life is one which should be acquired in childhood. Modern parents are greatly to blame in this respect; they provide their children with far too many passive amusements, such as shows and good things to eat, and they do not realise the importance to a child of having one day like another, except, of course, for somewhat rare occasions.

The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness. Pleasures which are exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example, as the theatre, should occur very rarely. The excitement is in the nature of a drug, of which more and more will come to be required, and the physical passivity during the excitement is contrary to instinct. A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.

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.

Russell writes:

I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony. ... A boy or young man who has some serious constructive purpose will endure voluntarily a great deal of boredom if he finds that it is necessary by the way. But constructive purposes do not easily form themselves in a boy’s mind if he is living a life of distractions and dissipations, for in that case his thoughts will always be directed towards the next pleasure rather than towards the distant achievement.

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. If not, a fragile society awaits. Imagine what little 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 — mundanity is a mundane conception — 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. It 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.

Russell writes:

For all these reasons a generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.

More important than motivation is control. You rush and it can lead to mania. We want to be possessed by some external force so it can happen automatically. Endurance takes time, it requires control, and you must remain an active participant in your own development. That is the beauty.

Summary

Like BJ Penn, we all have unlived potential. Starting today, how much of it could we reclaim 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. 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 one little thing, stop thinking of boredom as a negative because it's not. 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 can become if we can endure. You, at your full capacity — a scary thought indeed.

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