On the Enjoyment Paradox II: The Thousand Mile Journey from Boring to Great

journey to the top

Life is an infinite game, and every time you take a step, you get to play longer.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

[This is part II of the Enjoyment Paradox; you can read part I here.]

Boring to Great

We want to believe boring people can't be great, but more often than not, it's these very people who run the world. (Politics is at its best when it is boring. When it's exciting, we're that much closer to the brink of destruction.)

What is a nerd? Someone who can engage in a repetitive activity until they become an expert. Then anyone can become a nerd: a sports nerd, a martial arts nerd, a fitness nerd—anyone who consistently practices becomes a nerd. And tediousness pays off. Most American presidents have a closet full of the same suits. Mark Zuckerberg still toils away writing code in the same hoodie, and Steve Jobs was famous for wearing a black turtleneck with jeans.

Author Cal Newport writes:

[W]e like to cast innovators as outsiders who leverage their freedom from tradition-bound institutions to change the world.

In reality, innovation almost always requires long periods of quite traditional training.

Einstein was brilliant and original, but until he finished a full graduate education, he didn’t know enough physics to advance it.

The same story can be told of many other innovators.

Take Steve Jobs: the Apple II was lucky timing; Jobs didn’t become a great CEO until after spending decades struggling to master the world of business. Once his skills were honed, however, he returned to Apple and his brilliance had an outlet.

We want to believe Zuckerberg is a maverick, but he put in a lot of traditional hours. We fancy him a college dropout, but let's not forget he got into Harvard, which is where he started Facebook. He only dropped out when school got in the way of his main practice, coding. How is it that someone can spend hours coding and always have fun? They can't. However, they can like it. They don't like the lack of fun; they like the challenge. They're technicians, not pleasure-seekers. Thinking they do it because it's fun makes us feel better but insults their commitment.

Even in weight loss, the objective reality of losing weight and keeping it off does not make for must-see TV. It's an accumulation of unsexy lifestyle changes. But that's not what we want to hear; we want to hear about a secret, a magic pill, something that'll blow our minds. But boring works. Like any addiction treatment program, go through the steps, sit through them. It's not about the end result as there is no end result, there is no cure, so long as you live you are always processing. You want to skip the steps because they aren't always stimulating. But that's the point, you are overstimulated, and you need to get over that.

infinite game

Life is an infinite game, and every time you take a step, you get to play longer. There is no end until you die—you in a coffin is the grand finale. So why skip the steps of living? Why do you want to get the end of everything you start so quickly? We are a society obsessed with end results, not realizing both end and result mean it's over.

The same goes for prizefighting; it's a lot of unenjoyable work that leads to one moment of excitement—the knockout. You go through all the right fundamentals, and your opponent will fall down. You chase a knockout, and you will lose. Some fighters might say fighting is "fun," but the vast majority will say they fight because they're good at it, or that fighting is who they are. And even the ones who say fighting is fun, they don't say the fun is in hurting people—it's in the expression of what they've practiced. It works! That's how gratification works—it's seeing something you've worked hard for come to fruition. Training for combat is like any other self-change program, you go through the steps, and you sit through them. You skip the steps, and you skip training. You skip the steps, you get hurt. Training is the point. Training is hard to make life easy. Like any other ritual propriety, the truth is in the practice (in the tradition). Skip the boring parts, and you skip everything. Then you are never expressing yourself. You're like a fly, a biological robot, trying to fulfill your genetically set mission as quickly as possible. (Make more flies.) Having completed it in a few days, you die.

In my martial arts journey, I have never been in a rush to get the next belt. I recently heard a person say they were sick of being a white belt. I feel the opposite. I don't want my journey to end. My favorite moments were as a white belt. That's how it works; the best parts aren't at the end, the best parts are while you're still having them.

Your current belt is the culmination of all your past training. It symbolizes the miles you've put on it. But the time you've put on the mats is only half the story. Your belt doesn't say what else you've been through other than training—what you sacrificed, what you silently dealt with—the other half of your story.

People see a belt rank and think only about the physical—that it was only hard physically. They think a belt is only about your skill and effort, your accomplishments. It's those things too, but it's also about all the things you had to overcome to improve those skills. The effort was mental. All the same struggles that keep others from signing up, that has others quit, that has others say "I really want to" but never do—you went through them and more. Training continuously meant continuously enduring all of life's ups and downs. And you kept going. You sat through it. Your mind found peace in the tedious repetition of practice. It meant something to you. Part of an unbroken chain of tradition, done in this exact way by generations of people before you. In your practice, you inherit their tradition.

Traditional Innovations

Every innovation is built on the shoulders of tradition. You can't pull up the ladder behind you without going up the ladder first. That means school, that means practice, that means repetition, that means teachers, that means all the boring parts in the middle. Steve Jobs started Apple in 1976, but it wasn't until 2007 that the iPhone was released. What did Steve Jobs do for 31 years? He struggled. What did he do before Apple? He struggled. He struggled and did the slow and unenviable task of getting better. Lots of people left Apple, lots of people quit what they like doing. Were there things Jobs liked better than computers? Things he found more enjoyable? According to people close to him, yes. (Mindfulness meditation was one.) But he wasn't as persistent with them because they weren't as challenging, weren't as frustrating, they didn't need innovation, and they didn't need Steve jobs—which made them less meaningful to him. Jobs was curious of the potential of computing. He saw how it needed to be innovated and he was attracted by that difficulty. (Through working with computers, Jobs found his mindful meditation.) The innovations of Apple has become the new tradition; Jobs set down a new ladder for others to follow. 

The Thousand Mile Journey

You don't always want to keep going. It's human to make sure this is what you really want. It's also human to make a decision only to regret it later. There have been times I wanted to quit jiu-jitsu (my main martial art), times I didn't love it anymore. Much like a marriage, the feelings you have never remain static. You look for an exit. While I was a purple belt I realized good jiu-jitsu is not just about techniques and conditioning; it's also about resilience. Feelings come and go; things come to pass. But training was never about feelings—the point is the training. Like marriage, love changes, but you stay for the meaning.

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu writes:

Stillness is easy to maintain.
Trouble is easily overcome before it starts.
The brittle is easy to shatter.
The small is easy to scatter.
Do the difficult things while they are easy.
Do the great things while they are small.

A tree as wide as a man’s embrace grows from a tiny shoot.
A tower of nine stories begins with a pile of dirt.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

People usually fail when they are on the verge of success.
So give as much care to the end as to the beginning;
Then there will be no failure.

I have read that the martial arts is about yielding to something greater, to its past and to its unknown. The martial arts is not done changing me. You're never a finished product. You're always in the process of becoming. If black belt is the end product, then even a black belt is never a black belt because he or she is never done. You're always far from the end, but you're just as far from the beginning. Always becoming, yet always a bit better than you were yesterday. Don't look at how far you need to go, pay attention to how far you've come.

Acclaimed writer Kurt Vonnegut told a high school student struggling with his writing:

Practice becoming. Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on.

The hero's journey is a journey of a thousand miles. The hero is not the final outcome but the experience of having been through it. It begins with a single step and doesn't end so long as you stay on the road. Thus, the hero is the journey, which makes the journey available for any who choose to take it.

What You Add In

There's an old Zen saying, the only Zen at the top of the mountain is the Zen you brought with you. Zen only exists within you; it's the way you relate to things. No joy, fun, or excitement intrinsically exists in any activity; it lives in you, you bring that to the activity.

You rarely hear, "Oh man, I went to this nightclub, and it was so much fun! But at the same time, so meaningful." The two concepts can work together, but the fun in meaningful work is what you can carry with you to the top of the mountain, and sometimes that's a lot of work.

We treat external pleasure derived from products as the natural order of things, but we are always surprised when we see animals play and have fun—deriving pleasure internally. We know it's something that occurs in nature, but it's alien to our adult behaviors. It's natural to play, we just forgot how to play. We think it's supposed to come to us when it's the other way around. Enthusiasm isn't in the thing we do, it's the thing we add in. It comes from the participant not from the activity. (Winning coaches regularly pick enthusiastic players over the naturally gifted and disinterested. You can teach skill but you can't force enthusiasm. It's up to the individual.)

We marvel at the enthusiasm of children because we adults have come to believe enthusiasm is something you purchase. However, enthusiasm can't be purchased; what we're really buying is motivation. Rather than nurturing our internal enthusiasm, we purchase external motivation. It's why we can hire a trainer or use a reward to motivate us. A trainer, however, can't give us enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is an internal muscle; it can be grown but not bought. Motivation can neither be grown or touched; we can only be influenced by it.

For children, new experiences are fun. The fun is in the newness. But when it is no longer new is the time to put in the work. Maintaining curiosity (a beginner's mind) is serious business, and makes serious business enjoyable. The older we get, we lose interest in our world. Curiosity requires you to keep seeking. But like a positive feedback loop, if you continue to seek, the more curious you'll be. The more curious you are, the more you'll seek. You'll find what interests you.

Enjoyment does not work by itself; it is always meaning that silently drives progress. But meaning is not glamorous; it does not exist to excite others. You derive your own meaning. What you find meaningful is up to you. Meaning is what you receive, but it's also what you put in. If you volunteer with the elderly, thinking of your grandparents is the meaning you put in. But those who receive your help will give you meaning in return.

It's hard to know why things stop being fun. There is an infinite number of reasons. Sometimes they become fun again, but we'll never know unless we keep doing them. Fun is a fickle friend, but meaning is a loyal companion.

We think that if an activity were more fun, we'd work harder at it. But meaningful enjoyment comes from the hard work we put in. (Unfortunately, activities that are considered the most fun, only serve us and provides little for others.) Those who work with the sick and poor don't do it because it's fun, they do it because it's meaningful. That's why they keep doing it. People don't kill themselves because their life wasn't fun enough, but they will if it feels meaningless. So let me ask you, what's more important?

If my years in the martial arts were just about cool moves, fun, and kicking someone's ass, it would feel like a big waste of time. For me to commit such a large chunk of my life, it has to be bigger than that. It has to make me a better person.

A belt has become an external motivation. An incentive. That's why some folks buy their ranks. But that's meaningless. (Literally.) The person makes the belt. You make the belt. There are black belts, and then there are black belts. Who you are and the way you live your life is what defines your belt and not the other way around. Whatever the color, a belt is piece of fabric. It has no intrinsic value. You're the one who gives it value. You're the one who gives it meaning. You add meaning to your belt every day. Your teacher just gives you an opportunity to make martial arts a meaningful part of your life. How you use that opportunity is up to you.

A Life Worth Living

There are days in which we must get up before dawn, when we're dead tired, to come to the aid of a loved one. That's a testament to our character. Have you ever been in a spot where the only person who was available to help you was a friend with flawed character? And you hoped it would be like the movies and he would surprise you, but usually, in these situations, he lets you down? But why are we surprised? He acted within his character. But how many times have we let ourselves down? Times when we needed to get our act together: clean the room, stop procrastinating, stop hitting the snooze, stop canceling, stop chickening out, stop being a jerk, apologize when we should—and we didn't. Those times too, we acted within our character.

Imagine what life would be like if everyone, including you, lacked character. You would constantly be suffering. What if the whole world only did those things that were easy and convenient. Who would finish school? Who would work? Who would innovate? Fortunately, there will always be those who work extra hard. They are the ones we all rely on. They keep the world going.

We want to believe it's easy to be great: that we can be shallow and great, undisciplined and great, ineffective and great. We want to believe this, not because it's true, but because it's convenient. But if this were reality, we'd all be heroes.

Perfection isn't attainable, but consistency is. We need more than enjoyment. There are friends I started martial arts with—many of whom found more initial joy than I did. They were better than me, yet they stopped in their youth whereas I kept going. It stopped being fun for them, and that is the difference: I don't require martial arts to be fun, it only needs to be valuable. (Saving your money isn't fun either, but it's valuable. You should start and keep doing it.) I consider fun to be a gift. (My friends have regret over quitting and still talk about doing it again. But always talk.)

My practice can't be described by words like enjoyment, fun, or pleasure—I just do it. The answer is in my practice. And it's only known to me and those others who stuck with it. When it's been a long time since I've seen one of them, we don't ask each other how we've been doing, we ask "How's training?" That's what matters to us. The meaning exists within our brother and sisterhood, and practice is what keeps it growing.

We may not always like the activity, but we can like what it asks of us—we can like the experience. Even when all else is lacking, we can still do it if we found it to be worthwhile. Doing what you like isn't enough. You need a number of reasons to stick with something, not just one—not just for your singular pleasure. When it helps others, we stick with it. When others are counting on us, we persevere. As social creatures, the support of others gives us power.

Challenge Is the Point of Living

Why is the starting line crowded when the finish line is not? Because the inertia we're given to start is not the same as the muscles we use to finish. These muscles aren't given freely; we must earn them.

Weight lifting tears muscles, you might not like the feeling, but you like how you grow from it. Growth is never comfortable, and if it were, it would be the status quo. Building a tolerance to boredom, building enthusiasm, building resilience, building curiosity—growth is a choice like building muscle is a choice.

Once an undefeated wrestler and team captain in high school, Neil deGrasse Tyson went on to wrestle at Harvard

Once an undefeated wrestler and team captain in high school, Neil deGrasse Tyson went on to wrestle at Harvard

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was once an undefeated high school wrestler and team captain. Tyson went on to wrestle at Harvard University (as Theodore Roosevelt did before him). When Tyson was asked why he chose to wrestle instead of a more popular and less challenging sport, he said:

When I think of the frontier of astrophysics, the challenges, we do it not because it’s easy but because it’s hard. You don’t wrestle because it’s easy, you wrestle because it’s hard. I don’t do astrophysics because it’s easy, I do it because it’s hard. And I juxtapose the two in my mind, body, and soul, all the time.

It's always fun to start, but it's not always fun to finish. Wrestling like astrophysics is hard, but it's why folks like Neil deGrasse Tyson do them. They do them for the very reason other men and women avoid them. Wrestlers call this "embracing the grind," a particular mindset that leaves an impact on others. And that's what grooming feels like—the more days in the grind, the more polished the piece of iron.

Wrestling, like any martial art, is a form of personal development. (Perhaps the oldest.) A martial artist used to be a person people could turn to, a pillar of strength, a trusted advisor, a protector of the village, a provider of kindness. This should still be the chief aim.

On Sept. 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech about why we were going to the moon:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Though there is the risk of failure, the love of challenge is about coming out the other side better than we were. It elevates us all. Those are the things we stick to. The ability to endure experience is character, yet those defining moments are the most rewarding. The things that give us the most meaning, not the most pleasure, have the most staying power. When we have a meaningful reason to stick with something, enjoyment enhances the experience. And if we fail, we take it in stride.

Within endurance lives freedom. Why do we start businesses when most businesses are likely to fail? Why do we run marathons? Why do we push ourselves? Why do we endure?

It's not self-preservation. It's not the pleasure principle. We do it to assert our will. Challenge is how we derive our freedom—that we determine our destinies, that we have power over ourselves. That's what matters to us. To a living being, freedom is everything. We all have the ability to endure. That is where we'll find our freedom.

The people who used to will never understand the people who always do. What Joseph Campbell called the hero, research scientist Carol Dweck calls the growth mindset. Myths were forms of cultural transmission, to encourage the listeners to pursue growth, and to understand that challenge is a necessary feature of growth. Dweck refers to the inverse of the growth mindset as the fixed mindset. In the fixed mind there is no growth, you're either born this way, or you're not. You're either chosen at birth, or you're not. (Dangerous dualism.) The growth mindset craves challenge; it wants to grow. A fixed mindset shrinks from challenge. Rather than facing its fears, the fixed mindset distracts itself. It seeks results while avoiding the journey. And without the hero's journey, discipline and courage die. The growth mindset, however, teaches itself to enjoy the process; results come as a matter of course. Train consistently, focus on getting better every day, be resilient, and the rest will take care of itself.

Challenge is what unites us. Without challenge, we'd all be doing this on our own. If everything were easy, we'd all be selfish narcissists. As selfish narcissists, we'd kill each other and ourselves. We come together to overcome. To use the martial arts as an analogy for life, you never get anywhere by yourself. There are always people helping you along the way. Half the blood and sweat on your belt doesn't belong to you, it belongs to others. Set high goals, but also embrace gratitude. No one improves in a vacuum. The most powerful aspect of the martial arts is community, and community is the most powerful thing in life.

[To read part I of the Enjoyment Paradox, click here.]

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