On the Enjoyment Paradox: Meaningful Work Is Not Always Fun

(Nichiren in the Snow at Tsukahara on Sado Island | Utagawa Kuniyosh)

(Nichiren in the Snow at Tsukahara on Sado Island | Utagawa Kuniyosh)

Those with dogged perseverance can move mountains—even if given only a spoon to do it.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

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

I never think of consistency as an accomplishment—it doesn't deserve to be, but that's what it has become. Consistency is like standing in line with everyone you know, and you are asked by an unseen voice, "Whoever is the strongest among you, step forward." Then you look around, and you're out in the front—not because you stepped forward, but because everyone else stepped backward. Consistency is not about what you did, but what you didn't do. There are times where you actually have to step forward, like running into a burning house or running for office, but consistency is about sticking to things you were already doing, even while others drop out. In the past, this wouldn't have made you an outlier. An outlier isn't always an arbiter of change; sometimes an outlier stands his or her ground while others change for the worst.

I started martial arts at age six, and I haven't stopped. Why? When people quit all the time? I've often wondered, since there are many other things I've ended prematurely—things I've enjoyed more. But is enjoyment the best indicator of commitment?

We cycle through the same regrets: "I really enjoy the piano, I should play more;" "I really enjoy yoga, I should practice more;" "I really enjoy exercise when I do it." We are baffled by the correlation between things we enjoy and things we don't do, but maybe that's the rule, not the exception. Maybe if enjoyment is all you have, it's not enough. We wish it were, but the world we wish we lived in is not the same as the world we do live in. Enjoyment is nice when it's around, but it does not occupy the space of need and virtue. Things we need, when it's not around, we notice, and we seek it wherever we go.

Like many of you, I have a lot going on—valid reasons to skip the training hall (as you have valid reasons to skip whatever your main practice is). I don't always want to go, but I somehow end up showing up. Someone told me I must really love it. Love isn't the right word. I don't do it because I love it, I do it because it's meaningful. There's a lot of things we love that we stop doing. We don't stop doing meaningful things. It's a part of who we are. Is it fun to reveal a long-held secret? Is it comfortable to be authentic, especially if it goes against societal norms? Will we love society's judgment? What if our family disavows us? So why do we do it? Why must we reveal ourselves? Because it is meaningful. It's a part of who we are. We won't die over something that is fun, something we only enjoy, but even when meaning lacks pleasure, we are willing to die for it. That's how important it is to us. And if we forget, we might come to value the wrong things and eliminate meaning from our lives. Removing our reason to live.

The Journey Makes the Hero

(From TED Ed.)

(From TED Ed.)

American mythologist Joseph Campbell spent a career studying shared universal mythologies. What are stories trying to teach us? They begin with a journey:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

We emulate heroes, and in doing so, we challenge convention and create progress. The hero's journey is a template for a life worth living.

However, in the modern media, when a regular mortal rises to the rank of hero (whether as an inventor, super-athlete, or pioneer), we paint a portrait of them not as a mortal hero, but as a god. Gods don't need journeys, their greatness is intrinsic to who they are. It's not just the media, our short attention span is also to blame. You can't fit the realities of a person's journey into a headline. There's no sizzle in saying they worked hard at something until their ability could no longer be denied. That takes the mystery (and fun) out of it. It makes the person we idolize, another one of us. One of us who worked hard. Heroism no longer serves as a template for others to follow—it is now click-bait.

But greatness is the byproduct of a long and arduous journey. Even a prolific writer such as Mark Twain had to learn how to crawl, walk, and talk before becoming a decent writer. From there he had to pull himself out of the primordial ooze and learn to write well. But writing well is the bare minimum—the starting line. It would still be decades before Twain became the grey-haired and bushy-browed writer extraordinaire we now know. History only remembers what it believes to be the end product, but that's only part of the story. Within all of us are the multitudes—every version of us that preceded who we are now, and every version of us we've yet to become.

Giving up before We Start

We romanticize people who are good at what they do—that one day they woke up with a divine gift. But real life is much fairer than that; we can all be good at things—with practice. To stick to practice is not just a matter of motivation or keeping things fun, it's about being able to endure. Endurance is the opposite of motivation. Where motivation ends, endurance begins. Even when you hate doing something, endurance can overcome your hate. Why? Because the more you practice, the more you can endure. The more you can endure, the more meaningful your practice.

Mass consumerism will ask, "Why bother with meaning and doing when you can live vicariously? Isn't it easier to buy products to be like your heroes?" But the things we really need are often free. The barriers that hold us back are our own beliefs. Endurance is a character trait, and character traits have no paywall. Rather than seeking to bypass the discomforts of character, we must actively develop it. And character can only be developed through activities that require it. What is a frivolous life but a life without character—a life without meaning? We wouldn't say "it builds character" for an easy task. It wouldn't need it. There is no staying power without challenge. But those with dogged perseverance can move mountains—even if only given a spoon to do it.

The Boredom-Enjoyment Paradox

When something is challenging, we don't always enjoy it. But when it's not challenging, we say it's boring. And when it's boring, we stop. Boredom doesn't involve explanation—it's the symptom and the cause. "It's boring, so of course I stopped." We have become so indoctrinated in our revulsion to boredom, we stopped asking questions. We wrongly believe its immorality is self-evident. (We not only do this with ideas but also with people. That's indoctrination: if you start with people early enough, you don't need evidence to support your claims.) Our reasoning is circular: It's bad because it is. This is how it's always been.

But boredom is new; it didn't become a word until the late 1800s. And even after its invention, it was more of a novelty, for poetic use, literary magic to make a detail seem more interesting. Hyperbole. (Thank Charles Dickens for this as he was the first to popularize it. But that's part of what good writing is, to make nothing sound interesting. And to do that meant making us believe nothing was awful. Boring! Ew! Perhaps then, pure entertainment is the opposite of philosophy and science, as philosophy and science both value nothingness. This then explains why many find science and philosophy to be boring. However, this was not always the sentiment. In the past, people were willing to risk their lives for more access to scientific and philosophical knowledge.)

However, only after the invention of television did the boredom virus take off. But unlike a physical disease that starts in a third-world country, boredom was a first-world intellectual contagion. Also unlike a real virus, boredom is a placebo—it only exists if you think it exists. But with any radicalized dogma, once you buy into it, it's an uncomfortable journey to agnosticism.

The Evolution of Boredom

The modern view of boredom is this: Idle time is bad. We converted to a dogma where all time should be productive, and leisure a sin. Post-industrialization created the right fertile grounds for this interpretation to germinate. Guilt and shame did the rest.

But fun is an even newer concept than boredom—only coming into existence in the 1900s. Prior to then, fun meant fake, hoax, or taking advantage. (And I would argue it still means mostly that. The day-to-day tricks and harm are products of people having fun. They were just kidding.) But before fun and boredom, people just lived. Moment by moment. And whatever sensation perceived became a part of how we defined the moment. This is how it feels... to be alive.

But even deep into the post-boredom era, it was still unusual for boredom to mean anything substantive. "I can't do this because it's boring" was usually met with, "So what?" To this day, the world is split on boredom. Is it real or is it not? Is it a myth—is it like Bigfoot?

One might say, "I'm bored. It makes me want to scream. I'm telling you everything you need to know." While another might say, "You think you're telling me something, but you've actually told me nothing." It's similar to how people are adopting the term "whatever" to make a point that can't be made. "It's whatever." "How did you like the movie?" "It's whatever." "Oh, you stopped guitar lessons?" "Yeah, it was whatever." Two people can engage in a conversation and think they are communicating and understanding one another when nothing was actually communicated or understood. It's equivalent to me saying "I blah, blah, blah, and blah," followed by you saying, "Oh. Yeah. I get it." And when someone asks you what we talked about, what do you say? "Oh, nothing." Even in saying "nothing" you still don't really get—no, we really talked about nothing. You're not just saying that.

It's hard to pull away from our automatic beliefs, to see things as they are vs. not seeing things at all. Boredom is immaterial; it's not something you can touch, and it's not something someone else can feel or understand on your behalf. It only exists in your head. Your parents love you and care for you (I hope they do anyway). If you suffer, they suffer. That's empathy, and they are hardwired to empathize with you more than anyone else. But your boredom will not trigger their empathy. It's not one of the evolutionary instincts we're programmed to care about. If for instance, you couldn't mow the lawn, your parents would ask: Are you physically okay? Are you feeling well? Are you sick? Boredom is unseen, but unlike other unseen conditions like depression or loneliness, it's not something you can even describe. It's whatever. (In some countries, it's an urban legend. What is this mystical thing they have in first-world countries called boredom? The culmination of needs met and free time? Sounds like a utopia.)

As we grew more fragile and pleasure seeking, we needed a separate word for mild unpleasantness—to say mild unpleasantness was no joke. We fought to give the idea power until boredom became the primary reason to stop a pursuit. And any discomfort beyond mild became anxiety. This is the current state of our modern psyche.

Imagine an old nomadic tribe who rely on sheep as their lifeline losing their flock because the attendant watching got bored and abandoned his duties. Without their flock, this tribe will die. Does it sound implausible that anyone would cause such predicament due to an inability to deal with boredom? Let me put it another way: How many of our problems are due to our inability to sit with boredom? Let me be clearer: Where do you think you would be if you never had a problem with boredom? What classes could you have taken? What books could you have read? What could you have learned? It would be no different from a superpower. Making peace with boredom would be like unlocking your full potential.

Isaac Newton contributed to science more than any one person, and he did it through sitting with boredom. Before modern equipment and automated computing, discoveries had to be made through the human mind, in pristine solitude. Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell called this process "fruitful monotony." Rather than dramatic obstacles, it's mundane boredom that stops us from living to our potentials.

Why does the story of a tribe losing their flock to boredom seem unreasonable? Because boredom is a privilege. It exists in a vacuum of gratitude—as a byproduct of having too much, not from having too little. A nomadic tribe might not have that privilege, but we do.

Comedian-philosopher Louis C.K. once told an audience:

‘I’m bored’ is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to say ‘I’m bored.’

First-World Problems

Only in a first-world country, during a time of abundance, can boredom be the worst thing that has ever happened to you. But to many, it is. Picky eating used to be a symptom of first-world problems, however, boredom is pickiness over everything. "Look at those starving kids in Africa with nothing to eat" sounds less trivial when compared to "Look at those kids in Africa, they just want food, and you're complaining about your Xbox." Imagine your mom immigrating from Vietnam to the US after the war, just to hear you tell her you are bored. Or you tell your Holocaust survivor dad that you are bored, and you want him to feel sorry for you. Yes, in both cases, when you say it, it makes complete sense to you. It will be completely baffling, however, to your parents. To them, what you call boredom is the life they fought and nearly died for. Boredom is the creature comforts they dreamed for their children—a sign that they are finally safe. To your parents it sounds great, so what's wrong with our perspective? Rather than lacking, are we spoiled? (Obese rather than malnourished.)

Boredom Is the Point

Let's say a student comes to me and wants to learn how to punch. I'd put her to work on the jab. If in the middle of working the jab, she were to tell me it was boring, I'd tell her I understood and have her keep going. Did I misunderstand her or does she misunderstand herself? She described to me a feeling, and I took it for what it was. Perhaps that's not how you took it. Perhaps you've been in her shoes, or rather, you've played the same mind games. She's seeing if she can stop or have me change what she's doing. But rather than stopping herself or stating her needs, she's putting the burden on me by complaining—she wants me to do something about how she feels. Complaining, however, is not an action. It's a form of manipulation to get someone else to act on your behalf. By not acting on your weakness and having someone else do it, you're preserving your ego. And in the student's case, whatever the outcome wholly becomes my responsibility. She lacks ownership and endurance; it's already the wrong mindset for practice. We've heard this in school, "I failed math because I had a bad teacher." Then why did everyone else pass? They probably also felt the same way about the teacher, so they did something about it. They controlled what they could control, their own results, rather than imposing it on someone else. You never want your life in anyone else's hands but your own.

The student is feeling repetitive and tedious, she interprets this as boredom, but misses the point—that's how it's supposed to feel. What you're feeling is what you're doing. Most of us have the wrong illusions about practice. If you want entertainment, seek that—go see a movie. But the point of practice is practice. And practice means to repeat. (Dojo was originally a Zen term for hall of repetition. Within the repetition is Zen.) But once the student says she's bored, she'll keep repeating it. You do what you practice, and she's practiced complaining. It become a habit, and just as complaining and addiction can become habits, so can excellence. I train because that's my habit.

The student believes boredom is an affliction, a serious condition, a viral disease to be avoided. Boredom to her is more than a description, it's a value-judgment. All descriptions now come with judgment. Say a car is blue, but to you blue automatically means the car is ugly. You wouldn't say blue is ugly because you would believe that is self-evident. From your egocentric worldview, this is the truth of blue. But that's an opinion, just as our beliefs about boredom are opinions. (The ancient Stoics explained: to maintain equanimity, understand that everything we believe is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.) Observe without value-judgment. (Value-judgment only pertains to judgments of good and bad.) If not, every action or inaction will be at the expense of your mental health.

Acute injury is harmful and never boring. Boredom is often beneficial and typically harmless. How did neutral become repugnant? (How did bland food become gross?) How did acute and harmful become more attractive than dull and helpful? (Perhaps when the lack of a compliment became the same as an insult and moderate and calm began to annoy people.) Saying a conversation is boring means the end of a conversation. Telling someone they are boring means the end of that relationship. If I am teaching someone for their benefit and I find their complaints about boredom tiresome, cliché, and yes, boring, should I quit on them as well? It's an infinite loop, the disdain for boredom makes you a bore, which bores others and makes you terrible to be around—which only increases your hostility. For bores, everything exists for their entertainment. As with most first-world problems, it centers around self-importance. As it becomes harder to get along with others, depression, loneliness, and isolation rise. We are losing our ability to sit with ourselves—to sit with our discomforts and work through them. "I am bored. Just make it go away."

Is it better to have relationships that are meaningless but fun? If the choice is boring or toxic, how often have we picked toxic? Should we leave those who are kind and meaningful if they are boring? If every one of us stuck with our hobbies rather than picking up damaging activities, we'd all be expert-generalists with less baggage.

Yet we have been conditioned to chase the next burst of enjoyment, the next "high." Why do we emotionally eat? Because in conditioning, food and treats are rewards. Why do we chase pleasure? Because fun was always the main incentive—Chuck E. Cheese's until we threw up. So why is everyone confused by a society that engages in self-harm when in this same society, boredom has no value? Boredom has no societal value because it does not incentivize behavior. It exists for self-knowledge. And in naming self-knowledge boredom, we came to dislike ourselves. We came to find displeasure in our own company.

Path of Nonjudgment

We have fallen into a dangerous dualism, a binary either-or without grays. It started the moment someone said the world is made up of good and evil. Then, like an infection, the idea took off. No more uncertainty, everything could be understood quickly and explained simply—even to a child. It's either good or bad. Friend or foe. Boring or enjoyable. Yet reality can be both: boring-enjoyable, love-hate, yin-yang.

Boredom is just boredom, yet it's treated the same as injustice: it must be stopped immediately before it gets worse. It can physically upset us. Saying "You're boring me" is like saying "You're hurting me"—we think of them as interchangeable ways to say stop when they are conceptually different and different in feeling. But if given a choice, which would we pick? Pain or boredom? The rational you would say boredom, but in lab tests, when subjects had a choice to be left alone in a room for six minutes with nothing other than their thoughts to keep them company or be painfully shocked, most picked pain. It does not mean pain is the new rational, it means there is something wrong with the way the modern mind operates. No other animal would choose harm over safety. A mind that can't sit with itself is not in its natural state. However, this is not our destiny.

Celebrated author Neil Gaiman said of boredom:

The trouble with these days is that it’s really hard to get bored. I have 2.4 million people on Twitter who will entertain me at any moment… it’s really hard to get bored.

We don't really hate boredom, but rather, we're addicted to distraction. Addicts don't shoot up to avoid boredom, nor do they do it because they find it meaningful. They shoot up because they're addicted to drugs—and any moment they are not doing it is the absence of doing drugs. It's not sitting there that bothers you, it's the lack of multitasking that bothers you. It's not that we love harm, we can't tolerate the lack of distraction. What we're feeling isn't boredom, it's withdrawal. We're addicted. It's fun, it's exhilarating, and it will replace meaning. Addiction, like meaning, can keep us committed to the end of the line. But unlike meaning, addiction never gets anything done. It only destroys.

Sit With It

Boredom is a choice. Like tardiness. Or interrupting.
— Mike Rowe

Just recently, an acquaintance told me she went to a Beverly Hills sweat spa and spent an hour in a sauna while wearing a sweat suit. Why? Because she does not like who she is. It was a $200 nearly fatal way to lose weight. In another conversation, she complained about how hot the gym she goes to is. But being at that gym, I know it is not hot. She is hot from exercising (a more natural and safer form of heat than the sweat spa); however, the gym is cold. Her opinion over the sensation of heat varies because these are her choices. She chooses to complain. This is her pattern. She complains about the distance from her car to the gym when her primary activity at the gym is walking on the treadmill (while on her phone and listening to music). Privilege and unhappiness, not boredom and unhappiness, go hand in hand. But her unhappiness is the effect of her decisions. She is both uncomfortable with her body and the methods in which to change her body. She is a walking contradiction that avoids discomfort only to find more discomfort. What she needs is to sit with herself, with who she is, and the feelings she has towards herself and work them out. What is she running from? What is she afraid of? Whenever she becomes aware of herself, she hates it. To work out her inconsistencies and understand why she has them, she must sit with discomfort. That's what boredom is, the absence of distraction and presence with yourself. You are walking; you are sweating; you are a being.

I’m much better at putting my phone away, going for boring walks, actually trying to find the space to get bored in. That’s what I’ve started saying to people who say ‘I want to be a writer,” I say ‘great, get bored.’
— Neil Gaiman

In the bustle of contemporary life, boredom is a luxury. What greater joy than having a blank slate on your schedule? Time for ourselves. It's what our ancestors worked so hard for, so that we may sit here peacefully bored, without their worries, and as a byproduct, without their endurance.

Some will argue boredom is just a poor use of time; they will tell you to find something fun to do. That's not what I'm saying. I'm not saying take your idle time and make fun out of it—I'm saying the opposite. All those clichés about distracting boredom only reinforce distraction. They reinforce guilt over idle time. If you're always supposed to keep yourself busy, what about deep thinking, or meditation, mindfulness, or cultivating inner peace? What about the wonder of daydreaming? When will these spiritual needs ever be met if you're mindset is busyness? It makes us unable to sleep in. Leisure, idle time, and sleeping in are not bad. Time that is slow and quiet is worthwhile. Only when you can work your way through the hard part of boredom will you benefit. If you skip boredom and go straight to distraction, you'll miss everything. You'll never light up the best parts of your brain. It's like trying to grow grit by avoiding hard work. You'll only grow fragility.

I think it’s about where ideas come from, they come from daydreaming, from drifting, that moment when you’re just sitting there.
— Neil Gaiman

The Brain Needs Boredom

In neuroscience, boredom is called diffuse mode thinking, the hotbed for new ideas. (In the arc of history, a large portion of humankind has always been allergic to new ideas, and thus, allergic to boredom.) You sit there, like many innovators before you, bored, bored, bored, until a new idea sprouts, a new pattern you didn't recognize, and you work it, and you work it until you are ready to show the world. If we were never bored, we would never create. We'd all be puking our brains out from fun overload.

You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.
— Neil Gaiman

It is rare nowadays to have a moment of nothingness last long enough to be "boring," so I am grateful when I have it. I love boring books and dull movies for this reason. And when I say this, I am not confusing this word with relaxing or calming, nor do I believe if I can find joy in it, it can no longer be boring. (That would take the charm out of lazy Sundays.) Boring is not automatically depression and depression is not boring. You can be depressed while having fun (like feeling lonely at a party); you can also be bored and happy. We talk about feelings as if one leads to the other when feelings are rich and embedded.

Mindful Presence

Joy is a matter of perspective. Boredom is a description, one that implies repetitiveness but also uncertainty. (What will happen if I keep doing this?) Such is practice. When I'm aware of boredom, this is no different than noticing the color of the sky; it's just an observation and not a judgment of value. Boredom can become mindful presence and gratitude. In fact, when people describe their struggles with mindfulness, it is identical to the sensation of boredom. But a closed mind may never understand that these are two words for the same process. What is different is the intent, do I want this or don't I? Just as my acquaintance in the sauna suit was conflicted over heat. It's a choice.

Mindfulness is about doing things, not because they are enjoyable but because they need to be done. Even in the West, the adage goes, "Be mindful of your work." There is a tyranny of "should" in the first-world, that every activity should be entertaining. (That everything should exist for me.) Mindfulness is not about taking things as we think they should be, but taking things as they are, and working with what we have.

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu writes:

He who acts defeats his own purpose;
He who grasps loses.
The sage does no act, and so is not defeated.
He does not grasp and therefore does not lose.

Therefore the sage desires no desire,
Does not value rare treasures,
Learns without learning,
Recovers what people have left behind.
He wants all things to follow their own nature,
But refrains from interference.

Bores are self-centered, they project themselves onto the world. They see themselves in everything and thus hate everything they see. Mindfulness is other-centered. You observe with neither distraction nor judgment. You can appreciate the nature of ten thousand things without changing them into your own nature. Thus only when you can observe the world correctly can you correctly observe yourself. Only when you can appreciate the world, can you appreciate yourself.

[To read part II, click here.]

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