On the Enjoyment Paradox

(Zen Sweep | Wandering Angel) A young novice monk fulfilling his daily chores around the Gangdan Khiid courtyard

(Zen Sweep | Wandering Angel) A young novice monk fulfilling his daily chores around the Gangdan Khiid courtyard

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

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Since the age of six, I've been training martial arts continuously. Why, when people stop doing things all the time? I've often pondered this when there are so many other things I've stopped doing. Things I've enjoyed more. Is enjoyment the best motivator for commitment?

The Cycle of Regret

"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."

Shared Universal Mythology

Premier American mythologist Joseph Campbell spent a career studying the similarities of mythologies. It begins with a hero:

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.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the myth becomes a guide to living a contented life. We emulate heroes, and in doing so we challenge convention and create progress.

The Paradox of Enjoyment

If the only reason I'm doing something is because I enjoy it, eventually I'll stop. Enjoyment isn't enough. It's nice when it's around, but it does not occupy the space of need or virtue. Things we need, when it's not around, we notice, and we'll seek it wherever we go.

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 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 we believe we hate it, it is endurance that pulls us through. Why? Because when we get to the other side of mediocre, it will be that much more meaningful.

This Is the Boring Part

When most of us get bored with something, we stop. Boredom doesn't need more explanation, it's reason enough to quit. "It's boring, so of course I stopped." In the past it would be rare for boredom to be the reason to stop. Now it is the primary reason.

To some, boredom can be the worst thing that has ever happened to them. When someone is engaged in an activity and they tell me it's boring, I tell them I understand. I take it for what it is, a description. Then they repeat themselves, they mean it as a condition — an affliction or a symptom of a disease. It is treated the same as injury, it must be stopped immediately before it gets worse. Saying "you're boring me" is like saying "you're hurting me," we think of them as interchangeable ways to say stop, yet they are distinct.

Acute injury is harmful and never boring. Boredom is often beneficial and typically harmless. How did neutral become repugnant? How did acute and harmful become more attractive than dull and helpful? Saying a conversation is boring means you will stop talking. Telling someone they are boring means, you will leave or break up. If I am instructing a student and I find their complaints about boredom tiresome, and yes, boring, should I quit on them, as well?

Yet what if this leads to relationships that are meaningless but fun? And sometimes even toxic? And we leave those who are "boring," yet kind and meaningful. We stop a meaningful activity like piano to pick up a dangerous activity. Always in search of the next "high." The next enjoyment burst.

We treat this as the natural order of things, but we are always surprised when we see animals play and have fun. We know it is something that occurs but it is not the main driver of adult behavior. It is natural, yes, but it is not the priority. That is what is unnatural, enthusiasm isn't the purpose, it's what we add in. It comes from the participant not from the activity. (Perhaps with commodification, we think we can purchase enthusiasm as well.) Children find every new experience as fun, once it is no longer new, then it is time to put in the work. Maintaining a curious beginner's mind is serious business (and makes serious business enjoyable).

Joy Is a Point of View

It is a matter of perspective. Boredom is a description, one that implies repetitiveness but also uncertainty. Such is practice. When I am aware of boredom, this is no different from noticing the color of the sky, it is just an observation and not a judgment of value. In itself, it can be mindful presence and gratitude.

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

Boring Is the Point

In the bustle of contemporary life, boredom is a luxury. What greater joy than having a blank plate on your schedule?

In neuroscience, boredom is diffuse-mode thinking, the soil of new ideas. (And in the arc of history, a large portion of humankind has always been allergic to new ideas, and thus, allergic to boredom.)

Celebrated author Neil Gaiman said of boredom:

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

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, or somehow if one can find joy in it, it can no longer be boring. There is this dualism we get stuck in, a binary either-or. It's boring or it's enjoyable, yet it can be both: boring-enjoyable, love-hate, yin-yang. What I oppose is this notion that enjoyment works by itself, when it is always meaning that silently drives any progress.

On the luxury of boredom, Gaiman says:

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.

Gaiman's advice to writers:

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.’

We want to believe boring people can't be great, but more often than not, it is those very boring people running the world. When we say "nerds," we mean those people who can engage in things ad nauseam. Then anyone can become a nerd — a sports nerd, a martial arts nerd), a fitness nerd — anyone who can engage in the same activity continuously becomes a nerd. When we unpack the nerd label, that is what we mean. And being tedious pays off. President Obama practically wears the same suit every day, Mark Zuckerberg still toils away writing code. (Zuckerberg and Jobs are also notorious for wearing redundant clothes.)

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 created Facebook. He only dropped out when school happened to get in the way of his main practice, coding. (And his risk of failure paid off.)

How is it that someone can spend hours in front of a computer, writing code and always have fun? They can't. However, they can like it. They don't like the fun, they like the challenge. Even in the objective reality of weight loss, the way people truly lose weight and keep it off does not make for must-see TV. It's an accumulation of unsexy lifestyle and eating changes, rather than a magic bullet that blows our minds. Yet it works. (You get paid for done not paid for fun.) The same applies to prizefighting, it's a lot of unenjoyable work that leads to one moment of excitement, the knockout. Some fighters will say fighting is "fun," but the vast majority will say they fight because they are good at it and because that is who they are. (Even then, the fun wouldn't be hurting another human being, it is the expression of practice that is fun.)

We want to believe it is easy to be great; that one can be shallow and great, undisciplined and great — ineffective and great. We want to believe this, not because it is true, but because it is convenient.

Consistency Is Fundamental

Perfection isn't attainable, but consistency is within our grasp. We need more than enjoyment. There are friends I started martial arts with — many of whom found more initial joy in training. They were better than me yet they stopped decades ago in their youth. It stopped being fun for them and that is the difference; I don't require martial arts to be fun. I consider that to be a gift. My practice can't be described by words like enjoyment, fun, or pleasure — to me it is meaningful.

The ability to endure is a character trait, and rather than seeking to bypass it with enjoyment, we must actively build it. Character can only be developed when there is meaning. The frivolous have no meaning in their lives; they have no need for character, there is no need to stick with anything. But those with dogged perseverance can move mountains! Even if given only a spoon to do it.

Why Doing What You Like Isn't Enough

We may not always like the activity, but we can like what it asks of us — we can like the experience. Yet even without, we can still do it if we found it to be worthwhile. Being able to stick to something for any number of reasons, not just one. The aphorism of doing something which we do not enjoy because it will build character, is built on this principle.

It's hard to know why things stop being fun. There are an infinite number of reasons. Sometimes they become fun again, but we will never know unless we keep doing it. "Fun" is a fickle friend but "meaning" is a loyal companion. You rarely hear the two used together, "Oh man, I went to this thing, and it was so much fun! But at the same time, so meaningful." It does happen, but don't rely on it.

Mindfulness is about doing things, not because they are enjoyable but because it needs to be done. Even in the West, the old adage goes, "Be mindful of your work."

There are days we must get up early in the morning, when we are dead-tired, to help a loved one. And when we do this, that is a testament to our character. Imagine being in a bad situation and everyone you knew lacked character. If you, yourself, lacked character. There would only be suffering. What if the whole world only did things that were easy and convenient. Who would finish school? Who would work? Who would innovate? Fortunately, there will always be those among us who work extra hard, that we can always rely on. They keep the world moving.

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 explained in an interview why he chose to wrestle instead of something with more social praise and less challenge:

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.

For people like Neil deGrasse Tyson and others who shape the world, it is about regular challenge. Wrestling is no different from astrophysics. The challenge is the very reason many do it, the very reason why others avoid it. It's a particular mindset that is required of those who make an impact.

Wrestlers call this "embracing the grind." We should all heed this advice.

The People Who Used to Will Never Understand the People Who Always Do

The open mindset craves challenge, it wants to grow. A closed mindset shrinks from challenge. It fears growth yet understands the need. So it looks for distraction.

The open mindset teaches itself to enjoy the process, the results become a matter of course. The closed mindset only seeks the results while avoiding the process. It requires no discipline or spirit.

Commit to a Lifetime of Practice

President John F. Kennedy on Sept. 12, 1962, gave a speech at Rice University 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 organise 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 of the other side better than we were. It elevates us all. We stick with those things that do that.

We believe that if the activity is more "fun," we will put more hard work into it. That can be true, but it is also true that the "fun" actually comes from the hard work we put in.

Summary

Those things that are most meaningful — not most pleasurable — have the most staying power. When we have a meaningful reason to stick with something, enjoyment enhances the experience. If enjoyment is the only reason to do something, it quickly loses luster. The ability to endure experience is character, the reward is to become better than when we started.

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