I nearly cried when I had this realization:
I don’t allow myself to do things solely because I enjoy them.
After my Master’s, I went volunteering in Africa. My family encouraged me to keep a travel blog, so I reluctantly started one. Some months in, I discovered that I actually like to write. Later, I started blogging ‘for real’. Now you’re reading this.
Instead of writing whatever I want, I care about how well my articles perform.
Another example: I enjoy talking philosophy. Naturally, I had to start a podcast. Instead of spending a pleasant afternoon discussing whatever, I am now concerned with whether I delivered an interesting conversation.
When I add a goal to something enjoyable, the activity transforms — it becomes about accomplishing something difficult.
Which is cool. I like that.
But in the meantime, self-improvement has made me worse.
Zooming in on the problem
This is not due to the amount of work.
I’m OK with working all the time. I don’t want to rent out my time, but I want to add value to the lives of others by creating something. I happily spend many hours on that.
I don’t believe in a ‘work-life balance’:
“Everything that is related to any goal you have, counts as ‘work’. Work is the sum of everything you want to do in your life. Working is fulfilling your potential and expressing yourself optimally.”
This is a core conviction of mine. It makes many areas of my life into a ‘performance domain’. The blog and the podcast are good examples of this.
Right and wrong reasons
A year ago, I did Tim Ferriss’ fear-setting exercise. In it, you define your fears and write down the bad things that would happen if they would come true. Next, you write down what would happen if you would allow that to stop you from doing the things you’re afraid of doing. Usually, it turns out, the potential costs of inaction are greater than the potential costs of failure.
One of my fears might sound a bit weird:
‘What if I allow myself to do what I like?’
I was afraid that doing so would derail me from getting to where I wanted to be. I was frightened that, if I would leave myself off the lease, I would cease to make progress towards my goals. Making the most of it all involves work. To achieve anything worthwhile, you need self-discipline. That’s where the meaning of life is to be found.
I still have all these fears.
I have been reading my fair share of self-improvement and might have internalized ideas like Benjamin P. Hardy’s
As such, I’m afraid that when I enjoy reading, writing and podcasting, I’m doing something wrong.
Evaluating my day
Every day, after dinner, I journal. I repeat and revise my goals and evaluate whether, today, I made progress. I also list three good things that happened today and one point for improvement.
Lately, the point for improvement has been the same day after day.
Looking back on the day, even though it was objectively good, I noticed I didn’t enjoy it. Every day, my diary would tell me to:
Be the fuck happier.
I didn’t enjoy doing the things I did, even though I knew these were the things that I like to do.
I have always separated my time in work-hours and leisure-hours, and — echoing Hardy and co — for the former category, whether something is ‘fun’ seems to be beside the point.
After all, there is a mission to be accomplished. Cheerfulness is out of place.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too. I will be happy when I’m done.
If you work “all the time” and think that work shouldn’t be fun, this mindset is to be expected.
This is not how I want to be.
The wrong turn
It’s now clear how self-improvement made me worse.
Things that I started doing out of enjoyment, are now about accomplishment.
When an activity is about accomplishing something, caring about enjoyment seems to be inappropriate. Almost by definition, one of the characteristics that make a goal challenging is that it’s not roses and sunshine all the time.
For such endeavors, the correct attitude seems to be, as Hardy writes, “do something and don’t stop until it’s complete”.
You’re gunning for success — have a mission to accomplish. Enjoyment is the wrong reason for doing it.
And so we’ve come full circle and the process you once loved is now your enemy. You have to do it.
What it means to win the game of life
When I’m in this mindset, the focus on the end-product makes me equate being good with being productive.
That equation is a mistake.
When I hold myself to this standard, I change into Mr. Stressed Out. I’m hurried, impatient. I want to hustle. I become frustrated with colleagues I actually like for “taking away” time.
These might be my personal shortcomings, however.
Generally, equating being good with being productive shows that you’re taking yourself too seriously. Why else would you go through all these experiences that suck to reach your targets?
Self-improvement often suffers from an inflated sense of self-importance. It’s not rare to come across condescending attitudes towards “ordinary people” in self-improvement circles.
Why so judgmental?
Part of the rationale is genuine anger.
‘Why am I sacrificing my family dinners to ____, if you get to work part-time?’
This complaint is not justified.
They don’t need to do anything.
And neither do you.
When you live like this, you’re losing out on the stuff that matters.
While your works are important, this mindset misunderstands what it means to win the game of life.
What matters is to be effective while also being a good human being.
Extreme productivity doesn’t impress me. Healthy priorities do.
What does science say?
An important question we haven’t tackled yet is whether there is indeed a negative connection between enjoyment and doing things that are “worth doing”.
If there is, then statements like “if it doesn’t suck, it’s not worth doing” would seem to be justified, despite their bitter taste.
The plausible idea behind such inferences is, I think, that fun will run out sooner or later — the long-term persistence that is needed to accomplish something big is hard. If you stop trying the first time shit hits the fan, chances are you won’t get very far.
Science tells a more nuanced story.
Psychological research paints a picture according to which willpower and the like are less relevant, whereas the experience itself matters more.
When you want to know whether a person will stick to something, it’s more important to know whether she, in fact, likes the daily grind than it is to know how mentally tough she is.
Yet, there is some truth in the connection between hardship and valuableness that Hardy-like folks emphasize.
Meaning in life
John Stuart Mill — the great Utilitarian — argued for a distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures:
“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
Bluntly, according to Mill, happiness that is not achieved by completing some challenges is qualitatively inferior to happiness that was reached thusly.
In a similar spirit, fans of hard work are right to distinguish pleasure from happiness. There is something right in Hardy’s claim that, when we “push through the difficulty, there will be a [higher] joy”.
A life spent Netflixing was probably not a very meaningful one.
But neither should we err to the other extreme. Fun shouldn’t be your enemy — enjoyment and usefulness are not contraries.
Ideologies like “if it doesn’t suck, it’s not worth doing” are not helpful guidelines if one wants to win the game of life, because life is a single-player game. The only scorecard is internal.
Also, if that’s the way you approach your projects, then you’re biting the hand that feeds you. Sparks of enjoyment come from somewhere, and this pool is finite. When it’s dried up, you’re, as we say “burned out”.
“If something really sucks, do something else”, sounds like a better strategy.
Which things matter?
I want to close by emphasizing two things.
On a strategic level, it’s vital to not confuse growth-pains for the hurt of pointless shouldering on.
Remember that (1) since you don’t need to do anything, there won’t be a reward at the end and that (2) enjoyment matters for persistence. That means that enjoying the process is more important — and less ‘shallow’ — than it may seem.
On a deeper level, when you think about it, mantras like James Clear’s “fall in love with the boredom” and Benjamin Hardy’s “if it doesn’t suck, it isn’t worth doing” build on rather grim philosophies of life.
In most cases, when you continue to spend your day doing something that sucks, you’re not being heroic, but mistaken. In most cases, similarly, prolonged boredom is not worth it.
I’m trying to change.
The first question I ask my diary is no longer ‘Did I progress towards my goals?’. Rather, I reflect on whether I have enjoyed myself and on whether I was the person that I want to be.
These are the things that matter.
There’s more to that
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