“Work is More Fun than Fun”

This quotation, whose owner I’ve seen cited repeatedly as Noel Coward, strikes me as largely true. Not completely, always, and unequivocally, but certainly for the right type of work it can be in a way we tend to underestimate.

When your wife, friend, or boss commands you “to go have some fun,” they obviously don’t mean spend time entering data into spreadsheets, even that’s your favorite thing in the whole world.

Before you go telling me that I clearly don’t know fun, I should be clear about that part too. It’s tautologically true that nothing can be more fun than fun, but it’s undeniable that we mean a rather specific subset of things when we typically say “fun.” When your wife, friend, or boss commands you “to go have some fun,” they obviously don’t mean spend time entering data into spreadsheets, even that’s your favorite thing in the whole world. Things that the culture at large considers fun are generally hedonic pleasures that fall into the general categories of social activities and light amusements. TV is fun, video games are fun, watching and playing sports is fun, “partying” is fun, gossiping is fun, (social) eating is fun.

Programming, writing, editing, compiling, even cooking, these things are all generally considered to be outside the category of fun. But they can be. These tasks, which we generally categorize as “work” can be deeply immensely satisfying in a way that almost no activity considered above in the category “fun” are. When you think your work matters, or even if you just regard it as a worthy thing to spend time on, the sense of satisfaction that’s available in accomplishing your work in a way you regard as “well” is a supreme pleasure.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s seminal work on “flow” is essentially about this very point. The Wikipedia article on the topic has this to say about flow:

It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task.

It is not “work” per se, as the generalized category, that constitutes the type that is “more fun than fun”. Your dull and disappointing job which neither challenges nor can challenge you is probably never going to give you the sense of egoless immersion and accomplishment that really leaves one feeling deeply satisfied and contented with the activity they have just completed. But it’s also undeniable that because work gives you access to the achievement of things far beyond yourself, the possibility for a sense of lasting accomplishment is far greater than even the most successful and flowing “fun” activity.

I don’t believe that work-is-fun flow state is a state itself worthy of pursuit, but I fervently believe that it can be a useful tool in getting done work you care about. That is, unlike deep meditative awareness, I don’t regard flow states as inherently beneficial outside of themselves, but I think they clearly constitute a useful tool if you’re pursuing ends you know to be good and valuable. (See my thoughts on Flow Traps, for why I’m pressing so hard on that.)

The reason to share and explain this rather popular quotation is simply this: too frequently people just ignore the very real possibility it explains. We go around living our lives for the weekends, the whistle, the bell, the time when we’re free to have fun. But doing that is itself to confine yourself to prison during your working hours. You don’t need to be doing activities we define as “fun” to enjoy the way you’re spending your time. If you do your work well, achieve a degree of both mastery and learning, you can make every moment of your life, even the dullest ones, “more fun than fun.”


The First Draft

Syma Sees (AND)Cartwheel

Finding Forrester was one of those movies. The kind that I enjoy, but can easily see why so many others don’t. It’s the kind of movie light on logic or reality, and heavy on the emotion. And Sean Connery’s character is, well, odd.

However you or I feel about it, there’s one thing I do remember. Sean Connery’s character looking up from the typewriter and saying, “You know what the best feeling is? When you’ve finished your first draft…” He goes on to say that it’s reading the first draft that he likes. That leads me to think that whoever wrote that doesn’t write or at least doesn’t write like I do.

It’s not reading the first draft that’s “the best feeling,” it’s right after you’ve done it. After you’ve gotten all the thoughts out but haven’t gone back to determine if they’re all in order and said as well as they can be. The reality that your writing is flawed, which is what the first reading always unveils to me, is usually a time of disappointment.

The first draft–most of the time–is the easiest to write. If it’s a good topic–one about which I have something to say–it comes quickly and easily. And afterwards, there is a warm afterglow that might merit, well, a cartwheel.

After a first draft, at least one that comes easy, there’s a certain confidence. A self-assurance that comes from knowing that you said what you wanted to say exactly as you wanted to say it. Perhaps, later, you’ll realize that many of your phrases are awkward and that your message is a little muddy, but before you read it you’re not aware of that.

For now, all you know is that it’s done. That deed that at other times takes all the time and effort you’ve got has been completed. That weight that made you pick up the pen or keyboard in the first place is gone, and you have the opportunity to relish the new-found lightness.

But those are the good first drafts. The first drafts that come easy. There is another kind. And the other kind are, I would contend, the kind of first draft you shouldn’t be writing. The kind of first draft that takes studious effort and prodding and pulling and suffering. If the first draft doesn’t come easy, it shouldn’t come at all. (Unless, of course, you’ve got a deadline and no control over your topic.)

Perhaps I’m being unrealistically absolute. No, I am being unrealistically absolute. But after you finally write the first first draft that comes easy after fifty that come hard, you’ll know why I’m so willing to be unrealistically absolute.