Some of us work too hard. We try too hard. We burn ourselves out.
But of course, the solution to that is not total easiness. That wouldn’t be good, either. We’d coast along, bored and sad, and we’d realize that without challenge, there’s nothing really to live for.
What we need is a sweet spot in the middle where things are challenging but enjoyable. How can we find it?
I discovered this is best articulated in, of all things, a 2014 blog post by REI.
By way of entry into that post, a story:
A friend was telling me about a hike she’d taken years ago on the morning of a friend’s wedding. She’d set out with some fellow guests on what they thought would be a nice five-mile loop; they packed a water bottle and a granola bar each, and figured they’d be back by noon. All was going along great — they passed a stream and a waterfall, and they were so entranced by the scenery that they didn’t notice when the trail markers stopped. They ultimately went about three miles out of their way, ran out of water and snacks, and were unsure how to get back to the trailhead quickly. (Rural hike = no phone service = no Google Maps!)
They pieced together what they thought might be a shortcut back. It went through a new section of trail. They decided to risk it.
Two people took the lead on navigation. One person offered up their water filter to drink from a stream. Another person discovered some pouches of peanut butter squirreled away in her bag. Ultimately, they made it back in one piece in the middle of the afternoon, just a couple of hours before the ceremony was set to begin. They cheered, reveled in a quick and mediocre roadside sandwich, and then had a great story for the wedding that evening — and something they’d reminisce about at other gatherings for years to come.
Telling the story to me, my friend said, “That was some real Type 2 fun.”
“Type 1 fun is enjoyable while it’s happening. Also known as, simply, fun.” We're talking parties, margaritas, cornhole.
“Type 2 fun is miserable while it’s happening, but fun in retrospect. It usually begins with the best intentions, and then things get carried away.” See: my friend’s hike.
“Type 3 fun is not fun at all. Not even in retrospect. Afterward, you think, “What in the hell was I doing? If I ever come up with another idea that stupid, somebody slap some sense into me.””
This is wonderful, particularly because it’s so scalable. Apply it to work: Type 1 work is great and simple and gratifying (so easy, you can do it with your eyes closed!), and Type 3 work may seem impressive but it is unsustainable. Type 2 work is rewarding because it's a mix of challenge and excitement, and you can look back on it fondly with the people who went through it with you.
Right now, for example, I am finishing the final edits on my book. This thing was a journey. It required me to rearrange my work life for a year, and I suspect the writing will seem easy compared to what I’m about to go through marketing and selling it to the masses. (Stay tuned, it’s out September, 2022!) But boy am I proud of it already. I am so excited to have done the work. It is Type 2 Fun.
If we are to sustain ourselves for the long haul, and push ourselves to create great new things, then this is the kind of fun we need to build our lives around. Adversity helps us develop a personal ownership over our work. It builds stronger teams. It makes us come back for more.
Why not have only Type 2 Work— I mean, Fun? Because we need variation! Contrasting modes keep us on our toes.
If work is all Type 1, it is too easy and boring and we disengage. If it’s all Type 3, we burn out. Even if it’s all Type 2, then we settle into a routine — one where inventiveness is replaced by efficiency.
Let’s catch ourselves if we slip into idleness. Let’s save ourselves if we grind too long. We’re not here to exhaust ourselves today; we’re here to build and grow. As that REI blog says, “It doesn’t have to be “fun” to be fun.”
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Cover credit: Getty Images / Kriangkrai Thitimakorn