For my close friends who know me well, they will know I am constantly chasing self-improvement and introspecting. I cannot really help but do it; I have been somewhat serious and reflective since childhood. Yet, it is not always an easy thing.
When I wanted to teach myself to cook last year, I got a cookbook. For lunch and dinner, I forced myself to eat only what I made. Some days I would make something nice, other days I’d fail, and more than a few times I would procrastinate until my hunger got severe enough to get me to cook or get takeout. My mindset was this: life may suck in the moment, but eventually I’ll know enough recipes and skills to do this easily.
This kind of thinking is common in my family, I think: Work hard and suffer now, so that life may be good later. As my uncle said at a cousin’s graduation party, a quote that his family uses is ‘this too shall pass.’ Unfortunately, I consider myself somewhat hedonistic by nature, so this thinking does not work well for me. The ‘suffer now, live later’ mentality makes me think, ‘but I want to live now and later.’ As a result, if I think of work as the absence of life, I procrastinate and do the minimum before I get back to living.
This distinction between work and ‘life’ is often encountered in the idea of the “work-life balance,” and it has unfortunate implications. When we consider it, then on one hand, we have a boring but necessary checklist (work), and on the other we have true living. Each one detracts from the other, so that work steals from our lives. Then somehow weekends seem not enough, and work, whether personal, academic, or professional, is pushed aside as much as possible.
But in a good life, one lives while he works. I love this quote by the English philosopher and minister, L.P. Jacks:
A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play, his labour and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself he always seems to be doing both. Enough for him that he does it well.
Specifically, a certain type of work is fundamental to a good life. It is the pursuit of excellence, either of oneself or his craft. It was said by Aristotle to be a cornerstone of happiness, and was reinforced throughout history by people like the psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, in his idea of flow, and the above-quoted Jacks.
I do not mean this in a Calvinist way, as if to say the pursuit of excellence were to be excellent at loving one’s current duties at his monotonous desk job or homework from school. Rather, it can be understood as the pursuit of challenges from which one can grow, and may have to be implemented into current tasks where it is lacking.
To see how it may be fulfilling, consider the stories you already experience, perhaps through games or movies. They find their intrigue from a struggling protagonist, who goes through trials in which he tries to overcome some goal. Without this part of struggle, there is no fun in a story, because there is nothing toward which a protagonist can strive. This is why stories start in the middle of a struggle, not after the happily-ever-after.
When we watch these movies, we want to experience what the protagonist experiences. We want to see the hero get beat up, to feel like we’re getting beat up, before we defeat the antagonist. In other words, we want to see the characters pursue challenges, and feel like we are as well. As such, I see these stories as our little ways to simulate the pursuit of challenge.
If this is something we already look for in our leisure, it is not a reach to say the pursuit of challenges in our own lives is a key piece of happiness. As challenges do to the heroes in our movies, they give us meaning. Without crimes to fight, Batman is just a buff man in a costume. Without our own challenges, we are without meaning, because we are neither growing nor doing anything important.
This kind of pursuit for excellence is something we can apply to our existing work, by which I mean work towards any craft, profession, or self-mastery. And in turn, we will find more fulfillment. Czikszentmihalyi says that anything, if we throw our concentration and passion at it, can be a source of joy. In doing so, we are able to live our work. As Eric Greitens notes, this doesn’t mean work will always be easy; there will still be rough points and long hours. And yet, if we do it right, the work-life distinction will fade into a holistic picture in which work is simply a part of life, playing in a harmony where sometimes it plays more loudly at the forefront, and sometimes less loudly in the background.
The meaning we derive from pursuing excellence is so great that I think we try to find easy and fast pursuits with which to achieve it. We try edgy things, maybe new drugs or taboo fashions, to make us feel important, like we’re meaningful. We want to be around flashy spectacles, like exclusive parties or celebrities, for the same reason: you might call this secondhand importance.
But these things don’t create meaning, and their joy doesn’t last. Greitens gives an analogy to describe the kind of joy spectacles bring: Imagine you’re watching fireworks. This can be fun for an hour or two, once or twice a year. Now imagine watching it for two straight days. You’d be bored to death! Because they are short-lived, one trying to sustain himself off of them is left chasing the next big thing. But he runs out of places to visit, or drugs to try, and he feels the best moments in his life are now only experienced in nostalgia. When the spectacles stop, I think a quote from Marie Kondo about tidying is relevant: “When your room is clean and uncluttered, you have no choice but to examine your inner state.” And that inner state, if one hasn’t built meaning, is empty.
In facing challenges, in pursuing excellence, life will not always be easy. We will feel pain. There will be uncertainty. The choosing of a path to pursue is itself uncertain, and there is not exactly one good rule for it, so I have decided to omit the topic from this article. And yet, the rewards are so great that they make our endeavors to be great athletes, musicians, social entrepreneurs, or otherwise, worth it. We do have to stay adaptable and grow, because challenges themselves do not make someone stronger; living a hard life is only fruitful if one adapts to it and learns from it. But if she does, then she will find growth and meaning.