🎸 Surrender to the Flow 🏳️
Phish and the Effort Paradox
As he saw his life run away from him
Thousands ran along
Chanting words from a song
"Please me have no regrets"
-Phish, “The Curtain With”
I’m bad at triathlons.
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If you are saying to yourself, “Josh…I’ve seen pictures of you with medals from multiple triathlons. How could you say that you are bad at it?” Fair point. Maybe I’m not “bad,” but I’m hardly “great.”
To date, I completed 6 triathlons, and am currently training for two more triathlons this spring. But if I am being honest, I know when I am training that my only goal is to finish, because the odds of my placing or even placing near the top of my age bracket is highly low. I’m not sure if it’s lack of effort, genetics, training routines, diet, etc. But I know my limits.
That said, I love training for every race and feel amazing every time I get my medal.
In September, I finished my most recent Olympic triathlon. I finished last. I’ve never been at the top when I finished, but I’ve never been close to the bottom. And while I could blame the fact that my summer was incredibly stressful and my August apocalyptically bad, ultimately I do not want to make excuses.
A week later, my wife sent me an article from The Wall Street Journal about how people can find joy in learning how to do things they are “bad” at.The article spoke to me in a way that is hard to describe. And while I doubt that I will ever be world-famous as a triathlete, shadowboxer, guitarist, Potterhead, boxer, or fundraiser, I am proud that I started doing all of these things in my 30s and developed at least a modicum of competence in each. I’ve got one life, and I am going to learn how to find more things to love as long I’ve got the chance. If I only tried things that were immediately easy, I would never try anything.
Happiness is a funny thing; many of us long for more free time, yet struggle with what to do when we have it. And yet the research suggests that doing hard things, even when we are not excellent at them, has benefits we need to explore and embrace.
Perhaps you find this newsletter helpful and started to think more about how to optimize your work serving the Jewish community. If so, then it’s a win for both of us; I have 1,100 subscribers and want to help all of you. That said, there is an important caveat about the consequences of becoming more efficient.
The most efficient people I know are not blessed with a great deal of free time; on the contrary, many of those people are constantly engaged with something. However, those same people tend not to be bothered by how busy they are. Instead, they are invigorated by it.
This is the “effort paradox.”
In a 2018 paper, Michael Inzlicht, Amitai Shenhav, and Christopher Y. Olivola point out that traditional models in economics and psychology assume that, when given the choice, people are going to choose less effort over more effect, typically called “optimization.”In fact, the very idea of a “heuristic” as a mental shortcut supports this claim, given that our minds make certain mental mistakes because they are designed to be efficient, sometimes at the cost of accuracy.
However, the authors argue that what they call “effortful habits” provide a variety of benefits including “more sustained attention to one’s tasks, more goal-directed decisions, better learning outcomes, and perhaps even improved mental health."In fact, the authors argue that there is a reason why someone like me might love the slog of a triathlon even if I am not “good” at it:
“The value of effort also partly explains why some people are more apt than others to run marathons or play Sudoku in their free time. While people sometimes do this to signal something about their character, they also do it for the pleasure that effort affords.”
In the right context, effort brings pleasure, and thus many people choose certain activities because they want to exert more effort than normal, not less. While I love the feeling of sharing my accomplishment with the award, my greatest pleasure is internal, because I know that finished something difficult.
Thus, we are left with two important yet somewhat contradictory ideas: People choose options that require less effort under certain circumstances, and choose options that require more effort under other circumstances. The question becomes what defines those activities when the additional effort is the reward.
The effort paradox is a perfect opportunity to introduce Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Sadly, I believe that this book's central thesis would be one of the most well-known ideas in the world were it not for the fact that the author has a name that is almost unpronounceable. Once you learn the concept and hopefully read the book, you’ll never forget it. Guaranteed.
“Flow” is a term that Csíkszentmihályi coined after years of research about professionals at the top of their field, including sports, music, visual arts, and business. Csíkszentmihályi found that the best moments in our lives,
“are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to the limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
When a person loves what they do, the effort is not a punishment; effort is the reward.
Csíkszentmihályi theorizes that people are happiest when they “are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter,” what he calls “flow,” similar to feeling like that person is floating on air or gliding down a river.In practical terms, it takes hours upon hours of practice to be a world-famous athlete or musician. However, the person most likely to become world famous in those pursuits is someone who enjoys the marathon of endless, focused practice.
Flow is an invaluable resource for any person who wants to make Jewish life better. If the goal is to make Jewish experiences richer for individual Jews, it’s critical to remember how any person ultimately finds fulfillment. If the goal is to make workplace culture better for Jewish professionals, one cannot forget that employees are most engaged when they can pursue challenges that unlock the best in themselves. The applications are endless.
But…Flow Is A Hard Read. Try This…
MBTI, If You Want Me Back, You Need To Change, Too: Adam Grant wrote a great letter to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which I think made some excellent points. I still don’t understand how Grant can criticize all personality tests and simultaneously launch his own, but I am trying to assume that he knows many, many things I don’t.
Science or Pseudoscience?: A number of books I could discuss are ones that I think are pseudoscience expensively masquerading as science. That said, Karl Popper points out that the line between science and pseudoscience is thin, and I love this summary of Popper’s arguments.
Mental Health and Young Women: I love recommending pieces from Jonathan Haidt because his arguments are always rich with science. Here’s an important piece on mental health.
The Superpowers of Sensitive People: While Moneyball continues to evoke images of data-loving cyborgs, the reality is that there is plenty of evidence that sensitivity and emotional intelligence highly correlate with leadership success. Read more from the Greater Good Institute.
Don’t Treat Your Life As A Journey: Leadership development has a strong narrative bent, and for good reason; ultimately, leadership is about people. However, there is a cost to thinking too much about one’s personal narrative, and this piece from Nautilus caught my attention.
Rachel Feintzeig, “The Case For Allowing Yourself To Be Bad At Something,” The Wall Street Journal, 12 September 2022.
Michael Inzlicht, Amitai Shenhav, and Christopher Y. Olivola, “The Effort Paradox: Effort Is Both Costly and Valued,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Volume 22, Issue 4 (April 2018), 337-349.
Ibid. Here is the full quote:
“An understanding that effort is valued has a critical role to play in promoting sustained mental effort across time, whether in the context of schoolwork, self-control, or emotion regulation. Positive associations with effort can serve as a counterweight to its intrinsic costs and overtime support more habitual exertions of effort. These ‘effortful habits’ may manifest in a variety of forms, including more sustained attention to one’s tasks, more goal-directed decisions, better learning outcomes, and perhaps even improved mental health.”
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008).