How I Reacquainted Myself with A Love of Doing (or Why Learning is Fun)

I used to be adventurous, and never afraid to try stuff. Try different stuff, and try to get answers through action. I competed in everything (I have the last place in every 800m race I ran ribbons to prove it). When you’re in that state of learning something new and pioneering creativity, it felt good. At some point in time though, I lost my way.

In A Theory of Fun for Game Design Raph Koster gave a pretty good definition of fun.

Fun is primarily about practicing and learning, not about exercising mastery. Exercising mastery will give us some other feeling, because we are doing it for a reason, such as status enhancement or survival.

When you’re trying out new things, you’re learning and learning new things is fun. So where I believe I lost my way was in the quest for status (through subsequently trying to show mastery). This quest for status is something that we all do because we all want to try and look better in the eyes of other people, or yourself. But it was this quest for status (or trying to maintain status) that ended up being the biggest hurdle that was stopping me from doing things.

When I became a raid leader in The Burning Crusade, this was probably the pinnacle of my raiding career where the team was able to complete some of the hardest challenges in the game. I ended up quitting the game just before Wrath of the Lich King came out (primarily due to Gamer Regret, where you look at how many hours you spent in a game and wonder what you could have done with that time). When I eventually made a return to the game, it was very short lived. Suddenly there was this weight on my shoulders to perform at the level I once performed at. When I struggled to “just be awesome”,  I ended up cancelling my subscription. I knew full well that all it would take would be time to learn the new mechanics, but at the same time I didn’t (at the time) want to show vulnerability and the deterioration of skill (aka a loss of status).

Similarly, over the past couple of years, I’ve looked at starting up side projects. But as I was transitioning to more of a project management and leadership role, I for some reason was afraid to get my hands dirty in development work. The reason being was that I was surrounded by groups of really great developers and as their leader I didn’t want to demonstrate vulnerabilities. And as such, none of the ideas ever progressed passed the concept stage. I was certainly capable of development and in the past would develop prototypes to prove concepts. In fact, a lot more time was spent thinking about what could be done and what could be profitable than actually doing anything.

Now one of the biggest roadblocks for creation is judgment. And according to Jonathan Fields in his book Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance, judgment comes in three flavours.

  • Judgment from those whose approval you seek (e.g. peers, friends, family etc)
  • Judgment from those whose money you seek in exchange for your creations (e.g. investors, customers etc)
  • Judgment from yourself (even if your creation never sees the light of day)

And judgment leads to two big questions:

  1. Is this good enough?
  2. Am I good enough?

Most people are afraid of the answer to these two questions. After all, from a mindset of exercising mastery any kind of judgment will have an impact on your status. This is why judgment is often associated with a feeling of pain. As a consequence, we end up erring on the side of safety and caution which limits creativity or worse causes analysis paralysis or inactivity.

However, the world takes on a different view when you tackle it from a mindset of learning rather than a mindset of mastery. It’s ok if you don’t know everything and it’s ok if it’s not good enough because you can always use the excuse, “it was just a practice”. After all, when you’re learning it’s ok to make mistakes. Consequently, from a mindset of learning judgment is less painful because it is just feedback data and can then be interpreted as such. And as a creator, we need feedback data because it informs us on whether we’re going in the right direction or the wrong direction.

As an aside for the software developers out there, it’s almost like Waterfall is exercising mastery (I know everything up front) and Agile methods are from a position of learning (I’m not sure about everything, but I’ll learn and adapt as I go along).

So if you’re finding that you’re erring too far on the side of caution or you’re experiencing analysis paralysis, then take a step back, try and reframe what you’re doing into the context of learning (or experimenting) not only does it become more fun, it’s also a lot less stressful than trying to maintain a status.