How do we balance having fun and being serious about what we’re doing? William Irvine’s book, A Guide to the Good Life, on Stoic wisdom can give us some guidance. Stoics want to live meaningful lives. One way to create meaning is having a desire to be tested. Seneca, one of the well-known Stoics said: “So far…is he from shrinking from the buffetings of circumstances or of men, that he counts even injury profitable, for through it he finds a means of putting himself to the proof and makes trial of his virtue.” Seneca uses the word “injury” to refer to judgments from others. In today’s words Seneca might say: Do we shrink from challenges, even judgments, because through them we find a means to prove and test ourselves?

Stoics practice seeing value in stressful events that occur to them. They do their best to see other people’s judgments or unexpected struggles as valuable experiences. They also practice denying themselves certain comforts that aren’t aligned with their goals. Doing this improves their ability to deal with the specific stressors that they’ll encounter on the learning journeys they’ve chosen. They practice being grateful for what they have, rather than fixate on what they don’t have. Doing this helps them focus in the moment on the current challenge.

Stoics are serious about how they approach life and it may seem as if they don’t have very much fun. However, they may have more fun than we think they do. Their practices shift their attention to the present moment, which can create more meaningful, engaging, and fun experiences.

We can create meaningful lives for ourselves by finding ways to have serious fun. We do this by balancing fun with seriousness. Let’s consider an example of a female athlete who competes to see how well she can navigate this balance.

First, she’s serious about what she does by setting meaningful goals. Having clear, specific, and measurable goals gives her vision to direct her learning process. Let’s say she sets a goal of making the National Team for sport climbing this year. That goal is clear, specific, and measurable.

Second, she aligns three aspects of her practice process that help her have fun as she works toward her goal:

  1. Goal/process hierarchy: She values both the goal and the learning process, but she puts them into a value hierarchy. Her primary focus is on valuing and enjoying the stress she’ll experience; her secondary focus is on achieving the goal. Being judged by others and unexpected struggles will inevitably occur and are part of her learning journey. She sees these as valuable, learning experiences.
  2. Comfort-based motivation: We have a natural tendency to be motivated by comfort. This motivation could cause her to spend time socializing with her friends during practice sessions at the gym. Having a goal helps her deny such comforts and directs her comfort-based motivation toward her stressful training.
  3. Focus: She’ll have many failures as she works toward her goal. Failures can be difficult to deal with if she ties her self-worth to them. Rather, she ties failures to her effort. When she fails, she realizes what she should change about her effort, which shifts her attention to the moment. She doesn’t fixate on wanting to succeed; she focuses on the learning opportunities she has.

Her goal of making the National Team for sport climbing informs her about what she’ll need to learn. She’ll need to develop skills that are specific to sport climbing, such as moving quickly, resting effectively, and moving with precision. She’ll also need to develop a variety of physical strengths, such as endurance, power, and power-endurance. She integrates these into a training program so her training flows easily and effectively.

Her goal/process hierarchy helps her focus on the process of her training. Her comfort-based motivation helps her find the easiest way to do the training, considering the goal she wants to achieve. Her focus on the effort helps her deal with failures, seeing them as learning opportunities. Together, these three aspects help her have fun because they shift her attention into the present moment. She’s grateful for the opportunity to apply herself to something meaningful.

We can do this for our own climbing. We’re serious by setting a clear, specific, and measurable goal: climbing a specific route that inspires us. We have fun because we align the three aspects for our learning journey. First, the climbing experience is more important than arriving at the top of the climb. Second, we allow our comfort-based motivation to help us climb efficiently, considering the goal we want to achieve. Third, we’re curious about our failures, when we literally fall short of the goal.

Having goals and aligning these three aspects help us have serious fun as we climb and live our lives. They help us meet challenges rather than shrink away from them. We use them not to prove our worth, but rather to prove that we’ve learned enough to pass a meaningful test we’ve chosen to engage. We’re serious and having fun at the same time.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Helen

    Hello community. Can anyone help? I fully agree with Arno that we shouldn’t tie outcomes to our self-worth. I try not to do so… but I keep feeling unworthy when I fail on my goals. Any ideas on what to do? Thanks in advance.

    1. Arno

      Hi Helen, a shift in attention can help. Follow this process:
      1. Notice when you feel good/bad about yourself after creating an outcome.
      2. Acknowledge that feeling good/bad about yourself based on outcomes is a natural tendency.
      3. Shift attention to effort (and away from identity). Do this by asking yourself: “What did I do well?” “What do I still need to learn?”
      4. Smile at yourself and enjoy the whole process

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