Think about the last time you worked out hard.
Was it fun while you were doing it? Hell no.
It was probably somewhere between bearable (“Come on Pete! Only 6 more minutes. You got this.”) and terrible (“I can’t do this. Yes I can … look I’m still moving. Maybe I should stop. No! I got this.”).
Then think about how you felt when you finished.
You were breathing heavy. Maybe you were hurting. But most of all you felt like a formidable beast. You felt proud of yourself. You felt purposeful.
Throughout this whole arc, “fun” was never the primary experience.
And that’s because fun is overrated. At least how we traditionally think of “fun.”
In the backpacking community, there are a few different definitions of fun - Type 1, Type 2, and Type 3 fun.1
Type 1 Fun is the way most people think of fun: Things you love doing that aren’t too hard: Going on a beautiful hike, going out to eat with your people, playing your favorite sport or game, relaxing with coffee and a great book.
Type 2 Fun is challenging and occasionally even terrible in the moment, but after the fact, you would describe it as rewarding, meaningful, and yes, fun. You’re very glad you did it even if you don’t feel like doing it again for a while. Think: Hard workout, writing a book, having a difficult but necessary conversation with a boss or partner.2
Type 3 Fun is just no fun at all. Maybe it’s doing data entry, or cleaning the bathroom, or falling into an ice cold river, or putting yourself into a life-threatening situation.3
The composer Stephen Sondheim once said:
“I love inventing. The hard part is the execution, obviously. But even that’s fun … When I say ‘fun,’ of course, I’m talking about agonizing fun — I’m not talking about pleasant fun.”
Sondheim is talking about Type 2 Fun. He loves inventing because he is a Type 2 person.
At the core of the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 fun is the difference between happiness and meaning.
In his book The All-or-Nothing Marriage4, the author Eli J. Finkel defines happiness as a “High pleasure-to-pain ratio” and meaning as a “High purpose-to-insgnificance ratio.”
Type 1 people prioritize their pleasure-to-pain ratio, and Type 2 people prioritize their purpose-to-insignificance ratio.
While we definitely want to have both types of fun, research has shown that people who consistently seek meaning over mere pleasure are more content and satisfied with their lives.
So what does a high purpose-to-insignficance mean in practice?
Finkel says that to we can optimize this ratio by “striving for excellence in domains that are linked to one’s authentic self.”
You can apply this to your work, relationships, fitness, or hobbies. By focusing on becoming excellent in any of these domains, we generate meaning.
Becoming excellent is a slow, arduous, difficult, frustrating process. It’s a hell of a lot of Type 2 fun, punctuated by occasional Type 1 and Type 3 fun. But at the end of the day, becoming excellent gives us meaning and meaning gives us enduring (rather than fleeting) happiness.
Showing up everyday is hard. Doing the work is hard. Pushing yourself over the hump is hard. But Type 2 people know that doing hard things is fun.
What type of person do you want to be today?
1 Shout out to my sister Caroline for teaching me this.
2 Some definitions define Type 2 fun as “terrible the entire time you’re doing it,” but I don’t think it has to be. I define it more as really challenging, often hard to continue, but also filled with exhilaration and purpose (and yes even some happiness) while you’re doing it.
3 I believe it may be possible to eliminate this category altogether if you develop the right mindset.
4 (Which is where I first read that Sondheim quote.)
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