"Nothing is fun until you're good at it."
intriguing statement, philosophy and belief is supposedly at the core
of Amy Chua's controversial new book about "Tiger Mother" parenting. I
have no desire to join the general chorus of outrage or defenders of the
book, or of Chua as a parent. But in reading Janet Maslin's New York Times review
of the book, that statement caught my attention. Chua's book, Maslin
says, "enforces a single guiding principle that is more reasonable than
all the yelling suggests: 'What Chinese parents understand is that
nothing is fun until you're good at it.'"
interesting idea, but is it true? Are activities only fun when we get
good at them? And, conversely, does that mean that if we're good at
something, it must also be fun--at least at some level? What is the relationship between excellence and fun?
there is some base line of competence for most activities that's
required in order for them to be fun. If you can't go more than 10 feet
down a mountain without falling, skiing is not fun. And some kind of
positive reward ... discovering that you're not the worst at something,
or that your time was faster than you thought ... can transform a
reluctant participant into a zealous enthusiast, as health writer Gina
Kolata pointed out
in one of her columns last fall. But if competence at an activity is
directly linked with how enjoyable it is, then professional superstars
and Olympic medal-winners at the top of their game should be having the
most fun of all. And that isn't always the case.
Barry Sanders, who was one of the top NFL running backs of all time.
He's one of only six NFL players to accumulate over 2,000 yards rushing
in a single season, and he ranks third in total career rushing yards of
all time (surpassed only by Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith). Yet in
1998, at the height of his career, Sanders walked away from football
completely, saying that his desire not to play the sport anymore was
stronger than his desire to play.
could argue that part of the reason Sanders wasn't having fun anymore
was because, while his personal performance was excellent, the
performance of the team he was playing for (the Detroit Lions) was not.
But Sanders is not alone. Matt Biondi, one of the best Olympic swimmers
the U.S. has ever produced, won 11 Olympic medals, 8 of them gold. And
yet, by the time he competed in his final Olympic games, in 1992, he told
Sports Illustrated, "I can't tell you how many mornings I got to the
pool and stood over the cold water and just had to force myself to drop
in." Biondi went on to win two gold medals and one silver medal at the
games ... and then walked away from swimming. A few years later, when he
took on a second career as a high school teacher, he chose to teach at a
school without a swim team.
So if athletes at the top of their game aren't always enjoying the activity at which they excel, what is the link between competence and enjoyment? Not surprisingly, it's not as simple as Chua's words make it sound.
Sean McCann, senior sport psychologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee,
points to research by Mihaily Csikszentmihalyi (of "Flow" fame)
regarding what makes an activity fun. "The place where people are most
engaged in an activity," McCann says, "and where they're having the most
optimal experience, is where the challenge is about equal to your
Fun, in other words, can be found at
any competence level, as long as a basic ability to participate is met.
So the Tiger Mom is wrong. Except it's still not that simple. For some
people, fun isn't about an optimal experience. It's about external goals
"People are motivated
by different things," explains Dr. David B. Coppel, a clinical and sport
psychologist at the University of Washington. "There are some
individuals who are process oriented, and some who are outcome-oriented.
Individuals who are absorbed in the experience of being active or
competing can have a great experience even if they don't win. But for
those who derive their success and pleasure from successful outcomes,
winning is more important."
Winning, of course,
is related to excellence. So for some people, being good at something
may, in fact, be necessary in order for it to be fun. Of course, if a
person has a perfectionist streak in them (or has perfectionist
expectations instilled in them), then even winning isn't fun, because
there's always something they could have done better. Dr. Coppel says
he's seen his share of people who "are highly successful but find fault
in anything they've done, so they're always dissatisfied." Which doesn't
sound particularly fun.
McCann also cautions
that pursuing an activity purely for external rewards can also reduce a
person's intrinsic motivation or ability to perform or enjoy the
activity for its own sake--a well-studied phenomenon known as the "overjustification effect.
" And, ironically, that loss of intrinsic motivation can influence the level of excellence a person achieves.
goals can be great motivators, but short-term, day to day, [an
activity] has to be fun, at least at times" McCann says. "There are
exceptions, but not at the highest levels of performance."
how does he explain cases like Matt Biondi? McCann shrugs. "You know,
people's incentives change, over time. You put in 10,000 hours, and
spend 10 years of your life doing something, and you become one of the
best at what you do, you may not get as much satisfaction out of it
anymore. But maybe you have a sponsorship deal, or the next Olympic
games are only 18 months away. So you keep at it. But you're doing it for something, as opposed to doing it because you love it. You can't keep that up. That's surviving. Not thriving."
best results, McCann says, have to come from an internally motivated
sense of fun and love of what you're doing. "I'm a big believer in fun
as a performance-enhancing device," he says. "I can't tell you how many
talented kids burn out and drop out of sports in their teens, as soon as
they begin to have a choice in what they do, because the focus was
always on external evaluation of their performance." Even if they have
exceptional natural ability and are very, very good at what they do.
find the people who are really having fun, McCann suggests looking at
highly successful coaches. "I know it's a stereotype," he acknowledges,
"but a remarkable number of successful coaches weren't the most talented
athletes. They were the kids who just loved a sport, and stuck around,
and got better and better at it, and now teach others how to do it,
because they still love it that much."
In other words, being good at something can make it more fun. But only if it's fun first. And only if being good at it doesn't get in the way of the fun.