Boredom vs Foolishness, How Doing Nothing Builds Productivity, Game Theory Research, and More

Bring Ambition Newsletter - April 1, 2021

Hi everyone and a warm welcome to new subscribers!

In the Bring Ambition Newsletter, I share 5+ things that are fascinating me lately in the world of professional and personal development, peak performance psychology, meta-learning, side hustles, and more. You'll receive unconventional resources, cool gadgets, practical advice, and other inspiring content.

As always, if you enjoy the newsletter please share with a friend!

1.) Boredom vs Foolishness

I had an interesting realization yesterday.

It was 6:30am. Instead of sleeping or getting ready for work like a normal human, I was putting the finishing touches on two woodworking projects.

At the beginning of the pandemic I took up woodworking, and in January started selling some pieces on Etsy. 15 sales later, I caught myself wondering, how do you go from 'complete beginner' to 'good enough to profit' in less than a year?

I think the answer to both is this: I hate being bored more than I hate looking like an idiot.

Boredom has its value. It leads to exploring and thinking — specifically, thinking about how to be less bored. But most people habitually distract themselves at the slightest hint of boredom with Netflix, social media, food, texting. They never make it past the first hurdle.

But if you can avoid the urge to distraction, if you can just sit with your thoughts and desires and fledgling ambition, this process will often lead to thoughts like "I wish I could do ___," or "I want to try ___." This is the beginning of something, whether it's learning, trying something new, taking up a hobby, or launching a business or other project.

But then fear creeps in: fear of failure, fear of the hard things that need to happen to reach your goal, fear of looking like a foolish beginner. This is obstacle number two, and it's where most dreams die.

Overcoming this hurdle is as simple as saying "F-ck it, I'm gonna try." And so you try something, but it's uncomfortable in every way.

Physically uncomfortable because your body isn't used to what you're doing, whether it's an exercise regimen, sitting over a writing desk, or pressing your sensitive fingertips against a fretboard. Plus, maybe - like me - you have a tendency to get hurt in the process of even the most benign activities.

But it's also uncomfortable in the sense that you are self-aware. You sense that you look like an idiot, and you do, because that's how beginners look. You're like a newborn zebra wobbling on its long, gangly legs. Except one that's hyper aware of the judgment of other, more coordinated, better-looking zebras.

It's also uncomfortable in the sense that continuous improvement requires discipline, consistency, self-honesty about what you need to fix, and maybe even wholesale lifestyle changes. So not only is it painful and embarrassing, but it's hard. Plus it's demoralizing because it's not obvious when you're making progress, if at all.

This third obstacle is treacherous. It's too easy to go back to doing nothing, to once again accept boredom over discomfort.

Sure, you can tinker with other variables to stay the course of improvement. We explored how the process of improving in itself bolsters your motivation, self-efficacy, and commitment. We also discussed how surrounding yourself with peers, mentors, and role models can help, and how to manage the uncomfortable but beneficial stress ("eustress") that accompanies skill development. These are just a few of the many factors that come into play.

But at the end of the day, it's too damn easy to give up and resignedly return to boredom and complacency.

Learn to despise boredom. So much so that it propels you past the urge to distract yourself, past the fear, and past the discomfort.

In time you will build the meta-skill of improvement in itself. Whatever you try, you'll learn to advance through the "foolish beginner" stages more quickly. You'll accumulate things to look forward to in your day-to-day — enjoyable hobbies, new things to learn, goals to accomplish.

You'll be so busy marching down the path to mastery that one day you'll discover, for better or worse, you are busier than ever... but you sure as hell aren't bored.

2.) How Doing Nothing Builds Productivity

Do you despise "wasted time?" In moments of downtime, are you ever overwhelmed by the urge to go "be productive?" This is a challenge for me as it is for many others.

This article was helpful and eye-opening: "How Being More Productive Starts With Doing Nothing" (paywall).

In the previous essay, we explored how simply sitting with your thoughts, resisting the urge to distract yourself in moments of downtime, can lead you to pay closer attention to your desires and ambitions. This in turn leads to trying new things, launching projects, learning, growth, etc.

The gist of this article is that once you're engaged in said "new things," brief moments of downtime remain critical. These periods of stillness are not just for resting and recharging — your brain uses the opportunity to reinforce long-term learning and productivity. The key is resisting the urge to maintain constant productivity, and strategically allow yourself moments of calm. Not mindfulness, per se, but mindlessness.


“In our efforts to squeeze every second from the day, it seems counterintuitive to watch a pot of coffee boil or gaze out the window. But your brain uses those free periods for important cleanup work, neuroscience research indicates. And during the pandemic, as the boundaries between work and home have blurred, it has become harder to create mental breaks."

3.) Painfully relevant Japanese word of the week:

"Tsundoku" means acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one's home without reading them.

This one hits too close to home.

(A similar English word might be "bibliomania.")

4.) Interesting research on Game Theory

"Humans display a reduced set of consistent behavioral phenotypes in dyadic games." Don't be dissuaded by the dense title. The gist of this article is that, in two player games, researchers' analysis showed that people usually fall into one of five categories or "phenotypes":

  • Envious (30%) — competitive; goal is to defeat opponent; "prevent their counterparts from receiving more payoff than themselves even when, by doing so, they diminish their own potential payoff"

  • Pessimist (21%) — goal is to maximize their minimum payoff and hedge bets; more risk averse

  • Optimist (20%) — goal is to maximize their absolute payoff; less risk aversion

  • Trustful (17%) — cooperative; goal is to cooperate regardless of context; trusting

  • "Other" (12%) — no consistent or predictable pattern

As someone who extensively teaches and studies personality, this is especially interesting given it explores how people act when competing or "behaving strategically." This is under-explored in personality research. The study of personality explores how people interact, how they prefer to behave, and how they orient themselves in the world. But Game Theory research hones in on how people behave in a competitive context — how people engage socially when they are pursuing particular outcomes. This is relevant not only to games, but other contexts like work, business, relationships, etc.

5.) It’s Gertie’s birthday!

Today our dachshund Gertrude turned 5 years old — join me in wishing her a happy birthday!

I’d love to hear your feedback on this newsletter — What did you enjoy? What's the worst thing about it that needs to be fixed as soon as possible? Reply here, or you can reach me on Twitter or Instagram.

Have a great weekend!

Jon D'Alessandro

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