Passion, Practice, Play, and Avoiding Bore-Out | Kota

Do you experience harmonious passion when engaging with the stuff that matters most? Or does “bore out” kick in because you start to take it all too seriously?

In this week’s Kota conversation we explored the relationship between passion, practice, and deliberate play. We considered ways to avoid “bore-out” when practising a new craft, skill, or habit.

The term “hidden potential” caught the sleeve of my attention when I saw the title of Adam Grant’s most recent book. It also gave me pause to reflect on the role of high sensitivity in human flourishing and how often we try ignoring and hiding it from view.

This season in The Haven, we are exploring some ideas around the theme of human potential, particularly the role of high sensitivity in helping us navigate and enjoy the depths within, around, and between us.

“It is neither work nor play, purpose nor purposelessness that satisfies us. It is the dance between.”

– Bernard de Koven

Deliberate Practice and Bore-Out

The 10,000-hour “rule” says it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. While it’s not that simple in reality, and the theory is not scientifically proven, it’s clear that deliberate practice is valuable for improving skills in predictable tasks with consistent moves. For example, swinging a golf club, solving a Rubik’s Cube, or playing a violin.

But when we treat it as something we’ve just got to repeat and repeat, practice can create bore-out. It can extinguish passion and cause us to resent things that used to be compelling and joyful.

This is why the quality of teachers, coaches, and mentors matters when we set out to explore our potential and improve a skill/learn a craft.

I had piano lessons as a kid and ended up quitting after they sucked my passion for music dry. It was different when I started learning drums. I had some great teachers who brought fun and play to developing and accidentally practising the core rudimental elements. This fuelled and sustained passion.

Can you think of a teaching experience led you to bore out? (Where you were encouraged or forced to repeat monotonous tasks repeatedly because you were told it’s “how you improve”)

Obsessive vs Harmonious Passion

Obsessive Passion is the relentless pursuit of an activity for a desired, often hazily defined or ever-changing outcome at the cost of all other things. The obsessively passionate person’s mind is fixed on the work, and it’s hard to know who they are outside of the obsessive passion. It is usually underpinned by an adaptive quest for belonging (e.g. to gain approval, validation, acceptance, etc.)

Harmonious Passion is an integrated activity that is highly valued and engaged in freely for improvement, growth, and flourishing. It is harmonious because it is an expression of life’s greater symphony. It is linked to flow state, which occurs when we experience an intrinsic connection (rather than a drive for extrinsic rewards/validation) to the activity.

There was a study of concert pianists who attained international acclaim before turning forty. It turned out that few were obsessed with their craft. Early on, most practised the piano for just an hour a day, and they weren’t raised by controlling, dominating drill sergeants. Their passion was ignited, and parents/teachers responded with the conditions to maintain motivation and enthusiasm.

They practised, not because they had to, but because they were interested. They enjoyed working with the teacher. And they wanted to explore, play, and improve.

Can you think of a teacher who encouraged your passion for an activity, subject, or craft?

Deliberate Play

Deliberate play breaks complex tasks into simpler parts using fun activities that help you hone a specific skill. I wonder if we might call it “Accidental Practice”, too.

In tennis, for example, you might hone your serving skills by challenging yourself to see how many times you can hit the line with your serve in a row (or within a time limit). Your score is not a symbol of victory; it’s a gauge of progress. You often see sports people playing other games during drills and warmups. These games they play are not simply fun; they have a component of practice that prepares them for performance.

Gamification and deliberate play are different. On the one hand, gamification offers external rewards to inject a dopamine rush into a tedious task or to get you to do something desired/required by the person setting the task. Gamification doesn’t trick you into liking a boring routine; it just makes doing it worthwhile. Deliberate play, on the other hand, makes the task itself intrinsically enjoyable and motivating.

Are there examples of deliberate play you’ve used?

Think of something you’d like to improve or grow. What are the orthodox practices associated with improving?

  • Scales
  • Rudiments
  • Drills

Or aspects of life/work you struggle with:

  • Marketing
  • Admin
  • Taxes
  • Chores

How could we bring deliberate play into those practices?

The Marshmallow Test

The Marshmallow Test is often interpreted as an issue of willpower, but there is another interpretation that subsequent tests of a similar nature have reinforced. Adam Grant points out that kids who resisted temptation didn’t exhibit greater willpower; they created mental scaffolding to remove the need for willpower. They used their creativity, and some turned resistance into play.

Some covered the marshmallow while others covered their eyes or looked elsewhere. A few sat on their hands, and one turned the marshmallow into a ball he could bounce around as a toy.

Grant concludes that they had intuitively devised forms of deliberate play to achieve the desired outcome (and negate the need for willpower).

Can you think of areas of life where deliberate play could provide a helpful distraction?

Play and Breaks

Regular breaks are vital to stop passion from turning into a grind.

Play is not a meaningless activity. It connects us with joy and accidental mastery.
Rest is not a waste of time. Breaks reset our attention and allow ideas to incubate and integrate.

Obsession sees rest as a backwards step that causes us to fall behind. Excellence requires exhaustion.
Harmony sees rest as generative and sustaining.

Toxic culture = you earn a break
Good culture = you need a break
Vibrant culture = you want a break

How do these distinctions speak to you?

Taking regular breaks has three benefits:

  1. They maintain harmonious passion (short breaks are enough to reduce fatigue and raise energy)
  2. They unlock fresh ideas (I always have new ideas on holiday when dots connect and threads untangle themselves because I’m not forcing anything)
  3. They deepen learning (studies show improved recall when people take a ten-minute break after learning something)

Can you think of times you’ve experienced these benefits from taking breaks?

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