Difficult, Meaningless, Necessary

There are some things in life that are enjoyable and some that are not. Ideally, we have a majority of things in our lives that are enjoyable and then a few that are not so enjoyable. I want to share some ideas and experience in the whole business of “doing what you don’t want to do but seems necessary.”

Really necessary?

Not all things that seem necessary are really necessary. This is the real tough question that we need to face when confronted with the seeming necessity of doing something. And this question is not easy to answer. Let me give you an example. I just made a call to an agent of a company that we do some small business with. Luckily, I got voicemail so I didn’t have to talk to “Laura,” whoever she is. She’s probably a nice person doing her job somewhere in New York or South Dakota. Maybe she works at home and just calls customers. I didn’t really want to talk to Laura, but it seemed a gesture that might take me a minute or two to do, so I made the call. The “please call Laura” note was on my desk for 4 or 5 days. Another document on my desk is a form that I have been asked to fill out for a research study I’ve been in at the University of Wisconsin for 10 or 15 years. I am still staring at this document that I have been asked to fill out. They even promise me for it; I can’t remember how much, maybe $25 or $50. I don’t want to do this but it seems that I “should.” Since I’ve avoided filling out this document for a couple of weeks, I’ll probably get around to doing it today unless something more important comes across my desk. I also made a call to a test distributer this morning that I had been postponing for a week or so, and go my desk is almost clean from stuff I don’t want to do. And I have what insurance companies call a “preauthorization” form so we can get paid for the psychological testing that we do all the time. It’s a chore, but I can usually get it accomplished in about 5 minutes and then give it to Cheri to kindly put it on the Internet to the insurance company.

These trivial tasks are not particularly important but do take some emotional energy, whether avoiding or doing, because they are things that I don’t want to do, things that don’t really give me much pleasure, aside from having them off my desk. But larger questions and seeming important things are harder to decide about. Deb and I have a supporting wall in our house that seems to need some repair, probably serious repair. I have looked at this bulging wall in the basement for years and haven’t decided what to do, or if to do anything about it. The decision about doing something about the collapsing wall is much more serious, much more costly, and much more something that I don’t want to do. (I would hire it out, not do it myself.) It is notable that there is a certain amount of emotional energy that goes into the thinking, feeling, and wondering about such projects.

Emotional energy

This is quite important, namely that “things that I don’t want to do but seem to things that I should do” take a bit of a toll on me, as they certainly do on you. The question is always first, “Should or Should not,” but then the questions “When and How?” come up pretty quickly. While waiting and wondering, it is impossible to put such things entirely out of you mind, so there is a tendency to think too much, worry too much, and probably avoid too much. Such decisions, namely the “should/should not/when/if/how” questions are not easily made. There is always a cost, not only a financial cost, like with the basement wall, but also the emotional cost, and the rational cost. So, should I fix the basement wall for maybe $10,000 or give that amount to the Salvation Army folks who are ministering to people in Indonesia? Too often people end up thinking too much while trying to push their mixed feelings away.

Dealing with the emotional element of such questions is of utmost importance, but this is no easy task because it means, without a doubt, that you will have some loss. You will lose something and gain something. You will buy something and have less money, or you will not buy something and do without the something that you want. So there is no way out of feeling sad when you face such decisions. Deb and I have written extensively about this in our book noting that sadness is an essential element in life. And it is certainly an essential element in decision-making, especially when it comes to large and important decisions.

The four questions of decision-making

We have worked with this “four question format of decision-making” for some time and have found it valuable. The four questions are:

  • Is it necessary to be done?
  • Can I do it?
  • Do I want to do it?
  • Should I do it?

Answering these questions is not as easy as it might seem. Furthermore, it is of utmost importance that you ask the third question, “Do I want to do it?” because most people skip right over this question having answered “yes” to question 2, “Can I do it?” mistakenly thinking that if they are capable of doing something, they should do it. When someone is capable of doing something, sometimes s/he wants to do it, sometimes not. Finally, when you get to the fourth question, “Should I do it?” the answer could be “yes” or “no” but the answer needs to be whether you really think that you should do it or not. This is complicated because sometimes the “something” shouldn’t actually be done, at least by you, and sometimes the “something” should be done by you. Here is where you have to be very honest. Just because you don’t want to do it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it; just because you want to do it, doesn’t mean that you should do it. But know this: when you actually decide to do it or not do it, you will feel both joy and sorrow: joy for having done it and sorrow for having done it; or joy for having not done it and sorrow for having not it. You have to accept both of these feelings. You might profit from the 80/20 rule.

The 80/20 rule

We use the “80/20” rule in such things, i.e. life should be about 80% about things that we enjoy and about 20% things that we don’t enjoy but seem necessary. But we also know that the lives of many people don’t reach the 80% enjoyable, and sometimes barely reach the level of 20% enjoyable. We meet such people every day in our work and often in our other contacts in life, whether friends, family, or brief encounters we have.

This is a whole lot harder than it seems to do. You can assess how you are doing in your life of doing and not doing by seeing how much of your life you enjoy. Hopefully, you enjoy most of your life, like 80% of it, because you are doing most of what you want. It might be helpful to consider the “spectrum of like/dislike” that we often use.

The Like/Dislike Spectrum

Consider the following spectrum of what you like and dislike from strongly like to strongly dislike with several stops in between:

Strong positive                                    Neutral                                    Strong negative


Necessary //Good (for me) //Important //Like// Dislike //Unimportant //Bad (for me)// Harmful

Consider something, someone, some place, some idea, or some project in your life and see if you can place that thing, person, place, idea, or project on this line somewhere. You may have, for instance, an acquaintance who is not particularly important in your life but you like him, or you may have someone who had a place in your life that you really like and hence is “good for you.” Now consider a project that seemingly needs to be done and place it on this spectrum, say, on the “negative” side of “don’t like” very much. Once you place the project on this line, you will see that it is a bit easier to decide whether to do it or not do it. Just because you really like a project doesn’t mean you should do it, and just because you really don’t want to do it, doesn’t mean that you should not do it. Just note how you feel, which is the operative word. Once you see how you feel, you can respect your feelings and then proceed with deciding whether to do the project, like it or not, do it or not. You have been honest to your feelings first, then have taken action (yes or no).

Difficult, necessary, meaningless

Perhaps the most meaningless tasks I have to do are the insurance preauthorizations, namely filling out an inane form that describes in objective forms what I am doing with a patient in subjective terms. How can I quantify that I care for him and see my caring as important? How can I quantify the profit that may come to a child with whom I just play marbles (because neither of her parents ever plays with her), perhaps giving this girl a sense of joy and connection? You may have some meaningless things to do in your life that are necessary for you to do, just like it think it is necessary for me to see little Sarah. It’s a small price to pay.

On the other hand there are many meaningless things that are “bad for me” or “intolerable” after the system of like/dislike noted above. Then, no matter what the cost, no matter what the loss, no matter what anyone thinks of me, I shouldn’t do them. Know that there is some danger of “pushing” the “don’t like” way out to the harmful on the spectrum just because you don’t like it.

The task is to differentiate the truly necessary and valuable in a world that seems to require some much meaningless activity. So, by the way, I have successfully avoided completing the University form in favor of doing this blog.

The Best of Times. The Worst of Times

This is a quote from the first page of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, and it represents a profound statement of a good portion of life, namely that there is always a combination of good and bad to every experience we have in life. Dickens was speaking, now 200 years ago, about the good times and bad times in post-revolutionary France where the country was trying to find itself as a new democracy with all the good and bad about such a political system. Certainly, Dickens was speaking about the value of the French revolution that transformed the country from a royalty-dominated society to one governed democratically with “the people in control.” Dickens was also speaking of the abuses of the French revolution, or any revolution for that matter, which always has excesses and abuses, not the least of which were the frequent use of the guillotine as leaders of France shifted from left to right. Napoleonic rightwing excesses occurred after the leftwing Revolution as many Frenchmen came to want the authority that had existed under the nobles but had been lost in the creation of a democracy

I would dare say that there is no period of time, no country, no experience, no person, no relationship, and no idea that has not also been “the best of times” simultaneously with “the worst of times.” We tend to live in a society where people want things to be black or white, right or wrong, good or bad. This desire for there to be some exact right or wrong is a seeking of safety and security in the absolute. We currently see the absolute working itself out in the current political climate where, for instance, President Trump is seen as some kind of anti-Christ by some people but by many Trump followers as a person who just speaks what he believes and does what he wants, which is certainly right in his eyes and in the eyes of his many followers. I wrote a blog some time ago written about the “power” element of morality, borrowing from Jonathon Haight’s fine book on morality. The power of morality may seem like contradiction of terms, but it is not. Just ask Trumpers, many evangelicals, or the many people who follow dictators on many countries. There is nothing wrong with valuing power, but the danger of power is in its excesses: absolute power corrupts absolutely. Yet people yearn for the right person, the perfect person, the right morality, the perfect morality because it would be so nice, and so secure to have such a thing. But it doesn’t exist.

I was raised in the “best of times and the worst of times” with my family of origin. My household was libertarian, which means “do what you want and take the consequences of what you do.” I didn’t know it was libertarian at the time, but I knew both the “do what you want” and the “take the consequences of what you do” parts of my family. I was rarely punished but I suffered the consequences of my behavior many times. I took it as a matter of course that I would take the consequences of what I did. The best of times was that I was not criticized, castigated, demeaned, or threatened. I just did what I wanted and took the consequences. The best of times was the “do what you want” part; the worst of the times was taking the consequences. I recall missing the bus to school one day. We lived seven miles from school. So I came back home from the bus stop and told my mother that I had missed the bus. “I am so sorry, Ronny, that you missed the bus. That is too bad.” That is all she said. She didn’t berate me for my lifelong inclination towards tardiness. She didn’t threaten me. She didn’t say anything about getting out of bed earlier so I could catch the bus. She just said that she was sorry. But I knew what that meant, and I didn’t have to ask. It meant I would walk to school. Seven miles. I did that once. We never talked about it again, and I never was late for the bus again. The best of times and the worst of times. Great to have freedom, but not so great to take the consequences of freedom when you are tardy. This situation where I was never criticized or shamed gave me great self-confidence. I simply thought well of myself, not particularly better than anyone else. But this self-assurance did not play well in many circumstances because was perceived as arrogant. I wasn’t arrogant, i.e. feeling better than anyone else. I just felt good about me. Much of my self-esteem was developed in the trial-and-error nature of a libertarian atmosphere where you take the consequences of your behavior, good or bad, and are not inclined to blame anyone for your errors. This was the best of times. The worst of times is that this attitude of self-confidence did not play well in the real world of America where everyone and everything is criticized, blamed, or shamed. I wasn’t prepared for that part of life and it took me some time to understand the “best of times and worst of times” with having confidence.

In addition to the “best of times” in my libertarian family, I also had the privilege of saying whatever came to mind. Some of this was that both of my parents were extraverts, as I am by nature, but it was more than that because we had a household of everyone saying whatever they wanted to say with very little governance. We didn’t yell and swear at one another, but we would express our feelings and our thoughts without restraint. It took me decades of trials, and many painful errors to learn to govern what I say. Like, some places you can talk of God as a real entity in your life, and in other places you can use curse words seemingly using his name in vain. But I didn’t discriminate in my expressions of “God loves me” one moment and “godamnit” the next moment. The best of times was freedom of expression; the worst of times was the emotional damage that did to me, which in turn led to be being emotionally damaged by people whom I had hurt or scared But enough about me.

I would like you to consider the “best of times/worst of times” in your own life. This might be any of the following:

  • Love your job; don’t make enough money at it
  • Hate your job, but you make lots of money
  • Lover your spouse, but don’t like her
  • Like your spouse, but really don’t think you love her
  • Love your kids; hate the fact that they are so demanding
  • Love to eat junk food; hate the fact that it’s bad for you
  • Good to have a family; not usually good to be with them
  • Good to be alone, but it’s often lonely
  • Fun to watch TV, but don’t feel so good after 3 hours of TV drama
  • Love your sports car; don’t like that you can’t drive it in the winter
  • Love God; don’t like what God seemingly allows
  • Lover your political persuasion; don’t agree with much of it at the same time

There is much to be said to allow yourself to have these paradoxical thoughts and feelings. We are living in a time when people want simple, exact, and perfect answers, but it is equally likely that humankind has always wanted such things, like “always right” or “always wrong.” No such luck. We have to contend with these paradoxes of life. I have found that the more I admit to these mixed feelings, the best and the worst, the paradoxes of life, the more it becomes clear to me what my correct course of action should be.

Temperament VI, Players: Challenges and Opportunities

This is the sixth in a series of blogs on “temperament,” which is the primary way we understand personality differences in people. Previous blogs have summarized the four temperaments as we seen them: player, analyst, lover, and caretakers. The primary ingredient of a player is his or her desire for experience. You might want to review the player blog (Temperament II) for more information on how players feel, think and operate in life.

Players are loved or hated. They will be entertain you or offend you. They bring much joy and fun to the world, which is their special gift but they get into more difficulties in life than all the other temperaments combined. The difficulties are sometimes of their own making and sometimes from the negative reaction that they so often get from people who simply may not want to play all the time. Our North American culture has long neglected players, and the play they bring to the world. Worse yet, players have been truly despised because of the offense they bring to people, always unintentional. Their cavalier nature leads them to their being judged as irresponsible, disrespectful, or dangerous. Male players are seen as playboys who just want to get all they can from people, while female players are seen as wild women who abandon respectability and responsibility. This judgmental attitude toward players has not helped players mature. It has made them defensive. Worse yet, the offense that players so often give has prevented them from successfully giving to the world what it so desperately needs: fun and joy.

It would be wonderful if players were able to bring to the culture the element of play so as to enhance society and improve society, just as it would be equally wonderful for the world to profit from the gifts that analysts, caretakers, and analysts have for the world. The key for players to succeed in life is for them to understand themselves, value themselves, and successfully communicate themselves. Understanding, valuing, and communicating is a challenge for anyone, but it is hardest for players because they don’t put much effort in communicating. They just engage, experience and excite assuming that their audience will understand their intention to bring fun to the world. For players, fun and the joy that comes with it is what life is about. It is only through painful maturity that players are able to be themselves and find ways to use their gifts, a maturity that many players fail to find. But when players find ways to be themselves while also understanding people of different temperaments, they can be at their best.

Challenges for players

  1. The Boredom Challenge.

Because of their strong inclination towards excitement, players are very inclined to become bored. They are especially bored with anything that is repetitive, largely because something that is repeated is not new. Since so much of normal life requires people to do things repetitively, it can be difficult for players to simply do much of what we consider to be normal and necessary. Players are at their worst when there is nothing new to a procedure, nothing new to a day, or nothing new to an hour. A player’s mantra is something like, “If I have seen it before, heard it before, or done it before, it is boring to see it, hear it, or do it again.” While players can’t tolerate most things that are truly repetitive, they can repeat things that offer some opportunity for change.

When players have not had enough of the new, exciting, and different, they can fall in a boredom so severe that they are depressed. Because their basic nature is so excitement-oriented and based on something new or temporarily different, they are psychologically depleted when they are forced to do the routine and repetitive. They can even become disoriented in life and become quite self-critical thinking that they should be able to do what everyone else seems to be able to do. When players have been in situations that are intrinsically boring to them, they can say or do things that are quite inappropriate or even harmful because they are desperate to get out of their boredom.

  1. The Academic Challenge

Players generally find school to be boring. At least traditional school. The academic challenge is huge for players. School, as we typically know it, is not designed for players. The very nature of sitting in a class for an hour with a teacher lecturing is unnatural for players because it is not experiential and certainly not exciting and adventuresome. Fortunately, alternative schools and online classes have begun to remedy some of this difficulty giving players and other nontraditional students a way to learn. Even so, very nature of the traditional American learning environment does not serve players. Players are usually right brained. We also know that there are many ways of learning, specifically by hearing, seeing, and doing. These ways of learning are usually called auditory (words), visual (seeing), and kinesthetic (hands-on). Most of traditional classrooms focus on hearing and its cognates: writing, reading, and speaking. Ninety percent of school has to do with words, whether spoken, written, or read despite the fact that most people learn by doing (kinesthetic) or watching (visual). Players tend to be in this group.

Players actually learn quite well if they are given a chance to learn the way they learn. Simply put, they need to see things and to touch things. If we would allow for these ways of learning, players would fare much better. But it is no easy challenge for teachers and school administrators to find ways to help player children learn, and ultimately get excited about learning, if learning is going to be primarily words-based. The typical player kid enters a classroom ready to experience something, either personally by engaging physically in the activity or vicariously by seeing someone else engaged in the activity. Consider how hard it would be to teach Shakespeare to a player child who doesn’t necessarily want to learn Shakespearian words, but might be able to really grasp Shakespeare if she could be on the stage. Puck comes to mind again.

My wife, now a PhD psychologist, barely passed classes until late in her High School years when she took a psychology class and got her first academic A. Some of her difficulty in learning was due to the trauma associated with an abusive home life, but much of it was because of her player nature that made traditional learning difficult. Not until college did she learn that she could read well if she read out loud, read while walking, or read while she was signing (American Sign Language). She was liberated by simply having the privilege to roam hallways and city blocks with text books in hand. Player kids need to read a paragraph, get up and do a jig, and then read two paragraphs before looking at the leaves falling outside. If they are allowed this privilege of multi-focusing and multi-tasking, they can read the whole chapter and then the whole book, something Deb does routinely these days. The challenge is for parents and teachers to give players an environment that enhances their ways of learning without indulging their whims and wishes. We will discuss these positive possibilities later in this chapter. In the mean time we want to avoid diagnosing players with one or more commonly used diagnoses.

  1. The ADD challenge

We are all quite familiar with the phenomenon known as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and its subcategory ADD (without the hyperactivity component). The principal symptoms of ADHD are impulsivity, distractibility, and hyperactivity. More specifically, ADHD individuals may also “fail to give close attention to details,” “fail to listen when spoken to directly,” “reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort,” and many other behaviors. I think most of the people, both children and adults, who have been diagnosed with one form or another ADHD are players. I would suggest that instead of identifying these people as “inattentive” and unable to focus, we might consider that they might be “multiply-focused” and very attentive…to everything around them. Instead of being “impulsive” and disorderly, we might consider that they are simply seeking experience and excitement.

Deb and I were at a Dane Dance last night, one of the many wonderful opportunities in Madison for summer play. There was a little girl, probably around 10 or 12 who wore a shirt that simply said “This is my summer shirt.” The clincher was that the phase was written upside down! I thought, “yup, a player kid!” Maybe Mom was the player in the family and had the idea of an upside-down writing. Regardless, someone wanted to play with words. Mozart once played the piano while facing outward from the instrument, just to see if he could do it. Players might just learn better upside down or backwards because it is different…not wrong.

  1. The Discipline Challenge

Most people think of discipline as a means of punishment, but etymological root of the word discipline is learning. We get the words disciple (student) discipleship (learning) from the same Latin root. It is helpful to think of discipline as purposeful and active learning done with a certain effort and commitment. Successful professional players, like dancers, athletes, and musicians have disciplined themselves to work at their professional play. Yet discipline is a challenge for young players, and often for players of all ages, because of the requirement for work and purposeful effort. Free players, as we have defined them in the last chapter, have a particularly difficult time disciplining themselves in some purposeful activity because they are more interested in the play of the moment rather than in some kind of professional play. Free players, who are the bulk of players in the world, need to find ways to find discipline enjoyable, exciting, and ultimately rewarding. The key word here is ultimately, something that is not naturally a part of free players’ view of the world and of play. They want to play now, play easy, and play all the time with little effort into finding a way to play more successfully and purposefully. Their need for immediate stimulation makes discipline very challenging.

Whether in business, school, or relationships, players need discipline, the discipline to do what you don’t want to do now so you can do what you do want to do later. This kind of discipline has to start in childhood or it will be very difficult to find it later in life. If player children are indulged with too much free play, or restricted too much from any play, they will not find the balance of work and play that is essential to success in life. People with a caretaker temperament can work all the time, but this is absolutely not true of players. They may actually be able to accomplish just as much alternating between playing and working, but it can’t be work all the time. And it can’t be work first, play second. Play has to come first…but it can’t end with play. This is the challenge for players: they want to play all the time.

  1. The Offensive Challenge.

The biggest social problem players face is that they offend people by their intrusions, albeit without intending to do so. Both adult players and child players offend, but because children are not usually developed in self-awareness, much less self-governance, player children offend easily and often. They intrude on teachers and fellow students in class. They intrude on their parents and siblings. They even intrude on fellow players in group play or free play. The hardest social task for players who are truly seeking to mature in life is to remember that everyone doesn’t want to play all the time, and that players’ tendency to engage people in some kind of play is experienced as an uninvited intrusion. Players are misinterpreted as being purposefully intrusive and are pushed away, often with great offense. Players simply want to bring fun to other people. It is very hard on them when they disappoint other people, harder when they hurt other people, and hardest yet when they are criticized for playing. They think something like, “All I want to do is to have fun and bring fun to other people. Why does this offend people?”

The essence of the offense that players bring to people is that of emotional hurt. They hurt people when they violate other people’s boundaries, whether those boundaries are physical (usually caretakers), relational (usually lovers), or ethical (usually analysts). The teacher’s boundaries may simply be to finish his lesson plan, and she is hurt when she is not able to get the lesson done because of the player’s interruptions. Friends and partners are hurt by players’ seeming lack of concern about their property, time commitments, and predictability. Players hurt bosses and supervisors who may simply have a desire to get work done compared to the player’s desire to play at work. Player children offend their parents, siblings, and extended family members with frivolous statements or actions meant to be playful and enticing. First, players are unaware of the hurt they bring to other people, and secondly, they do not understand it because their honest desire is to bring joy and laughter to everyone.

  1. The Addictions Challenge.

The danger of addiction for players is neurological, or more accurately neurochemical. Excitement is much related to endorphins, which might be simply understood as “happy hormones.” Endorphins are secreted by the pituitary gland to reduce pain, but they are also secreted as a result of some activities, like running, dancing, eating, listening to music, and even laughing. Importantly, the secretion of endorphins is strongly related to all addictions. An addiction is an activity or a chemical that causes the secretion of endorphins. You can see how players could seek activities that induce the secretion of endorphins, and thereby be inclined to become addicted to some chemical substance or some activity. If something is potentially addictive, players have experimented with it. They usually are addicted to several activities and substances.

The charge of endorphins into their blood system is much of the cause of players’ becoming addicted to certain chemicals. Players usually have experimented with one or more addictive substances, usually settling on one of these substances as a drug of choice. Their tendency is to become addicted to substances that are stimulants, like nicotine, caffeine, and cocaine although alcohol can be a kind of stimulant in large doses. It is not by accident that the pharmacological drugs of choice for ADHD/players are stimulants, like Adderall, Vivance, and Ritalin. Much more rarely are players addicted to the prescribed sedatives and marijuana, but opiates can also raise the level of endorphins in the system. Many drugs find their way into players’ lives because they are in some daily activity, whether work or relationships, that are less than stimulating. They can even look forward to coming home and having “a bowl” (of pot) after tolerating a day on the (factory) line, while not particularly liking the sedating experience of pot. The quick fix nature of drugs gives players an easy way out of their life dilemma of how to survive in a non-playing world. I think that most alcoholics have at least have a large player element in them.

While players often become addicted to chemical substances, they are much more inclined to become addicted to some activity. Activities that are addictive are called behavioral addictions. Most typical among these activities is screen time: TV, Internet, Facebook, Facetime, Texting, and video-game playing. The addictive nature of screen time is the instantaneous nature of these activities. Screen time, which is benign in itself, is only one of the behavioral addictions that players are inclined to. People, whether players or not, become addicted to self-harmful behaviors like gambling, pornography, promiscuity, and fast driving. They also become addicted to essentially good activities that are taken to a fault, like overeating, undereating, shopping, running, working out, playing games, reading, and working. Sometimes addictions can lead to genuine deviance, criminality, or physical harm to others, but this is rare, at least for most players.

Contentment as a player

  1. Understand yourself, accept yourself, and enjoy yourself
  2. Be prepared to be sad often.
  3. Understand that most people will not understand you, accept you, and like you.
  4. Know that you will unintentionally hurt people.
  5. Add to your nature by developing the characteristics of other temperaments.

 Further Reading

Temperament II: The Player

Previously noted reading