When we focus on making our lives easier and making ourselves happier, we sometimes sacrifice both depth and meaning. These are imperceptible losses because they are incremental, they cannot be measured, and we do not feel their absence quickly. There is more to life than comfort and a good mood. When we talk about happiness, we often conflate different concepts, including feeling good and deep satisfaction.
We have just finished a college semester, and listening to students complain about the professors, the work, the materials, and the assignments, instructors can become defensive, disillusioned, and defeated. Each classroom has students who are interested, intelligent, and ambitious. And the same classroom has students who lack confidence, are not well prepared, or have never been responsible for their own learning. Attempting to meet the needs of each student requires extreme thought and preparation, and overall it is not entirely possible.
What happens is that there are a small number of disgruntled students. Perhaps they see themselves as consumers who are dissatisfied with what they have bought. Or they expect more to be done for them in the learning environment. Because they are unhappy, they complain loudly. This response affects the administration of the university as well as the instructors of courses. What happens is that everyone attempts to avoid that negative response. The best way to do this is to modify materials, make the process easier, and mollify unhappy consumers.
This response to criticism costs us all. Because now all of the students have a toned down professor, dumbed down materials, and a pedestrian dialogue. We lose the chance to challenge the students who want the challenge. This process can happen anywhere, not just in the classroom. To the extent that we see effort as a bad thing and any unwanted emotion as a sign of a defect or problem, we are avoiding the edges of growth and the opportunities for repair.
Cal Newport, who writes the blog “Study Hacks,” talks about the process of doing deep work. One of the essential aspects of depth is that it takes us out of our comfort zone, according to him. I have written earlier about the importance of being willing to make effort in the interests of growth and depth. Here I am emphasizing the ways that avoiding what is difficult creates losses which are at the time perhaps imperceptible, but which, over time, result in a shallower, more trivial existence. In other words, if we are not reflective about how we regulate our lives, we tend to avoid effort, and we get immediate, but temporary relief while we give up more long term, lasting growth. Moreover, if we are part of a larger whole–a class, a work space, an organization–where this process of homogenizing and trivializing is operating, we can find ourselves robbed of what is possible simply because of the dissatisfaction of a few people in the group.
Obviously, we are agents in our own lives. We can make choices both about our own efforts and about how we engage in groups or spaces that we share. It absolutely matters whether we make the effort to challenge ourselves, and it matters just as much that we take a stand for what we value in the context of organizations and groups. One person does have an influence. Making our own voice heard is one of the many ways we move to the edge of our comfort zone and challenge ourselves. And in so doing, we push back against the encroachment of those imperceptible losses.