Philip Roth just announced his retirement. I’m not a huge fan of Philip Roth. I gave myself a Ph.D in 20th century literature in my 20’s, when, finally, no one was telling me what to read. I played volleyball during the day (it was my job) and I read a book every night.
Portnoy’s Complaint is famous for the scene where a boy, the protagonist, takes uncooked meat off the counter, uses it to masturbate, then puts it back on the counter and his mom cooks it and serves it for dinner.
How can you not love that book? That’s what I thought when I bought it. But Sandra Gilbert had taught me how to identify the Madwoman in the Attic: she’s the one in literature who has the thankless role of servicing the men in her life and feels unfulfilled and goes crazy.
Philip Roth features oppressive, pathetic Jewish mothers in many of his books. But really, if your kid is masturbating into dinner, how can you not go crazy? So I stopped reading Philip Roth, although I read enough to be conversant among the writer-snob crowd.
Anyway, he is retiring. And he said in an interview that he is so happy to be done with the daily frustration of writing. He said he’s sick of having to wake up and write and not know if he’s going to have to throw out the five pages he writes.
Writing is torture. People do not write—really write—because they love writing. They write because they can’t not write.
Adults have a really hard time grappling with the idea that what they want is actually not fun. Writing is not fun. Start-ups are not fun. I would have to say, in fact, that marriage is not fun. Loneliness is worse. But few people would call a twenty-year marriage a joy ride.
We need to train ourselves, and our kids, to understand and thereby to value, what is fulfilling. We feel good doing things that are fulfilling. Meeting challenges are fulfilling, but it’s difficult to present a child with a challenge he may or may not meet.
Too often we look for something that’s fun instead. But if it’s fun then it’s probably not challenging, and if it’s not challenging you won’t feel accomplished doing it over a long period of time. And don’t wait for something to be easy. That’s just another word for fun.
Fulfilling is what you see when you see someone like Philip Roth get up every day and write even though it’s torture. Fulfilling is what you see if you look behind the rolling eyes of a track star who has to run six more intervals. This is great training for how to have a good life. Because if you are always looking for fun at work then you’ll always feel like you are in the wrong place. If you are looking for fulfillment you will recognize, very quickly, where your right spot is.
Teaching kids that what feels good is what also feels hard is the first step to helping them feel fulfillment at work and in life. And that’s why, by the way, I went back to Philip Roth and read Goodbye Columbus. Any goal you set for yourself involves moving out of your comfort zone.