How to teach fulfillment

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.

In the first few years of my self-directed Ph.D, I alternated between feminist theory and American literature. So I ended up reading Madwoman in the Attic right before Portnoy’s Complaint.

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.


13 replies
  1. Luke Redd
    Luke Redd says:

    Yep, I think that we naturally feel resistance to doing the things that most fulfill us. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because of social programming that discourages the sincere expression of who we are. Torture seems like a sick way to attain a sense of accomplishment, but the concept certainly does hold true in my own experience. Although, I have to say this: While torture can be torture, it can also be euphoric (but only in spurts). The big reward is always the knowledge that you survived another round and maybe helped someone else by your efforts.

  2. S A
    S A says:

    I like the running analogy. For me distance running (> 10 miles) taught me a lot about trusting internal feedback. When running there are very few times when your body is telling you it’s a good idea and ‘this feels great!’. This doesn’t change with practice. You just learn how to distract your mind a bit. But when you’re done you know you’ve earned it. Hard to distill into words but if you quit a couple times and persevere a couple times you understand the difference.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I also like the running analogy. I hate running, but I did it a lot in high school and college. And the whole time I told myself “one foot in front of the other” and other truisms I had heard for not giving up. I never got good at running, but I got good at not stopping when things are hard. It makes me think maybe every kid should run a 10K to know how to keep going.


  3. CJ
    CJ says:

    I know a lot of people that equate challenge with fun. I fly airplanes, it’s hard as hell. Direction, physics, weather, none of it comes easy to me in the slightest and nothing is a better time for me. Writing is my zen. Also hard as hell, but it is awesome to complete a piece I like.

    I know lots of people that have been married many years, sure there were challenges, but yes, for many of us, there is no greater joy, fun, good time than going through life passionately in love with their life partner. It’s fun, it is wonderful, and I would say sometimes easy, sometimes hard, but that a great relationship makes things a lot easier to laugh about in life. And yah we should all be with someone that makes us laugh. I am in that 20 year category and I don’t care if it sounds cliche: Love a person with integrity who makes you laugh and things work out.

    I agree we need to teach our children and each other that true joy often comes from a lot of hard work. This can be hard when they see so many in our society miserable by overworking/workaholism though. Public school-race to nowhere stuff trickles over into all hard work and no joy in adult life. Yuck.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Your mention of volleyball and the theme of fulfillment made me think of Michael Jordan. He’s much more than just a super talented ball player and now businessman. He’s driven to excel. I think it’s in his DNA or something. An inspiration to many people and a great asset to the game of basketball.
    Anyways, his quote mentions fulfillment – “The game is my wife. It demands loyalty and responsibility, and it gives me back fulfillment and peace.”

  5. kristen
    kristen says:

    “The more you suffer, the more it shows you really care.”
    The Offspring

    I thought about this lyric a lot in med school.

  6. Adam
    Adam says:

    11am and already having a rough day at work. Thanks for the amazing post Penny this is exactly what I needed to read : )

    From one of my favorite backgrounds:

    “No rest is worth anything except the rest that is earned”

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I just want to say that there’s a lot to be said for quitters. Someone who worked at being extremely talented also ended up quitting everything else. So maybe we should all strive to be constructive quitters. But quitting is an important element of fulfillment, I think.


  7. Lisa Nielsen
    Lisa Nielsen says:

    It’s fun when no one has expectations of you and you don’t have expectations of yourself.

    That is the case in my life.

    I love writing because I don’t have to and when I do write I get the great conversations I crave. I love volleyball because I don’t have to and when do I always prove brains over brawn and bonus, it’s good exercise. I actually think my relationship with my boyfriend has improved because my mother is no longer here to judge…

    So, maybe the reality is that we can want fun things as long as no one is pestering us about it. As I write this Richard Feynman comes to mind. When being a nuclear physicist was removed from the equation he had fun with physics

  8. Erin
    Erin says:

    Hi Penelope,

    My natural inclination would be to agree with your premise. I have lived my entire life believing that the things that are hard are the only things worth doing, and I have a very long list of blood sweat and tears accomplishments to prove it.

    However, lately I’ve started to question that logic and wonder if in my relentless focus on taking on new challenges, I’ve missed out on a part of life that is equally important in terms of fulfillment-having fun, taking it easy, and not having to think.

    It is true that overcoming a challenge leads to a sense of accomplishment. However accomplishment isn’t the end all, be all, in terms of fulfillment. There is another side to that equation that is equally important.

    What do you think?

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