The Boundary Between Boredom and Anxiety

By Patrick Cummings

I want you to imagine for a moment a classroom, all linoleum floor and chalk dust. At the head of the class stands a teacher. Within the rows of otherwise empty desks sits a single student.

You are the teacher and you are the student. You are this classroom. Minus the linoleum floors, hopefully.

The majority of youth is spent at this desk, looking out toward a teacher, at the mercy of curriculum and Bell Curves and hormones. We're taught dates, figures, mathematics.

Then one day our textbooks get shoved into boxes and moved from apartment to apartment, from one closet to the next until it's finally decided we won't ever again read Introductions to Psychological Disorders or The Associated Press Guide to Punctuation.

No longer are we expected to study. Nobody hands us a syllabus and a reading list. We land jobs and get experience, not grades.

We have mortgages, mouths to feed, cell phones to pay for. We grow up and get comfortable. We get distracted by shiny things outside the classroom window, so maybe our internal student gets bored. Maybe our internal teacher expects less and gets it. Maybe the electricty bill doesn't get paid and they sit in the dark listening to the other breathe, waiting for something to happen.

Then we get inspired. We wake up and decide to learn the guitar, that we want to get in shape or breed American Wirehair cats. We decide we want something more and the lights flicker back on.

So the teacher sets a big, stupid, audacious goal for the student--because it's what our best teachers always did--and writes it up on the chalkboard in crooked letters. He takes a seat at the desk and stares and waits for the student to get to work, to crack the books, to ace the test.

A day, a week, a month goes by. Maybe we make some progress, learn a new song or find some used cat carries on Craigslist. But the big, fat, audacious goal, it's still out there, looming, no closer now than it was when we started. And then the car needs new tires or a fourth Hunger Games is discovered in a used bookstore somewhere in Vienna. We take a week off from thinking about our goal, just a small vacation from our classroom. We watch television at night instead of practice. We order pizza instead of cook.

It all seems innocent enough, until we muster up the energy to snap the lights back on and we see the student, exhausted, frustrated, embarrassed. He's lost in a sea of expectations and sinking. And the teacher, sitting there, still staring and waiting.

And that's when it should hit us: The teacher has no idea what he's doing.

We've spent so much time being taught we're never shown how to teach. We think scribbling our goals up on the board is enough, but it's not even close.

Without acknowledging this duality, that we are both student and teacher, it's easy to think ourselves a failure and find the goal unattainable. Expecting to learn anything complex without some self-imposed structure is like expecting the pretty girl with the barbed wire neck tattoo to be emotionally stable. You could do it. But you'll be disappointed.

Left now to our own devices, left with no teacher to determine the course of our study, we must commit ourselves to becoming our own most effective educator.

We must first understand the difference between our big, stupid, audacious goal and the collection of subgoals hitchhiking on the road to success. We must make ourselves pay attention to them.

In his book, Flow, Mihaly Csikskenthmihalyi writes: "In all the activities people in our study reported engaging in, enjoyment comes at a very specfic point: whenever the opportunities for action perceived by the individual are equal to his or her capabilities…Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person's capacity to act."

Establishing for ourselves a series of realistic, attainable subgoals prevents us from being overwhelmed with the unavoidable reality that learning or accomplishing anything complex is hard. They allow us to continue enjoying the learning process, to create success like a snowball rolls downhill.

Our internal teacher must continue to take into account our student's reality. She must acknowledge that mastery is incremental, that process is king. Above all, our teacher must never forget where the classroom is headed. Life is distracting, full of video games and girls with barbed wire neck tattooes. A student's passion, motivation and inspiration are important, but without a teacher there to focus them, they are merely fireworks, explosions in the sky set to a stopwatch.

Mastery requires the heart of a student and the head of a teacher. Our success requires we never forget that.

Patrick Cummings is the Editor-in-Chief of Again Faster. Photograph courtesy of the author.