Challenge, Rewards and Competency
The importance of challenge has been a recurrent theme in my reflections over the years both on what makes us happy, and what makes us better at what we do. A recent conversation with a friend brought into focus for me an interesting dimension to this: that it is not so much the objective level of achievement that determines our sense of an activity being rewarding, but the extent to which we feel we are growing through it.
Maybe this is obvious, but I found it worth stopping to think about for a moment.
The conversation was about that decision that we all periodically have to make to discontinue a commitment. My friend had found herself taking on more and more activities - as interesting people are prone to do - to a level that had been sustainable when she was in a job she was familiar with, but was just too much when she took on a new role. What was interesting was that the ensemble she chose to resign from was the one that (a) she had been performing with for the longest time and (b) operates at the highest level of all her current activities.
It had not been an easy decision of course - when you've invested a lot of time and commitment into something, the instinct is to validate that investment by continuing it. And for a long time, performing in a group with advanced skills had been giving her great personal satisfaction.
But it turns out that these rewards pale in comparison to those of personal growth. The ensemble she left is well-established, and she was a well-established member of it, but her experience within it had shifted over to a sense of maintenance rather than development. The level is high, but the rate of change is no longer as fast as it once was; moreover, she has already developed the skills she needed to contribute. Whilst pleasure and meaning were still available, the key element of challenge had faded for her.
The groups she chose to continue with, in contrast, would to an outsider look somewhat less accomplished. But both are developing quite rapidly at the moment, and both are requiring my friend to adapt and acquire new skills in process. And this process of aspiring to excellence is proving far more exciting than simply maintaining a high level already achieved.
There are several elements I find interesting here. First, there is the double layer of the individual's growth, and that of the ensemble. The two are related of course - the ensemble as a whole is never going to develop unless its members extend themselves. But it is possible for individuals to have an exciting journey of skill-acquisition when they first join an ensemble without the group as a whole necessarily having the same sense of movement.
I think I have just described what happens when an ensemble has an established core of members that remain year after year, while succeeding influxes of new members join and drift away a couple of years later. The new members have an exciting time catching up to the group as a whole, but once they're up to speed, the absence - or at least diminished level - of challenge dilutes their engagement until they no longer feel particularly lit up. Therefore, if your choir is good at recruiting, but never seems to grow in overall membership, it may be time to up the ante for your long-standing members.
But I think the link between individual and group development is stronger than the point simply that if the group as a whole stays still, the individuals won't be challenged. There is also a sense of what kind of contribution the individual can make. Working on your own skills isn't just about personal reward that increasing competency offers, it's also about feeling that you are thereby facilitating others. It is a wonderful thing to have that feeling of ruling the universe you get by mastering a skill; it is even better to help other people have that feeling too. Making a contribution adds meaning to challenge.
It is also probably fairly obvious that, whilst I had explored these ideas through the life of my friend, the patterns of experience I am describing are also those of my own life. I could use anecdotes from my own experience - not least my decision to leave what was in many ways a real plum of a job in higher education - to illustrate these ideas. But somehow it takes somebody's else's dilemmas and decisions to put your own into perspective. Self-awareness dawns best through thinking about people other than ourselves.