Fear or Boredom?


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My daughter is learning to play the flute. As far as musical instruments go the flute is without a shadow of a doubt the best your child can learn.

I am still emotionally scared by my sister’s attempts to play the violin 30 years ago and a friend of mine was foolish enough to buy his son a 5 piece drum set, Lord alone knows what he was thinking.

A flute is a (relatively) quiet and melodic instrument.

But she doesn’t practice

I am spending a small fortune on flute lessons (not to mention the cost of the flute) but she doesn’t really practice much.

Which is odd, because she enjoys it when she can do it, but practice is hard. Practice displays the Goldilocks syndrome.

  • If it is too easy, if a tune is something that she can play well she gets bored, she doesn’t enjoy it.
  • Yet if the tune is too hard, she gets frustrated because she doesn’t believe she can do it and then she doesn’t enjoy it either.

For her to enjoy it , a tune must be just right, difficult enough to be a challenge but not so difficult that she gives up.

It isn’t just her

We all get bored with tasks that are too easy and anxious when we have tasks that are too hard.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi makes this point beautifully in his book Flow: The Psychology of Happiness. He added a perceptive diagram that explains it even further:


He argues that there is a place between boredom and anxiety where the challenge of the task matches the skill of the individual. That is the place he believes the state of flow is achieved.

Watching my daughter, I’d guess that flow and motivation are intrinsically linked.

Which causes a music teacher endless problems

  • How do you match up the skill of the pupil to the difficulty of the piece?
  • How wide is the “flow” channel”?
  • How do you keep that balance as a pupil’s level of skill increases?

But it is worse for a manager

It is one thing teaching music with a defined syllabus and a clear skill set. It is something all together different trying to balance skill and challenge when your staff are answering phones or moving pallets or stacking shelves all day.

So adding a little challenge and accountability to their daily work must be a good thing.

But not too much. Your staff might not dissolve into a flood of tears or scream that they “hate you”.

But they might just think it.

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Image by Anyaka

Republished with author's permission from original post.

James Lawther
James Lawther is a middle-aged middle manager. To reach this highly elevated position he has worked for many organisations, from supermarkets to tax collectors and has had multiple roles from running a night shift to doing operational research. He gets upset by operations that don't work and mildly apoplectic about poor customer service.


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