Yesterday, I was talking to one of my colleague and the discussion turned to “lack of challenging assignments” as a demotivator. What follows is a summary of my thoughts on this subject.

There is a class of people who constantly want challenges. Note: constantly. They want one challenge after another. Once they have successfully executed a challenging activity, they get a kick out of it. That’s what makes these people happy. That’s what makes them going. These people tend to be pretty aggressive in their pursuit and compete fiercely with others.

But any new field can offer you challenges only for a finite amount of time. Once you get the mastery in a domain, the challenges cease. A challenge is basically a stretch of your knowledge and skills. Once you keep handling the challenges of similar kinds, your knowledge and skills will be enhanced and you won’t find such assignments challenging any more.

When you start your life as a programmer, even a sorting program is challenging. However, with time, you can write a distributed filesystem with your eyes closed (metaphorically speaking).

You may choose to enter a new field but that will also offer you challenges only for finite amount of time. And then the challenge will cease there also.

And while you try out newer and newer fields, one more interesting thing will happen. You won’t find anything challenging even in domains you have never worked for!! That’s because you would realize that same kind of knowledge and same kind of skills are applicable everywhere. There is only very small domain specific information that you need which is very easy to get once you get the hang of quick learning.

So, what is the alternative for such people? By the way, yours truly was one among such people so these thoughts are from first hand experience ;)

One thing to find in work is challenge and the other one you can find is poetry! Yes poetry. It is kind of difficult to explain but I’ll give you some examples that will give you some idea.

Once I had gone to a circus. First came 5 girls riding bicycles. They were doing a good job of co-ordination and they were in general putting up a good show. It was evident they were trying very hard to do it. It was a challenge for them and once they were done, they were very happy at their feat.

After that, these girls vanished behind the curtain and out came another (different) girl on a bicycle. Oh, only if you had seen her. So much grace on her face and a lovely smile. A smile that said I am enjoying it right now right here. The kind of show that she had put up was just far better than what the first set of girls had done. But for this girl, nothing was challenging. It seemed that the bicycle she was riding was just an extension of her body. There was something poetry like in her show. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s something you just experience when the master of an art performs live in front of you.

Look at the musicians for example. Let’s take Ravi Shankar. He is a Sitar maestro. It is not challenging for him to play Sitar. But he enjoys the mere act of playing Sitar rather than getting a kick later that he could play it.

Look at any master of any art. There is no challenge, only joy.

When the challenge ceases, real joy begins. The poetry like joy. The joy of expressing yourself through the art. Make that joy the goal of your life and not the challenges on the way to that joy.

In the end, I would just quote a story here (it is called “The parable of Black Belt”):

Picture a martial artist kneeling before the master sensei in a ceremony to receive a hard-earned black belt. After years of relentless training, the student has finally reached a pinnacle of achievement in the discipline.

“Before granting the belt, you must pass one more test,” says the sensei.

“I am ready,” responds the student, expecting perhaps one final round of sparring.

“You must answer the essential question: What is the true meaning of the black belt?”

“The end of my journey,” says the student. “A well-deserved reward for all my hard work.”

The sensei waits for more. Clearly, he is not satisfied. Finally, the sensei speaks. “You are not yet ready for the black belt. Return in one year.”

A year later, the student kneels again in front of the sensei.

“What is the true meaning of the black belt?” asks the sensei.

“A symbol of distinction and the highest achievement in our art,” says the student.

The sensei says nothing for many minutes, waiting. Clearly, he is not satisfied. Finally, he speaks. “You are still not ready for the black belt. Return in one year.”

A year later, the student kneels once again in front of the sensei. And again the sensei asks: “What is the true meaning of the black belt?”

“The black belt represents the beginning – the start of a never-ending journey of discipline, work, and the pursuit of an ever-higher standard,” says the student.

“Yes. You are now ready to receive the black belt and begin your work.”