My son Jamie and I were exploring, and we made our way down to a seldom used dock by the cottage.  We pushed aside the spider webs that floated above it (the spider webs there are so ubiquitous there they seem to attach themselves to the very air), and enjoyed the first bounce of buoyancy as our weight hit the wood.  Jamie, captivated by the sensation, jumped and rocked from side to side, testing just how far he could tilt the dock and send the water whooshing out from underneath us.  Of course I joined him.  It’s been a few years, to say the least, since I played on a dock, but it’s pretty irresistible once you start.

Eventually we tired of this and walked down to the end of the dock to peer over the edge.  Jamie proceeded to plunk himself down, take off his shoes, and drop his feet into the water.  Now, this is a two year old who can’t swim, so I dove for him, fearing that he was about to jump into the water.  But not a bit of it:  he just wanted to put his feet in the water.  Once I calmed down, I realized Jamie was on to a good thing.  Still holding on to him (safety first!), I took my own shoes off, sat down beside him, and put my feet into the cold water.

The water was so clear that we could clearly see the gently rounded, algae covered rocks underneath us.  There was also some sort of mysterious mesh thing, perhaps a long abandoned trap of some kind.  And, once the water settled down after all our activity on the dock, a timid school of minnows ventured to swim right by our feet.

I thought there was something enchanting about the fact that Jamie instinctively seemed to “get” the pleasure of dangling one’s feet off a dock.  Of course, it’s possible that he was just copying something he’d someone else do, but even if that were the case, he certainly didn’t hesitate.  He knows fun when he sees it.

As we sat there, watching the minnows and dragonflies (and keeping an eye out for the vicious horseflies that were around, in case you think this is getting too bucolic), it occurred to me that this was an experience of fun that we don’t need to work at.  You can’t get better at dangling your feet off the dock.  That is, I could perhaps have snorkelled down and figured out what the mesh thing was, and perhaps figured out exactly what kind of fish the minnows were, but I was never going to improve my feet-dangling skills.  Jamie, at two, already had just as much mastery over this experience as I – or anyone – was ever going to have.

This got me wondering how much room we make for this kind of fun in our lives.  It can seem these days that our approach to fun has been absorbed into a cultural paradigm that values mastery and competence so much that we unconsciously seek it in all dimensions of our lives.  If we enjoy something, we should strive be good at it!  We need to push ourselves, “take it to the next level”, test ourselves in a marathon rather than just run for fun, master French cooking, not just a soufflé.  And the few exceptions to this mostly seem tied to fun as consumption or entertainment, where the fun is being served up to us in the form of a trip to Disneyland, a movie, or some equivalent, where we can’t really get better at it, but then in some respects, we’re not really doing “it” in the first place.

The sociologist Micki McGee has said that we live in a self-help culture, one in which a fundamental insecurity is driving us to turn our lives into constant quests for self-improvement.  I think she’s right, and that this modality has colonized fun, so that it’s one more thing to be good at and the things that we find fun one more thing to master.

Let it be said that there’s every reason to believe that mastery and are profoundly important to human well-being.  Mental health experts say that they promote confidence and well-being and are crucial for building a healthy sense of self, one that is resistant to the doubts and self-loathing that are the bedfellows of depression.  Likewise, in his recent book Drive, author Daniel Pink says that mastery is one of the rare true motivators in life and suggests that companies that want to succeed should find a way to build opportunities for mastery into their work processes.  And, perhaps even more intriguingly, in their terrific book All Things Shining:  Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, philosophers <a title="All Things Shining Blog" href="” target=”_blank”>Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly suggest that a sort of version of mastery, based on the Greek idea of poiesis, may be a way to call forth the sacred into the world.  In their vision, this mastery is the skilled knowledge and nurturing spirit to bring things out at their best, such as, for example, a master woodworker knowing just how to work with a given piece of wood.

These are all good arguments for why mastery matters.  And there’s no doubt that pursuing mastery in something can be a lot of fun, perhaps because pursuit itself is so fun.  But.  There are also beautiful opportunities for fun that lie outside the realm of anything that we can master.  They occupy the moments in our lives that are simply living, not expressing or striving.  There needs to be room for them too.

When Jamie put his feet into that cold, clear water, he was simply a child doing something lovely.  When I put my feet in the water, it was, perhaps, a de facto, if momentary, act of resistance.  I wasn’t working on my kayaking skills, or my tennis serve, or my martini mixing, or my writing, or my cooking, or anything else I do because it’s fun and I genuinely want to be better at it.  I wasn’t mastering anything, and I wasn’t improving myself.  In this one thing, Jamie and I were already perfect.