In the aftermath of a recent break-up, I managed to binge watch the entire second season of the Netflix show Master of None over the course of a weekend. The show stars Aziz Ansari as Dev Shah – a struggling, 30-something actor who lives in Brooklyn and whose life has some eerie similarities to my own.
Dev is obsessed with food, dating apps, and, at the end of the first season, goes through a devastating break-up. One huge difference is that, as season two begins, Dev has responded to his heartache and professional struggles by moving to a small town in Italy to work as an apprentice pasta-maker while I had only moved from my living room to my kitchen and back to get another three bowls of Fruit Loops.
At the end of my terrible, anti-social weekend of television and self-imposed sadness, I didn’t feel any better about my life. More important, I also wasn’t in any better position to deal with the task of putting myself back together. And although I know it’s never a good idea to read too much into fictional TV shows, watching Dev return to New York more confident and professionally focused (and, of course, able to speak Italian and make delicious fresh pasta) made me realize that I wasn’t doing myself any favors by settling for the consolation and solitude of my couch.
Now, all of Dev’s life problems aren’t suddenly solved by his big move, but Master of None is one of the best pop culture depictions of the advantages of a brief departure from your comfort zone and injecting some confusion into your life.
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Why confusion trumps boredom
It might sound strange, but sometimes, a little confusion is exactly what the mind needs to shake up feelings of stagnation or depression. Dev is sad about a romantic bump in the road, feels dejected about his career after getting edited out of a movie, and is dwelling on whether he broke up with his ex-girlfriend Rachel for the wrong reasons. But rather than decide to stew in these feelings, he embraces something new, exciting, and chaotic, learning new skills that he has no experience with in an effort to jump-start his old creative impulses.
Being good at your job, after all, isn’t the only ingredient to being successful. Nor is it enough to make sure you’re happy at work. If you’re good at what you do, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut or bored with the routines you develop at work. A 2004 study in the Journal of Educational Media found that boredom was one of the most toxic emotions possible for anyone trying to learn new skills.
For that study, people worked through lessons on basic computer literacy, while researchers charted their various emotional states, be it boredom, confusion, or frustration. Surprisingly enough, confusion saw the most positive correlation — consistent with a larger model that showed deeper learning happens when your brain is out of balance or in a state of what some call “cognitive disequilibrium.” Boredom, on the other hand, is disastrous if you’re trying to learn new things, since your brain is basically shut off rather than in an active, engaged state.
It’s okay to feel out of your element
One scene from Master of None that still sticks out to me is Dev’s daily routine in Italy in which he gets taken to task by a scary pasta-making expert, who goes through each individual shell he made in the morning and tells him which ones work and which ones don’t. It seemed like a nice metaphor for any learning experience or any new endeavor you take on: It’s okay to be bad at something, you’re not always going to be bad at it.
I thought of Dev’s confusion at learning a new language and navigating a small town where he can’t lean on his established skills to get by. That kind of atmosphere might seem intimidating, but if you want to challenge yourself or learn new things, it’s the best way to do it — embrace the confusion and your brain will start working harder to figure it all out.
At the end of the weekend, I gave up on cereal and made myself dinner using a new penne recipe. And sure, the pasta might have come from a box, but it was a good first step.