As the eldest son of cautious, lovingly-strict parents, I didn’t have a TV in my room until the end of high school. I was very excited about it at the time, but looking back I don’t really remember what I was watching. Apart from an earlier obsession with Star Trek: TNG (the *one* bedtime exception my parents made, as it aired in syndication late on Sunday’s evenings), I wasn’t particularly passionate about TV shows. Watching TV was just another thing I did.
Things changed in college. Life started to be scheduled around TV, not the other way around. Real passions ignited. Rituals emerged. The timing of things becomes fuzzy, but an early ritual I remember adopting during those years was falling asleep to Wings reruns in syndication. It certainly wasn’t Seinfeld or Cheers or NewsRadio… but it was comfortable. It was funny, enough. Also, apparently, it lulled me to sleep.
A few months ago, in need of something new to watch on my iPhone as I tried to fall asleep (rituals are not always wise but they do persist), I decided to revisit Wings. A decade later… would it hold up? Would I still laugh? Would I still pleasantly drift off to sleep?
In short, my answers soon became: no, not really, and yes. I’m not interested in evaluating the legitimacy of those answers, nor am I professionally equipped to do so. What I am interested in – enough to finally dust off this blog and sketch out a few thoughts – is why, despite learning the answer to those three questions after an episode or 5, did I continue watching?? Furthermore, why am I now, months later, moving through Season 6 with no signs of stopping until I finish the series?
A few potential answers that I think I can dismiss at the outset:
– as this was/is a pre-bedtime ritual, I don’t think good ol’ fashioned procrastination is to blame. No more work was going to get done, no matter what.
– similarly, I don’t think nostalgia is enough of a reason for me to have persisted so far into a show I’m not *particularly* enjoying.
– lastly, though it now seems clear that I prefer to fall asleep to the soft buzzing of hacky, way-too-often-resorting-to-gay-panic joke writing than face my own nighttime thoughts and fears, there are a number of other shows that I could – and perhaps should – be sampling from.
So. Why? My best guess (and I apologize for the circular logic that I’m about to display) was that: (a) I consciously stuck it out to see if it would get any better; and, along the way, (b) I unconsciously decided that there was going to be a payoff. Namely, that I would get to think about/blog about why it was that I kept watching. And because I’m an educational psychologist, this manufactured & self-fulfilling reward made me think about motivation.
And more specifically, about persistence. About why we keep doing some things, once started, and not others. It turns out, at least in traditional school environments, that we know quite a bit about how to get kids motivated to begin engaging with learning… but a good deal less about how to get them to persist. We also know this: people keep doing tasks (particularly tasks that are challenging or tedious or both) when they have salient goals that they value associated with those tasks. “It’s important for me to connect with my father over a shared hobby, so I’m going to take the time to learn how to whittle even though I’m so fucking terrible at whittling.” Fine. Good. Makes sense. It is also, I think, easy to see why someone without any salient goals might be likely to stop doing a thing – particularly if it is a thing that they never liked doing in the first place. Like, say, rewatch Wings.
Things become a little trickier, though, when it comes to *how* individuals value their goals. If I don’t care about being a good juggler, even if I can clearly see how a particular practice regime would get me there, then I’m going to have a hard time staying at it. Okay. Again, makes sense. But in reality, many of us aren’t all that sure what or why or how much we care about a lot of the things we do – even if we happen to do those things all the time. A very distal goal (e.g., I want to be wealthy, I want to be skinny, I want to graduate from frelling graduate school) might give us *just enough* drive to keep persisting at more proximal tasks that, in and of themselves, we may have little-to-no “persistence motivation” to keep doing. But that drive might easily – and often – fail us, and when it does…
These are idiosyncratic problems and, as such, are hard to deal with in the classroom setting because of the demands for one-size-fits-all solutions to motivating kids. One kid’s all-consuming goal is another kid’s stop-him-in-his-tracks nightmare. This is kind of a bummer and keeps many of us interested in school reform up at night… BUT, that’s a problem for another day. I’m here to think about one person’s peculiar persistence on watching Wings. And so when I reconsider this issue of (what/how/why I) value, I realize that I wasn’t sticking it out with Wings for a particular payoff as much as I was compelled to continue because I value my community of friends, colleagues, and virtual acquaintances who enjoy the shared experience of devouring TV culture – a shared experience that first resonated with me back in college when the passions first flamed. And I was just looking for something – anything – that would let me dangle my toes in the water.