In praise of boredom

Nick Balaban commented on the most recent blog post Electronics Cold Turkey“Boredom is Great. I know the kids hate to hear me say it, but I hope someday they’ll appreciate how so much purpose and meaning springs from boredom, the most common existential pain.”

In Praise of Boredom

Idleness is not highly valued in our culture. The irony of Kierkegaard’s “Boredom is the root of all evil” is still audible, but he quickly moves on to his real point: “The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.” Boredom is the catalyst for creation, and yet we persist in treating it like the enemy. With the ubiquity of hand-held electronics—and the addictive small and large dose anti-boredom medications they supply—we have the option of a kind of boredom-free existence.

We seem to be driven to systematically protect ourselves from boredom as if it was the great Satan. The outlandish success of smart phone-based games like Angry Birds—and pretty much every other kind of mobile fun we indulge in—is designed to seamlessly fill the “in between” moments of our lives. Every minute that is not devoted to some primary activity is occupied with a lesser one. We have a need to fill every moment to prevent what you might call fallow time.

How have we come to this? Do we so loathe ourselves that we cannot spend even a moment alone with our thoughts?

Do we so loathe ourselves that we cannot spend even a moment alone with our thoughts?

30 years ago when I walked through the gates of the Wat Pah Nanachat in Northeastern Thailand, the Buddhist monk who welcomed me said, “We have a library, but I want to caution you. Most of us don’t get nearly enough time to just be with ourselves. You have the opportunity here to spend time with no books, no conversations, no television, nothing but your own thoughts. Take advantage of it.” During the subsequent months, some of my time “just sitting” was very boring. With meditation in solitude as the only thing on the agenda for more than 12 hours each day, it was in fact painful. However, the experience taught me to welcome nothing time.

But I have forgotten.

I cannot even remember the last time I truly did nothing for an hour. Can you?

When was the last time you did nothing even for 5 minutes?

It is a cultural assumption in the U.S. that if you are not engaged in some activity visible to an outsider, you are probably wasting time.

It is a cultural assumption in the U.S. that if you are inactive, if you are not engaged in some activity visible to an outsider, you are probably wasting time. This is interesting because, as Peter Senge points out in The Fifth Discipline, there is great practical value in such inactivity. Yet our culture—and certainly our behavior—undermines it. If you are sitting at your desk thinking—not answering email, not talking on the phone or even reading something—you are assumed to be doing nothing of importance, and as such, you are subject to interruption. As I remember, in Japan the opposite was true. It would be very impolite to interrupt a person sitting quietly alone. This probably stems from a broad cultural recognition of the value of introspection, something that we lack.

We also seem to have all tacitly agreed that because of the 24/7 availability of the internet we no longer have to bother to keep things in our heads. I’ve even heard Seth Godin actually encourage this. He’s arguing against rote memorization in schools, but I think people take this in a very general sense, and I believe this notion is dangerous. My points from “Google Makes You Stupid” still stand. Non-electronically assisted thought is important and allows for an opportunity to make important mental connections that are just not possible when we are constantly interrupted and put upon from the outside. Boredom, as Nick and Kierkegaard suggest, is actually a font of human creativity. It is necessary that we clear enough fallow time in our minds for new or synthesized ideas to emerge.

It is necessary that we clear enough fallow time in our minds for new or synthesized ideas to emerge.

I conducted a small experiment in my office last Friday. As we sat down for a one-hour meeting in the middle of a very hectic work day, I started with a request that everyone sitting at the table stay where they were, not answer the phone, not take notes, not look at any of their devices, and not talk. I asked that they simply sit there and do nothing for 5 minutes, 5 minutes out of our entire workday. It was not much to ask.

It was hard. It was hard for me, and clearly it was very hard for the others. But the day that followed was much better, much more creative, and productive I think. It made a difference.

In praise of boredom

Nothing is not nothing, but something essential that we should be careful to preserve in our lives. Thanks Nick for reminding me.

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Artwork: Pig born of boredom by Elaina Heaton (13)

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