“Only boring people get bored.” I’m sure you’ve heard that old chestnut before. I’ve repeated it myself, many times. But in the era of the smart phone and social media, we need to rethink and refine our relationship to boredom.
I started thinking about boredom and creativity when somebody posted a video of a TED talk by Manoush Zamorodi, a podcast host and author of the book, Bored and Brilliant (see below). Boredom is good, she argues, because it ignites a network in our brains called the “default mode network.” In short, when we daydream, when we stare blankly out the window, when we perform mindless tasks in which our bodies operate on auto-pilot, our minds start making unexpected connections and solving problems. Some of this kind of sub-conscious or semi-conscious thought happens in our sleep (yet another reason to get plenty of rest), but the default mode network operates during our waking hours, and it doesn’t kick in if our brains are being constantly bombarded by external stimuli. In that un-stimulated, un-entertained state that we commonly call boredom, our minds do some of their best work. Smartphones and the Internet keep us from having to endure the discomfort of "boredom," but in so doing, they cut us off from some of the richest veins of creativity.
The mind, it turns out, won’t stay un-stimulated for long. In the absence of external stimulation, it will create its own. This is the principle behind an exercise you may remember from an earlier issue of The Habit: on days when I find it impossible to write, when no amount of self-cajoling seems to help, I turn off the Internet, turn off my phone, sit at my desk, and say to myself, “Write or don’t write. It doesn’t matter to me. But for the next hour you can’t do anything else.” If I stick to that and do nothing else, usually by the end of the hour I’ve written something. And by then, I’m usually ready to keep writing.
That kind of cultivated “boredom,” unrelieved by electronic stimulation, can be very productive. I put the word boredom in quotation marks because I am using it in the colloquial sense of a lack of stimulation the we find unpleasant. And as long as that’s the definition we’re using, I entirely agree with Manoush Zomorodi: boredom is indeed the path to brilliance. If you look to a screen for relief at the first arrival of that kind of boredom, you can experts your creative output to dwindle accordingly.
But since we’re on the subject, I feel I should distinguish between that colloquial use of the word boredom from a deeper boredom that philosophers and theologians call acedia. At its heart, this kind of boredom is an ingratitude that expresses itself in a refusal to be present in the world where one finds oneself. If the other kind of boredom is helpful to creativity, acedia is fatal to creativity. Smartphones and the Internet medicated and so neutralize the salutary effects of the garden-variety boredom of the under-stimulated; at the same time, they deepen acedia by making it harder and harder to marvel at the world God made and to be present in it. This guy, for instance, is going to have to change his ways if he wants to be a writer:
Robert Farrar Capon, a writer who has shaped my understanding of creativity as much as anybody, has this to say on the subject:
[This world] is a gorgeous old place, full of clownish graces and beautiful drolleries, and it has enough textures, tastes, and smells to keep us intrigued for more time than we have. Unfortunately, however, our response to its loveliness is not always delight: It is, far more often than it should be, boredom. And that is not only odd, it is tragic; for boredom is not neutral – it is the fertilizing principle of unloveliness.
Here's a shortened (under three-minute) version of Manoush Zomorodi's excellent TED talk. If you want to see the full sixteen-minute version, you can see it here.