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Embracing Boredom

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When I do assembly programs for kids, I tell them that I'm really a kid at heart. (This serves to level the playing field so they want to listen to me.) To prove it I recite a poem I wrote when I was 11 years old:

A Boring Day

On a dreary, gray, cloudy day
There's nothing for me to do or play.
"Why don't you dance?" my mother says,
"Or cook a meal or make the beds
Or read a book, or play with Elly.
And if you're hungry eat bread and jelly
Play the piano or fuss with your hair.
Don't just sit around and stare.
I can name hundreds of things you can do."
"I know that," I say "But I don't want to."

Then I poll the group, "How many of you have ever felt like that?" Most hands go up and I make sure that the teachers also participate. One might think that today's kids, who are constantly connected to electronic devices, may not experience boredom, but apparently that is not so. (Boredom is defined as an unpleasant state with no engaging activity or interest in surroundings.) I then proceed to tell them how I hate to be bored and that the library is anti-boredom insurance, trusting that this will be a nice segue into a discussion involving books. This has worked for me for a long time.

Scientists, who study boredom, seem to find that boredom is not a good thing. In fact, they've recently discovered a fifth type of boredom -- "apathetic boredom" -- that is particularly troubling, especially in teenagers, because it can lead to drug use. However, there is another side to this.

The recent reading I've been doing about the impact of technology on behavior, particularly on the behavior of children, has got me wondering. What happens when we're bored is that we're suddenly thrust back on our own resources. It is an uncomfortable feeling. We have to do something to escape its pall. (The entertainment industry is really selling escape from boredom. Solitary confinement in prison is the punishment of forcing one to live with oneself without distraction.) We look for diversions outside ourselves with varying degrees of success for snapping out of it. I have discovered that I always experience a period of boredom prior to a period of intense creative activity. Hmm... Is there a connection here or is it a superstition?

I'm not a neuroscientist but I have learned how to make my brain come up with stuff. I treat it just like the computer it is. I feed it information in small and large chunks including reading and experiencing and interacting with others. In the last few years I've been on a very steep learning curve. I've started a new business. I've become a videographer. Currently, I'm researching a new book about flooding, interviewing experts from New Orleans to the Netherlands. I read Kevin Kelly's book What Technology Wants after reading The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. I'm interacting with lots of new people after leading a pretty solitary existence for years as a writer. So there's a lot being put into my head that I haven't yet sorted out.

If I have an assignment (and lately with all my blogging I always have an assignment) I give my brain instructions. I tell it to think about the assignment and the information I've put into it. I tell it to make connections. I also give it a deadline to sort out the information and come up with the big idea. Since I don't like working at the last minute, I always give my brain plenty of lead time. Then I wait. Occasionally, something I come across triggers a connection. Sometimes nothing happens for a long time -- days, even weeks. I get bored and depressed. I find other activities to do. Then suddenly, when I'm just waking up, or I'm in the shower, or I'm taking a walk ideas start popping into my head. The pressure builds and I can't stay away from my keyboard. Blat! It comes out of me, fingers flying feverishly. I perseverate and read it over and over, tweaking at words here and there. I sleep on it and review it the next day and always see ways to make it stronger. This can go on for a while until I see no more changes to make. Then I let it go. (Now, whenever I get an inspiration, I rush to write it down, stockpiling ideas, so I have something to turn in when I'm too busy to think.)

Time and boredom appear to be integral parts of the creative process that has limits on the speed of turn-around, which is highly individual. Young Isaac Newton was a student in Cambridge when the Black Death broke out. He retired to the boring countryside to wait out the siege and entered the most creative period of his life (1665-1666 "the prime of my age for invention") possibly because he had no distractions. Poet Laureate Billy Collins said:

What I need to write is boredom. I need stretches of inactivity, of doing nothing in order for the poem to get generated. I think boredom is like the mother of creativity.

Although I hate to be bored, I'm rethinking it. Boredom, for me, is now a harbinger that something good is about to happen. As an educator, I worry that kids have no time to process what they input and no periods of boredom for it to gestate into something new. I'm worried that their brains will be permanently numbed by overstimulation without time to recover. I'm worried that if they're never bored there will be a hefty price to be paid both personally and by society.

I hope I've given you something interesting to think about. Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks this way.

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