The beauty of boredom

It was over dinner in Boston during the winter doldrums of 2014 when my friend Andy told me it’s ok to be bored. In fact, he said, it could even be a good thing.

I couldn’t believe it.    

Then again, I also couldn’t believe what we were hunched over at a cramped café table discussing: my dream of leaving the corporate world to move to New Zealand, live on couches, and chase a dream around the world. If we were seriously having that conversation, I guess we could also talk about being bored.

It still felt weird.

It’s really hard to be bored these days. I don’t need to tell anyone about the power of Twitter or Instagram to make us constantly feel behind, left out, or out of the loop. Our newsfeeds don’t stop to give us free time. In a world where everyone is a potential LinkedIn contact, “networking” can be done at any waking moment. It’s brutal – not because these are bad technologies, but because they keep us busy, and not bored.   

Like many friends, I autopilot into being busy. For twenty-somethings trying to find a rhythm after college and into the real world, being busy is what we know- something like workdrinksmeetingsgymlunchdrinkssleep.

Far beyond my own desire to be busy was the underlying assumption that I was supposed to be busy. There’s a term for this – what Tim Kreider calls “The Busy Trap”, and it really is a trap. There’s a stigma to tell someone your entire afternoon is open, that you may just stay in your PJs on the couch all day Sunday. It’s a lot easier to be booked up, swamped, jammed, crazy busy. It sounds cooler. It feels tiring.  

And in this group that is too busy to be bored, we’re spending our days doing things we’re not so sure make sense. I’ll spare the millennial data and catch phrases, but here’s the bottom line: there’s a bunch of young people clocking in and out of work each day who have spent the majority of adolescence and schooling with a path to follow. Now settled into a job, there comes a point where the multiple paths exist in how to spend time, how to make a living. And that’s terrifying.

So what do we do? Stay busy. More meetings, catch ups, coffee dates and Tinder swipes – whatever it is to keep moving. Because heaven forbid, things slow down – or even worse, stop – once in a while.

But what if being bored was good?

We see it in glimpses: countless studies show that shower time–the only time sacred un-busy-able time in our day – is where most thinking breakthroughs happen. In his book 10% Happier, Dan Harris talks about what happens when we let our mind slowdown. He takes things a step further: “I’m not for boredom, per se; I am for the kind of ‘doing nothing’ which is the hardest, coolest activity all: just paying attention to whatever’s happening right now.”

Some types of companies are catching on. My friend Tom works in advertising and is told to be bored. In his line of work, “when you're bored, your brain is forced to think about things differently. If you're sitting alone in a room for two hours, with no phone or computer, you're going to get tired of the way you're thinking about a problem and want to tackle it from another angle, if only to alleviate the boredom.” And that’s when creativity strikes.

But, Tom warns, most of us bail before that point: “When you glance at your phone every time you get bored, you won't think in new patterns. You'll think about your problem, get bored, look at your phone, then think, OK, back to work. Then you'll just repeat the cycle.” You don’t give creativity a chance.

And if you aren’t in love with your day job? Being bored can get you closer to what you actually want to be doing.

For the past year or so I’ve been putting together a community of people who have a secret passion or a dream they want to chase – we’ve shared tons of stories on people who have gone for it, and others who are thinking about it. What I’ve learned from the stories is that if you have something you want to do, go do it – but start by being bored.

I’m not saying throw away the schedule. What I’m saying is plot concrete objectives and milestones and commitments, and then passionately protect the areas of openness in between them. It’s what my friend Andy describes as the “ladder” metaphor. If you have a goal to hit, or what I call a “jump” to make, write it down and map out a few baby steps. Those steps will be what Andy calls your rungs. But whatever you do, don’t touch the open space in between. Like climbing a ladder, that space is where you’ll grow the most.

To put it in literal terms, take Dan. Dan works as an electrician and his jump is to open a painting studio. Dan should do more than dream about it: he should sign up for a paint class, spend a Saturday once a month shadowing another local painter. He should go to painting meetups (if those exist?) and reach out to other groups of like-minded aspiring painters. But then he should draw the line. He should keep his hours after the meetups open, time around his class clear, shadowing schedule minimal. Because that’s where the best people, places, and things come from.

A few more dinner pep talks with Andy and others, and I was ready to make my own jump. I planned as best I could, I plotted out a few rungs, and in May 2014, I jumped. What followed was an adventure with one month planned and another 15 months and 200,000 miles that came together after leaving home. Of the best experiences that came from the journey, not one was planned from my desk in Boston. They came out of that space in the rungs – out of that beauty that comes from being bored.

For more information on When to Jump and Mike’s upcoming book, “When to Jump: If The Job You Have Isn’t The Life You Want”, sign up for the community newsletter here.

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