How Being Bored is the First Step to Being Brilliant

Take their Gameboys away, and you don’t think they’ll come up with something interesting to do?

I ran across a great blog post this morning from The Passive Voice that I thought was worth noodling about. The premise is “How Boredom Promulgates Creativity.” Aside from the fact that the headline uses the word “promulgate” which will surely give tingles of delight to all word lovers, the idea behind the post is that boredom can create the right atmosphere for creative thought or action.  Edward De Bono, who wrote the book, Serious Creativity, which prompted the original post, uses bored children who operate on their teddy bears as one example of how humans hate a vacuum and might come up with ways—desperate and mad genius ways sometimes—in order to fill it. While this thought might not feel new to you, the upshot (or punch line) that made me sit up straight when I read it was the idea that our technology today may shield us from so much boredom, that the opportunity or driven need to create in order to remedy the boredom no longer exists. Trust me, playing Angry Birds or Solitaire on your smartphone may painlessly while away the time it takes to wait at a traffic light or your child’s visit to the orthodontist—but so does a coma. Neither of them is going to lead to anything special.

When we are forced to tackle boredom via creative means, we push ourselves, our abilities, and our minds forward. We go places we aren’t normally compelled to go. We explore. When we have the means to comfortably anesthetize ourselves against these spates of nonproductive, dull times, we are no longer motivated to do any more than just breathe in and out. My husband argued that we’ve always had mindless television to aid in combatting boredom for an extremely nonproductive outcome and that this post’s supposition is nothing new but I disagree. When I was a teenager—and like most teenagers, prone to being terminally bored with just about everything—I would watch any number of mind-numbing and idiotic television shows: Hogan’s Heroes, Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeanie. But these shows didn’t dope me against the monotony which drove me to watch them. As I watched—even the really stupid shows—I soaked up plotting, I registered tension and denouement, I experienced character arcs—even in cartoon characters—and I walked away with a sense of a story told with a beginning, a middle and an end.

A little bit of boredom and a stick of chalk can add up to something very interesting…

For a budding writer, lowbrow television was a training ground for something that would come later. It was establishing dormant triggers which would lay beneath the surface and focus a light on interlaced connections between people at their most basic levels. And someday they would emerge as developed characters wrestling with conflict in an attempt to deliver a fundamental human message.

You can’t say that about Angry Birds.

What do you think? I’m not sure I’ve convinced my son, for example, about the new perniciousness of our portable technology as it relates to creativity. Thoughts?

21 thoughts on “How Being Bored is the First Step to Being Brilliant

  1. I believe every child should be bored enough to become creative. If their brains are always occupied by idle nonsense, we may be missing out on the next great novelist. Great post.

      • Oh, me too! I have to constantly check myself because I have this automatic habit of picking up my phone to check email/facebook/blog whenever I have a spare minute. It’s soooo addictive, which means it’s that much more dangerous for kids and teens.

  2. It’s interesting. I never looked at boredom that way before, and I always come up with writing ideas regardless, haha. But I play video games quite a bit and lately I noticed all the time I could spend writing, coming up with new ideas, and all that was spent playing a game that, while rewarding in the moment, wouldn’t serve a purpose later. I’m trying to give myself more writing time and less gaming time now.

  3. “What is this life if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare.

    No time to stand beneath the boughs
    And stare as long as sheep or cows”

    William Henry Davies

  4. Yep! I grew up with my mom constantly telling me “Boredom is the mother of creativity”. That was the motto of our house. And it’s no surprise that to this day my brother and I are productive artists (he does video and film work). I also rarely get bored anymore. Once you get into the habit of getting yourself our of boredom through creative means it perpetuates itself to the point where you just don’t get bored anymore. Even in rush hour traffic (aka prime mental story development time).

    • You’re right, Merry, I hadn’t thought of that but I never get bored either. That’s a special little byproduct of filling any down time with a creative project. Whether I’m painting, knitting, writing, baking, reading or making movies, I never get bored. I used to get so perplexed when my son would tell me he was bored. It was like he was speaking a foreign language! “How can you be bored? Haven’t you always wanted to paint a mural on your bedroom wall???” Haha. I probably gave him too many easy ways to mindlessly fill his time (TV, video games) so he didn’t have the skillset to figure it out for himself.

  5. us older folks were lucky, we grew up in a different time when there were still neighborhoods, stay at home moms and everyone knew the people next door and up the block, when you ran out the door in the morning with your mom’s voice in the background saying something like “be home before the street lights come on” and we went to our “jobs” our parents called it playing, but us kid’s were doing the hard work of growing up, building forts, exploring the miles of ranch land just out the back gate, building and flying kites off the back hill, searching for arrow heads and digging tunnels, tree houses, falling down, getting up and showing up back at home just in time for dinner, or maybe racing home just in time to listen to buck rogers, or the lone ranger on the radio. which brings up another thought, how lucky we were to have radio. when television killed radio we all lost. think of it, with radio there were no pictures, you had to make your own pictures using only voices and a few sound effects, you had to listen and create the characters, sets and backgrounds in your own head, talk about being creative, talk about needing to pay attention, and talk about other worlds, those of us who grew up with radio have such a creative advantage over the TV, video games generation, just because we had to do it our selves in our own heads. and the last point when I was very young I liked to scribble, my dad brought me a package of typing paper from the office every month, and before the month was up my friends and I had filled every corner of every sheet with drawings, rocket ship plans, football plays and stories, no TV, no Video games, just solid creativity and a bunch of kid built tree houses and coaster wagons with miss-matched wheels, started scribbling for a living sixty plus years ago, my cousin is a mechanical engineer, my sister a college professor now retired, and I blame it all on those sheets of typing paper and growing up in a time and place where us kids were allowed (some might say Forced) to do it on our own, making do with what ever creativity we learned along the way. looking back, we were the lucky ones, forced to grow up with out TV, video games or little league anything. What’s the song “Blow up your TV”

    • Oh, Jon, this is it EXACTLY. I cannot get over how much my son has lost not to have had what we had growing up. He jokes about our three flavors of ice cream and black and white TV but he can’t understand how we filled in the gaps, the missing magic, with our own dreams and ideas and imaginations. And how it was all so much BETTER when we did. I loved hearing you tell about when we would go off and “play/work.” I loved the memory of the screen door slamming behind me and my mother saying the same thing: “be home before the street lights come on.” And I never let my son walk three blocks to a neighbor kid’s house on his own until he was practically in his TEENS because I was so sure he’d be abducted or something. And I just feel that the way I was raised made me ready and eager for every adventure. I know every generation thinks they had it the best, but we boomers had it all. (PLUS the Beatles. :-))

  6. well for me it was the grand ol’ opree when I was being tucked in the top bunk each night, and the Platters and the Coasters in high school followed by John Prine, now that I’m living in the sweet Georgia Mountains it’s blue grass, but yes we had it best when it came to growing up with an “I can’t wait tell tomorrow attitude”, still creating, still inventing, still heading down trails I’ve never gone, still falling down, still get’n back up laugh’n an holler’n let’s do it again. It wasn’t just no television, it was parents that let us go, then asked what we did, while the family ate dinner together round the dinning room table and most important listened, as we each took our turn telling our stories of the day.

  7. well if I have a look at my husbands kids who are very creative but love to play pc games or playstation as well I have to say they are quite capeable of doing both. They fill their down time with games but only if they are tired like after school. If they are well awake they only play games which have a creative component in them like LIttle Big Planet or Minecraft where they create their own worlds or their own villages. A creative person will always be creative no matter what no-brainers are on offer. Now adays they have so many other possibilities to be creative than we had so I think it won’t kill any creativity but will give them other possibilities to live it.
    Also if I have a look at myself I love to play angry birds but only for a certain amount of time. After a while it gets boring and I am back writing a story or a poem. There is space for both I believe!

  8. just wondering, we’re all talking about where to find, or how to become more CREATIVE. Creativity, and how to nurture, it seems to be the word of the day. My question is why, most of what we call creativity is old fashioned skill. Good writers, artists, photographers and comedians all get described as being creative people and we all take classes and read articles about how we can become more creative, that creativity is the elevator to the top of the charts. We say winners among this group have all been double blessed with gobs of Creativity. The question is why do we think that? Seems to me the common thread among all these CREATIVE people is not the amount of creative juices running through them, but how much plain old fashioned hard work and SKILL have they invested in the task. the old story of a tourist stopping Fred Astaire on a street corner in New York City and asking him how to get to Broadway, and Fred Astaire answering “Practice, Practice, Practice.” Dancing, telling a good story or joke takes practice and skill. if you ask me, being a creative storyteller is more about practice and skill than how much creativity you have stuffed in your shorts.

  9. I remember watching every one of those comedies you mention, on NZ TV, way back when! Probably my memory of them is better than the reality, were I to watch any again today.

    The thing was, though, that growing up in late 1960s-early 1970s New Zealand, we had to rely on imagination, creativityy and the like. The place literally had only three ice-cream flavours, one TV channel, and the movies were weeks or months late in arriving. You couldn’t buy anything much because of foreign exchange and import controls. As a kid, I remember having to rely on making things – making my own toys, building stuff. Something the modern generation is missing out on, via packaged mindlessness in the form of smartphone games and their ilk. We are, I fear, being conditioned to become a world of consumers, not creators, and the worry is that what we are consuming is, itself, so mindless.

    • Exactly. Mindless. My son feels sorry for me and my husband that we grew up in a world so lacking when he had so much. His father and I both regret we weren’t able to give him what we had. (When my son was five, I was watching him eat his breakfast cereal one morning and I said: “I used to eat Fruit Loops when I was your age, too.” He looked up at me and said: “Were they in color back then?”)

  10. Absolutely love your son’s “Where they in color back then?” comment. partly because it’s spot on brilliant and because it’s how we measure then against now. those of us who were alive way back then, saw the second world war world in black and white, today we see our world, not only in color, but in color and on BlueRay.

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