Boredom is the Brother of Invention

Anders Cahill
Oct 17, 2018 · 10 min read
photo by Annie Spratt

If necessity is the mother of all invention, then boredom is invention’s impulsive, impatient teenage brother.

And, like any proper teenager, the thing boredom cares about most is finding something, anything, to distract it from the all the irritating, clueless, extremely lame things life demands of us.

“Boredom, dear, don’t forget to clean your room.”

“Gawd, Mom! I’m thirteen points away from my highest score ever! Tell it to someone who gives a flying fudge!”

“Oh dear, you have such a way with words.”

“Get a life, mom.”

Cute kid.

This is how boredom rolls, filling up its time with whatever shiny new object captures its interest. The cooler the better.

But here’s the rub: there are just so many shiny objects.

Did you know that there are over one billion, three hundred million (1,300,000,000) videos on Youtube? Even assuming no new videos were added — and that’s a big assumption, because 300 hours of footage are uploaded every minute — it would take you sixty thousand years to watch all the videos currently on Youtube.

Factor in social media, video games, movies, music, books, blogs (hi!), cable TV, 24 hours news, and the incredibly dense ecosystem of advertising that surrounds these mediums, and the volume becomes damn near cosmic. Whole universes of information all expertly crafted to ensure one simple thing:

We never have to be bored again.

So, um … hooray?

photo by Niklas Hamann

We are novelty-seeking creatures. We are always looking for something to pay attention to or work on. And when we have nothing to do, we go a little crazy.

Don’t believe me?

Then I dare you to spend fifteen minutes in a quiet room with no windows doing absolutely nothing. Seriously. I dare. Go try it.

How’d you do? :-)

If the thought of that exercise sounds so boring that you’d rather, say, oh I don’t know, give yourself an electric shock, well then, guess what?

You’re not alone!

In 2014, Tom Wilson and his team of researchers at the University of Virginia recruited hundreds of volunteers to participate in ‘thinking periods.’ The volunteers were asked to sit alone in a sparsely furnished room and put away all of their belongings. For 15 minutes, the volunteers were left in the room with nothing but their thoughts and a button. No cell phone. No pen. No paper. Nothing but their memories, ideas, and wonderings.

And a button.

What did this button do, you’re wondering?

Well, the volunteers could push it and shock themselves, if they wanted to. They weren’t forced to press it. They weren’t told they had to press it. They were just told they could.

The results were (yup, I’m about to pun the hell out of this) shocking: Even though all the volunteers had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid an electric shock, 67% of men and 25% of women chose to zap themselves rather than sit there quietly, alone with their own minds. [source: Science Magazine]

So, um, wow. We really do go crazy when we’re bored!

But why?

I think it’s because we are hard-wired to interact with the world. We make stuff. We do stuff. We watch stuff. We listen to stuff. We gossip and laugh and tell secrets and play games and make friends and make enemies and fill our lives with rich, complex stories about the world and our place in it.

Spending time alone with ourselves can be downright unpleasant because we form our identity and measure our worth in relationship. Relationship to others and relationship to the world. When we’re alone, we have no external inputs to measure ourselves against. This produces anxiety, dislocation, and a desperate desire for something else to do.

But we’ve built a society where many of us have the privilege of having our necessities taken care of. Learning things like how to make tools, build shelter, and cultivate food — endeavors that once consumed much of our mental and creative bandwidth — have become things that most of us pay someone else to do. And when all of our physical necessities are taken care of — food, shelter, safety — an obvious next question is, ‘now what?’

Boredom, being the teenager it is, will generally take the path of least resistance to answer that question.

‘Hmmmm. Nothing much is happening right now and my mind is kind of wandering somewhere I don’t like. Oh there’s a button I can press?? Yes, let me do that instead!’

photo by Jens Johnsson

And all that content surrounding us? All those youtube videos, advertisements, and social media posts? They are the most masterfully designed buttons in the history of humankind. We could spend our whole lives pressing them, just sitting back and taking it all in, never once forced to stop and think for ourselves.

But is that really the best way to live?

If your gut tells you no, then believe me, I’m right there with you. I think we owe to ourselves to ask that question. To answer it for ourselves.

To decide:

Do I want to be nothing more than a consumer? Someone who always accepts someone else’s answer to the question ‘now what?’

Or do I want to be a CREATOR? Someone who uses my free time instead of letting others use it for me?

Because the paradox here is that all of this information wouldn’t exist without the human impulse to create. Take a television show. A single show goes through an intense crucible to get produced, from brainstorm to pitch to outline to script to casting to filming. And if the concept makes it that far, which can take well over a year, then the television actors and crew often work 80+ hours a week until the production has wrapped.

All that for 26 minutes of television each week.

But if you asked the people who make TV how they can possibly endure all that work, they’d tell you it’s because they love it. They love the challenge. They love the process. They love activating their creativity. And they love the reward of having something to show for all that effort. Even when they’re doing the ‘boring’ stuff (e.g. 8 straight hours of editing the same of footage until it’s perfect), they find meaning and purpose in the journey.

Once you make something — once you participate instead of just watching — the whole game changes.

So look. Maybe you love your job. Maybe you feel like you’re using your full self everyday, and when you come home and you just want to chill. No judgement here.

But if you’re feeling ground down by the drudgery of modern life and you find yourself wondering why the days just seem to fly by, blurring from one to the next, I’d like to offer a subversive perspective:

Don’t run from boredom.

Run straight towards it.

Invite it in.

Sit it down at the kitchen table, look it in the eyes, and tell that impatient teenager you love it.

Because boredom is, in fact, the doorway to the greatest work of your life.

photo by Rafaela Biazi

“Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity.”

— Robert M. Pirsig, Author, Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Maybe you have a novel inside you. Or a television script. Or a song, or a painting, or an innovative invention. Whatever it is, you’re only going to find it by turning off the firehose of information flying at you from every corner. Only then can you really start listening to your own ideas.

In other words, you’ve got to start running your own boredom experiments.

And instead of an electroshock button, you need a blank page and something to draw with. An empty dance floor and the music in your mind to dance to. A computer with no internet connection and a hot cup of coffee. Because once boredom realizes that there’s no twitter feed coming to save the day, that little dude is going to start looking the only place it can:

Inside the dark, wonderful, creative interiors of your own mind.

And that’s when you can finally start doing the work you were meant to.

photo by Katerina Radvanska

“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”

— Dorothy Parker, American poet, writer, critic, and satirist

Have you ever looked up at the stars?

If you live in the city, you might see the brightest ones. Planets like Venus and Mars or the stars of Orion. A few lone points shining in an otherwise featureless sky. That’s because all the rest are veiled by the incessant ambience of the city lights.

Our minds work the same way. We need silence to hear what our own minds have to say. We must be like a moonless night in the desert, when the great river of the Milky Way fills the sky, stars upon stars upon stars, all there for the beholding.

“Solitude is creativity’s best friend, and solitude is refreshment for our souls.”

— Naomi Judd, American country music singer, songwriter, actress, and activist

photo by Kyle Cottrell

So I’d like to offer you an experiment.

A boredom experiment.

A chance to let even the most distant stars of your creative mind shine through. You can do this experiment whether you’re a master artist or a fresh-faced beginner.

Here’s how it works:

Pick a day when you can clear your calendar. A Saturday usually works well. Or, if you can, take one off from work (remember those things called ‘personal days’ that no one in America takes anymore?). Really any day is fine as long as you can guarantee no meetings, emails, phone calls, errands, or any other miscellaneous items that involve a to-do list.

Once you have the day picked out, tell whoever you need to not to contact you that day unless its an emergency. And by emergency, I mean emergency. Life or death, yeah?

If you want to get real serious about your boredom, you could buy a cheap ‘dumb-phone’ and give your emergency contacts that number. Then you can take your smartphone, stick it in the glove compartment of your car, and park it four blocks away :-)

photo by Kelly Sikkema

Now that the stage is set, I want you to fill your space with whatever might inspire you to create. You can use any combination of objects like these:

- Pencil

- Pen

- Paper

- Markers

- Crayons

- Paint

- Paint brushes

- Scissors

- Glue

- Dancing shoes

- Bare feet

- Your body

- A camera

- Musical instruments

- A digital recorder for capturing audio and/or video

- Legos without instructions

- Random objects that you can play with and make stuff with

- Whatever else you can think of that fits the spirit of this list

- Smartphone

- TV

- DVD Player

- Computer

- Video game system

- Anything with an internet connection

- Anything else that will turn you into a consumer instead of a creator

“The more time you spend being quiet and looking in, your intuition grows and you trust it more.”

— Rick Rubin, multiple Grammy-award winning producer

Once you’ve gathered up all this gear (you can just take the power cable for the TV, etc), lock it in a box, then put it somewhere annoyingly hard to get to. For example, in the back of your attic, in trunk of your car, or at your best friend’s house with instructions not to give it back to you until the day is over.

Let boredom know that you aren’t screwing around.

Now you’re in the clear. You’re ready to get bored like a boss. You’re only mission, should you choose to accept it, is to spend the day Dorothy Parker-style and get curious.

There’s no right or wrong way to spend your time as long as you spend it doing whatever feels most interesting to you. Follow the trail of breadcrumbs that your boredom leaves for you, and I promise, you will find your way towards interesting, inspiring, and joyfully imperfect ideas. You’ll be having fun like you haven’t had in years. In decades!

If you think you might get lonely during this boredom experiment, invite a friend to participate. You could even invite a bunch of friends to do it, maybe even at different locations. Then you can all meet up at the end of the day for dinner or a video hangout, each taking a turn to share what you worked on.

How fun is that!

“Boredom is the beginning of every authentic act. Boredom opens up the space for new engagements. No boredom, no creativity.”

— Slavoj Žižek, Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic

The point is not to make great art.

The point is to face the blank page of your day and see it for what it truly is:

An invitation to rediscover your creative birthright.

To make something yours.

To be human.

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gorgeous photo by Kirstina Makeeva

Originally published at on October 17, 2018.

Anders Cahill

Written by

Creativity. Mindfulness. Leadership. // // //

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