The Real Root Problem Behind “I’m Bored”

Boredom, thy name is “unfulfillment”

The following is a verbal exchange I’m sure many of us have had at some point in our lives:

You: “I’m bored”
Other person: “So? What do you expect me to do about it?”
or possibly
Other person: “You’re bored? Well, I can give you something to do”

Maybe the interaction was with your parents, maybe a teacher, maybe some other authority figure.

They never give us the answer we seek, because they don’t look at the problem the same way. And we’re not communicating it effectively because, well, we’re five, or ten, or a young teenager, and we don’t even know what fulfillment is yet!

Kids have wild imaginations and are constantly looking to learn new things and better understand the world around them. Generally kids can amuse themselves to a large degree, but if they don’t have the most stimulating environment or a variety of toys, their imagination alone may not be enough. They will inevitably become under-stimulated, and feel bored.

Of course parents often scoff at this. “I wish I had time to be bored!” they would say, even though many of them may be bored as well, in a different sense.

Many of us fall into a life pattern that basically boils down to:

Work — Entertainment — Eat — Sleep — Repeat

There is this idea — that if we are gainfully employed and can afford to amuse ourselves how we choose outside of that, then we are “successful” — and that this alone should equate to fulfillment. That this should be good enough for anyone. But this would imply that simply being busy is fulfilling, not taking into account what we’re busy doing — like waiting in a line up for example.

I think I could easily show you several people I know who “make good money” and are “busy,” but aren’t “happy.” They’ll say they are, but it’s not terribly convincing.

Some people have hobbies on the side as well, some may even dream of making those hobbies “something more,” but few seem to manage to make that leap. And it’s not necessarily their fault.

I was that “bored” kid many times growing up, but there was a small difference, one that I think ultimately made a bigger difference in the course of my life.

My dad would respond with the “I can find you something to do” answer (with the unspoken addendum “but you might not like it”). Hey dad, I wasn’t really asking for permission to mow the lawn.

My mom however, would respond with something like “What about your toys? Can you build another Lego creature? Is there anything you want to draw?”

Basically, she was asking me this, which I wish had been hung up in Dad’s house:

My mother has always been very supportive of my creativity, I’m not even sure if it was always intentionally. She viewed creativity as really special and said she wished she was more creative herself (she’s taking steps towards this in her retirement, go mom!). But the important thing was that she encouraged me. I think I was rarely bored at her house. Dad gave me video games and toys, but mostly left me to my own devices.

There’s a famous line you may have heard: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Put another way, Dr. Temple Grandin said: “Kids can’t get interested in things if they aren’t exposed to them.”

In other words, seek out new experiences, try new activities. Find something that excites you and dive in. That doesn’t come naturally to everyone, we kind of need to be shown or told that’s an option, and learn to keep doing it ourselves.

Last year I stumbled upon the concept of a “scanner personality type” (I even did a presentation about it), which also goes by many other names. It’s not an especially scientific concept, but was a major epiphany for me because it very accurately described my experiences in life up to that point and gave me a clue as to how to move forward.

From Career Pioneers:

Simply put, scanner personalities are people who either have so many interests they find it impossible to decide on just one career (so they often don’t make any decision at all for fear of making the wrong choice), or they have lots of projects on the go but seldom finish any of them before they lose interest and move on to the next project. Scanners are interested in multiple things, they love learning, their brains work very fast, and they are constantly scanning the horizon for new things.

It’s really difficult to establish a “career” when you get bored with everything eventually. The longest I’ve remained interested in any job I’ve had has been about two years, because they’ve all largely lacked variety. At some point I would always hit a wall and stop learning, typically when it became solely about specialization and expertise. Snore.

You learn a lot (and build character) by trying and learning different things which is rewarding in itself, but you may remain unfulfilled because you never find that thing to devote yourself to. You may know what your skills are but not where to allocate them.

The other kicker is that if you want to do something meaningful, chances are you can’t expect that some company is going to offer to pay you to do it. You kind of have to figure it out on your own. And that’s an unfortunate reality, because I think it tends to weed out a lot of people with good intentions and good ideas who just don’t have the necessary drive to push past all the hurdles and become successful entrepreneurs.

You kind of have to be crazy enough to keep pushing until you find the right idea or solution to get you where you want to be. The world definitely needs more people who insist on finding that solution, and ultimately, fulfillment. People who insist on not settling for boredom with a cushy bank balance. Most of my family doesn’t get that about me. (Thanks again mom!)

Just as my mom envies my creative flair, I have envied those who figured out what they wanted to do early on in life, and have gone and done it without the burden of doubt. My experience, my path has been like the squiggly lines that get spit out from a seismometer.

Even in my late twenties, a bona fide adult, with my own bills to pay and adult responsibilities to tend to, I was still bored. Because I still hadn’t found fulfillment. I’d been trying to solve that problem for over a decade. I’d made some progress, but was still trying to find a way for it to pay my bills.

I knew what I enjoyed doing (it’s a list, not one single thing), but couldn’t get paid to do any of it. I also wanted to do multiple things which would normally be separated into multiple different and separate roles within a company — but I wanted to do them all together. As a result I’ve had to make my own projects to be able to.

In my experience, creating something is one of the most fulfilling things a person can do, to create something out of nothing from just an idea in your head (and presumably some passion from your heart). Doing it for profit however, changed the game — and in my case (being told how to be creative by a boss) made it much less desirable and fulfilling.

I was never able to make it work in a satisfactory way, but I also lacked real direction for a long time. Spending all your time doodling (as I did in high school) is one thing, but if you’re not planning to become a cartoonist or animator, you might want to explore some other (“employable”) activities as well. And that is a valid point — all the creativity in the world matters not without a “marketable idea.”

And admittedly that was my biggest hurdle. It took me years to be able to see and understand how I could translate my talents into something economically useful. But I contend that many people write off ambitions (their own, or others’) far too quickly and pledge to endure soul crushing boredom unnecessarily.

The good news is, if you weren’t one of “the lucky ones” who found your calling early on, there is a community out there — some might even say a movement — of people who are “scanners” (or the more classical term, “polymaths”), who are seeking unique answers that may end up working for others as well. Scanners have to find custom solutions due to our unique combinations of interests and skills. We often have to start our own businesses. Several books have even been written on the idea, with titles like “I could do anything if I only knew what it was.” Sometimes you just need that one external idea you never thought of before to spark you and give you an “aha!” moment.

Of course, there are those who will say: “You’re not supposed to enjoy work, that’s why it’s called work! Now stop your whining and get back to business!”

Or, as a family member bluntly said to me recently:

Suck it up. If everyone had jobs that they loved, no one would pick up the garbage, fix our toilets, clean the sewers etc. No kid dreams of growing up to work in a factory, but someone needs to build the cars, make our food and the like. Make the most of the time you are not working if you don’t like your job.

That’s one way to look at it. I prefer the more positive: “Do what you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” That’s what I’m trying to do. Can you fault me for that? I’m being proactive!

I think those people fail to understand something, perhaps they’ve pushed it down and repressed it.

You are basically spending eight hours a day — roughly 50% of your waking time (waking life) — doing something that you don’t enjoy, that doesn’t fulfill you, and doesn’t make you feel like a productive entity. When you get home from work, you usually feel tired and defeated, or you just want to relax. Or you come home to a family that needs you. Hard to “make the most” of your free time then, to make up for all that time you feel you are losing at work.

To quote Tim Ferriss:

“Boredom is failure. In a first-world economy where we have the physical necessities covered with even low-class income, Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs drives us to need more for any measure of comparative “success.” Lack of intellectual stimulation, not superlative material wealth, is what drives us to depression and emotional bankruptcy. Generalizing and experimenting prevents this, while over-specialization guarantees it.”

I know there is also a segment of the population out there, the ones who like to come home after work (regardless of what kind of job they work) and just sit on the porch and look out and watch the clouds roll by and the trees rustle in the breeze. That’s their paradise. My dad is one of those people. I would assume that requires being able to turn off your brain to an extent (or not having a hyper one to begin with). There’s nothing wrong with that, and I even enjoy that sometimes myself. But I’m driven to create, to make ideas into reality. Until I’ve satisfied that need, casually soaking in nature will have to wait.

Humans have a need to matter, to do meaningful things, which often manifests as creating or making something. I like to believe we are capable of much more than we actually tend to accomplish. To dismiss happiness and fulfillment as in immature fantasy of the lazy, I think is short sighted and missing the point. It may be true for a select few, but most people honestly just want to contribute to society beyond being a good burger flipper, widget maker or TPS report typer.

One more aspect of this whole thing — when you’re bored and unfulfilled, it will affect your mood, your behaviour, and your productivity. You may be a full grown adult, but you may revert to child-like frustration. Here’s a bit of an explanation (from Dr. Grandin again):

I guarantee you that if you take a third grader who can read high school math texts and make him do baby-math drills over and over, he will turn oppositional defiant — because he’s bored out of his mind. How do I know? Because I’ve seen these cases — kids who are considered to have severe behavior problems at school until you give them math lessons that meet them where their brains are. Then their behavior normalizes, and they become productive and engaged.

I’d say the same applies to adults. If you’re not engaged in your work, you’re not likely going to be the most productive person and I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re a little bit grumpy too.

Parents, when your kid (or teen) says they are bored, try and remember — that’s code. In fact, despite what my family member said, I actually do get satisfaction from taking out the garbage and doing dishes — if I’ve been able to find satisfaction in my other accomplishments for the day. The thinking is “I’ve gotten my fill, now I can attend to the maintenance stuff.” Doing dishes is actually pretty cathartic then, for me at least.

So, when anyone tells you they are bored, please don’t give them the cynical answer. You may not know how to help them, but don’t just dismiss them. Try to offer a constructive suggestion. Try to say something that will inspire them. Just ask them what they like doing, maybe you can think of something they could do with that.

As for me, well I had a business idea for a company to work towards solving some of these problems for other people and then I discovered that such a company already exists. I’m now working on finding a home there.

And now I’m happy to say — I’m not so worried about being bored in the future.

(Quick author’s note — I realize that to an extent, what I’m talking about has a factor of privilege tied into it, and I do hope to find some ways to help cure boredom even among the underprivileged. I want everyone to find fulfillment if possible.)

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Aside from writing on Medium, I also do several other things including: an interview podcast called Noise in my Head, a curation blog called Curiosity Crossroads, instrumental music and photography both available under creative commons, promoting Polymathism, and my first ebook “Why Can’t I Stop Thinking So Much?”