The past few decades has seen an explosion of interest in the relationship between creativity and boredom. Linking boredom with creativity, poet Joseph Brodsky described boredom as a “psychological Sahara that starts right in your bedroom and spurns the horizon.” But boredom is also our window into creativity. “Once this window opens,” he advises, “don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open.”
Brodsky is right: Boredom shouldn’t be feared but embraced, and when it beckons us we should pursue it because that’s when inspiration often strikes. Wasn’t Newton languishing beneath an apple tree when he discovered the law of gravity? Wasn’t Archimedes, the greatest mathematician of antiquity, wallowing in a bath when clarity struck? And wasn’t the great 16th century Florentine diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli bored out of his mind when he sat down and penned The Prince, the most revolutionary if widely maligned political tract of all time?
And consider the words of Walt Disney, who revealed that “[Mickey Mouse] popped out of my mind onto a drawing pad 20 years ago on a train ride from Manhattan to Hollywood at a time when the business fortunes of my brother Roy and myself were at lowest ebb, and disaster seemed right around the corner.”
Imagine that! The idea that would lead to the Magical Kingdom and the entire Disney empire was born on a long, boring cross-country train ride. How’s that for boredom paying off?
When we are constantly stimulated or entertained, there’s no space in our brain for new ideas to pop up and that’s why I believe so deeply in the need to bestow the gift of boredom on our kids.
I haven’t always felt this way, of course, and one of my greatest childhood fears other than butterflies, snakes, earthquakes, and Great white sharks was of being bored. I hated how excruciatingly slow time ticked by and the seemingly inescapable suffocating sense of having nothing to do and nowhere to go. Yet, my parents rarely came to my aid when I waged battle against that dreaded monster “Boredom.” Instead, they left me alone to stare it square in its terrible face.
One hot summer day, I sat like a dramatic 8-year-old zombie on the bottom step of our stairs and stared at the wall until my mom rushed by with an armful of laundry, at which point I whined, “I’m so bored. I can’t take it anymore!”
Instead of snuggling up next to me and suggesting something fun we could do — Disneyland! The pool! Or even the park! — she said softly but sternly, “Life is boring only to boring people.” And then she disappeared behind the kitchen door.
Great, I thought, even more bored than I was before. But as I sat there staring off into space, clarity struck. I can either keep sitting here being bored, I thought, or I can go find something to do. With this glimpse of the obvious, I slithered outside and filled an old tin watering can to the rim with water and spent the rest of the afternoon making mud cookies and cakes and pies.
“Still bored?” my mom called out from the porch just before dinnertime.
Covered head-to-toe in mud, I just shook my head and smiled.
It was a small but significant lesson, and yet as I grew older, playing in the mud lost its appeal, and so to fight off boredom, I eventually turned to books and a whole new glorious world opened up to me, one that magically transported me to Narnia, Middle Earth, Oz, and many other strange and amazing imaginary places.
Flash-forward four decades to a hot August day when I decided to bestow the gift of boredom on my own kids. I had just picked up my 8-year-old daughter Teddy from school, and as I sat at my laptop, she made a quick afternoon snack. Not more than two minutes had passed when she looked at me and asked, “What are we gonna do now, Mom? I’m so bored!”
Thinking of my own mother’s example, I turned to her and said softly but sternly, “Life is boring only to boring people.”
“Huh?” she said, like I’d just spoken in some strange foreign tongue.
“Life is boring only to boring people,” I repeated. “That’s what grandma always said to me when I was your age, and it means that if you can’t find ways to entertain yourself then you’re probably gonna be bored. A lot.”
As a strange expression spread across her face, she grabbed her snack and shuffled up to her room. After a half hour or so, she raced downstairs and dropped a little handwritten gift on my lap.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“A biography of Seabiscuit,” she smiled with pride.
Granted, it was taken almost verbatim from Wikipedia. Nevertheless, she had successfully waged her own battle against boredom with an amazing display of creativity and imagination.
Not long after that, she wrote a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. and his “I Have a Dream Speech” and contemplated writing biographies on Muppet’s creator Jim Henson, Secretariat, Steve Jobs, and Cleopatra. Had I simply relented to her desperate requests for entertainment, she might not have learned how to entertain herself, a critical life skill — and immensely valuable gift — that will hopefully last her a lifetime.
Too many parents these days are afraid to bestow the gift of boredom on their kids. Instead, we fill their days with endless, frenetic, often meaningless activity. In structuring their days this way, we are creating a generation of activity addicts, which is not only a great disservice to our kids but, if we agree that without boredom we might not have Disneyland, The Prince, or many other great works of literature, art, and science, also a grave disservice to the future of modern society.
One way out of this trap is to simply allow our kids to be bored. If we’re willing to do this more often, then the means (refusing to constantly entertain them) might justify the ends (amazing displays of creativity and imagination). And when it comes to raising kind, creative, thoughtful, and well-