There is value in boredom

Last year I saw a friend of mine at a coffee shop, on his own, drinking a cup of coffee and looking out onto the world. He had nothing else except a cappuccino in his hand. As I was walking past and didn’t have time to greet him, I sent him a text to ask if he was ok and who he was waiting for. About three hours later I got a reply – he was absolutely fine and he wasn’t waiting for anyone but he thanked me for asking. A week or so later I caught up with him and chatted about the text and that moment in the coffee shop. What he said to me has stayed with me ever since. He said he likes coffee and he likes solitude. He doesn’t feel the need to fill any gap when he is on his own with looking at texts, social media, a book or a newspaper. Sometimes he is quite happy on his own, just enjoying his coffee and thinking about life.

One of the current commentators on millennials and human behaviour, Simon Sinek, sketches the restaurant scenario. You are having a meal with someone at a restaurant. Firstly the phone is out on the table – face up – which means that the phone is more important than the person you are dining with. And face down is not much better. But what happens if that person excuses themselves to go to the bathroom – what do we do? We pull out our phones because we are too scared of boredom. We are too scared to sit in solitude and think we need to fill the gap.

A third comment before I get to my point. Many experts on raising children express concern at parents who constantly entertain their children – either with activities or screens and find things for their children to do.

So – what is my point?

I was told something once that stayed with me. I was told that imagination grows in the places that boredom has created. Simply put, by allowing our brains to be unoccupied by external influences and stimuli, we allow our imaginations to run wild and our creativity grows.

I could make you feel very uncomfortable right now. I could make you sit in silence for 1 minute. What would happen? You would start looking around for someone to connect with – to smile at or to roll your eyes at. Then, if you could, you would pull out your phone and check something. Very few people would use that minute as a chance to think, a chance to reflect, a chance to imagine.

Here’s a challenge then. The next time you are sitting on your own under a tree waiting for your lift, leave your phone in your pocket and look around you. The next time you are at a restaurant enjoying a meal, leave your phone at home. The next time you have 5 minutes on a weekend, go for a walk or sit quietly on your own, without any stimulus such as music or video or even a book but sit alone, in your own company, with the sole companionship of your mind. And see what happens…

A few weeks ago I warned you that you were being brainwashed and you didn’t know it. You are being forced to make decisions that are based on what other people say you should do via targeted advertising and advertising in general. And yet we all want to be known for being independent, different, having our own opinions, strong and so on. Well, if you do want not to be influenced, cut yourself off from time to time. Not all the time mind you. My class was horrified when I told them the other day I love social media. I love reading posts and inspirational thoughts on Facebook and Pinterest. I love seeing photos my family posts on Instagram. But I try to practise moderation. I try to have moments that are phone-free and influence free. Meals, coffee moments and walks. I have extended this to meetings now as well and I try not to take my phone in with me. I am trying to be independent. I am trying to think for myself. I am trying to connect better with others. I am trying to develop my imagination in the moments we think are boredom.

Are you?

Can you?

Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity. Robert M. Pirsig