Overcoming Stagnation with Boredom not Hustle

Do you feel this way? Like your work has been stagnant? Like it’s not quite as good as it could be? Like you haven’t been making the progress you should? I’ve been struggling with this recently—it’s tough. With this sense of dissatisfaction comes the difficulty of moving forward, to keep creating, to feel energized.

When you’re someone that is constantly working and creating, the answer to growth or progress isn’t more hustle, it’s more boredom. Without boredom, your ability to think, to think divergently, and to think deeply and without shame or restraint deteriorates.

In 2010, Sir Ken Robinson gave a talk titled “Changing education paradigms,” and between Ted and Youtube the talk has been viewed over 15 million times. I want to highlight one specific part of it in which he discusses divergent thinking. Ken described divergent thinking as “the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question or lots of ways to interpret a question.” In discussing how we might measure this skill, Ken cites a study which poses the question: “How many uses can you think of for a paper clip?”

Most people are likely to come up with 10–15 answers, while people that are extremely good at divergent thinking might come up with 200 answers. In this study, 1500 people were asked that question, and based on a number of answers given they determined a threshold of “genius level” divergent thinking. In this study, the 1500 people surveyed were kindergarteners—about 5 years old. Of these kids, 98% scored at genius level. These same students were tested 5 years later when they were 10 years old and their genius level percentage had dropped to 50%. Another 5 years later, the percentage continued to drop.

Ken notes that the study shows “we all have this capacity” for divergent thinking but “it mostly deteriorates.” He continues to suggest that this comes as a result of an education system, but I want to push this idea further and suggest that it also stems from a lack of boredom as we grow older.

When you were a child, life felt like a constant escape from boredom. You were forced to come up with new and inventive ways to entertain yourself. As adults, boredom is hard to come by. We have responsibilities, errands, emails, work, social media, and endless distractions. But when you’re constantly faced with boredom, you’re forced to exercise your ability to develop lots of answers or reinterpret questions/problems in new ways.

Entrepreneur, inventor, and game-designer Caine Monroy is one of my favorite examples of this. In the summer of 2011, 9 year old Caine was spending his summer vacation in his dad’s used auto parts store in East Los Angeles. With nothing to do, Caine began to repurpose empty boxes from their backroom into mini arcade games. For the duration of the summer, Caine set out to develop an elaborate arcade made entirely by himself.

Despite being limited to scrap cardboard, packaging tape, and whatever leftover materials he could find lying around, Caine managed to build various basketball games, a soccer game, his own claw machine, a ticket system, and security measures to authenticate fun passes.

Unfortunately, Caine’s arcade and his dad’s shop received very little foot traffic so Caine never had any customers. One day, Nirvan Mullick walked into their auto shop in search for a handle for his ’96 Corolla. Caine asked Nirvan if he would like to play his arcade. For $1, Nirvan could get two turns, but for $2 he could get a Fun Pass which allowed up to 500 turns. Nirvan couldn’t resist the deal and bought the Fun Pass.

Nirvan was astonished by Caine’s inventive and creative ability, but to his surprise, he was Caine’s only customer. Inspired by Caine’s Arcade, Nirvan helped organize a flash mob to come play at his arcade and even created a short film to document it.

The film immediately went viral and had over 1 million views within 24 hours. Nirvan also set up a scholarship fund in conjunction with the launch of the video in hopes of raising $25,000 for Caine to go to school. Well exceeding their expectations, they raised over $240,000 for Caine. Out of boredom, Caine’s Arcade launched a movement, and in it’s wake came the Imagination Foundation which seeks to “find, foster and fund creativity and entrepreneurship in children around the world,” and proudly hosts the Global Cardboard Challenge every year.

Caine’s Arcade embodies the magic which stems from boredom. If you were to reflect on your own childhood, you are sure to remember stories of creativity fueled by boredom. So what happened? Why have we stopped being bored?

We’ve fabricated not only the habit but also the expectation to be in a state of either constant consumption or creation. When we aren’t creating, we’re browsing. When we aren’t browsing, we’re creating. In this vicious cycle of mind occupation, you’re failing to exercise your ability to think—to actually think.

Boredom necessitates thought, but not just any kind of thinking—the kind of thinking that’s uncomfortable, the kind that forces you to reposition problems. You cannot progress without boredom.

How you can allow yourself to be bored:

  • Exercise (Without music)
  • Go out to eat by yourself (I prefer breakfast diners)
  • Leave your phone behind when you don’t really need it (For example, going to the grocery store)
  • Go for a walk (This could fit in exercise, but most people won’t think of walking when I mention exercise so I wanted to explicitly suggest this because I love going for walks)
  • Sit in a park (Maybe bring a book with you)
  • People watch
  • Spend an hour investigating a space (Suggested reading: Challenge: Transform Familiar to Strange)
  • Stop creating, stop consuming, stop reading this. For 3 minutes just allow yourself to breathe. Literally, close your eyes right now and allow yourself to sit in silence for as long as you can.

Remember, you will not grow if you don’t allow yourself to be bored. You must allow yourself. I am giving you permission, now you must give yourself the same. Schedule it out if you must. Spend some time with yourself. Be bored. Grow.