The Benefits of Boredom

This article went hugely viral: Let Children Get Bored Again: Boredom teaches us that life isn’t a parade of amusements. More important, it spawns creativity and self-sufficiency.

The viralness of the article is part of a greater backlash and criticism of modernity by both the high-IQ left and the high-IQ right, which makes it a shared narrative, and is why the article went so viral. Anyone with a sufficiently high IQ can relate to it. It’s not just a backlash against overstimulation and instant gratification, but also other ills of modernity: lowered academic standards and the dumbing-down of society, children being coddled and overprotected (such as helicopter parenting), careerism (living to work instead of working to live), consumerism, democracy (how it gives a voice to the uninformed), the media (for spreading misinformation), and the pervasiveness social media (for spreading misinformation and causing anxiety and envy).

There is also a backlash against too much extra-curricular activities, which are perceived as being mostly about padding resumes and college application letters, than any genuine altruism or enthusiasm on the participant’s part.

Nowadays, subjecting a child to such inactivity is viewed as a dereliction of parental duty. In a much-read story in The Times, “The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting,” Claire Cain Miller cited a recent study that found that regardless of class, income or race, parents believed that “children who were bored after school should be enrolled in extracurricular activities, and that parents who were busy should stop their task and draw with their children if asked.”

Extra-curricular activities are also seen as benefiting the wealthy, who have the resources to participate in such activities, as opposed to purely merit-based admissions. I agree that extra-curricular activities are a possible crutch for those who cannot cut it academically and should not play a role in college admissions, unless the activity is intellectually demanding and demonstrates mastery. So coding an app could count, but working at a soup kitchen (which anyone of any IQ can do and does not confer any special or unique talent) would not count.

This passage stood out:

People used to accept that much of life was boring. Memoirs of pre-21st-century life are rife with tedium. When not idling in drawing rooms, members of the leisured class took long walks and stared at trees. They went motoring and stared at more trees. Those who had to work had it a lot harder. Agricultural and industrial jobs were often mind-numbing; few people were looking to be fulfilled by paid labor. Children could expect those kinds of futures and they got used to the idea from an early age, left unattended with nothing but bookshelves and tree branches, and later, bad afternoon television.

On one extreme, there is the immediacy of the 24-7 news cycle and social media that demands you attention, and then on the other extreme, there is this this yearning to return to simpler, quieter times. The latter group cares more about bigger, more existential and introspective matters, not the latest political or celebrity gossip (the latest Trump tweet) or the latest social media outrage. They want to learn how to be mindful, how to cope with ‘being average’, how to find meaning when there is so much meaningless, and so on.

Because things happen when you’re bored. Some of the most boring jobs I’ve had were also the most creative. Working at an import factory after school, I pasted photos of ugly Peruvian sweaters onto sales sheets. My hands became encrusted with glue as the sweaters blurred into a clumpy sameness. For some reason, everything smelled like molasses. My mind had no choice but to drift into an elaborate fantasy realm. It’s when you are bored that stories set in. Checking out groceries at the supermarket, I invented narratives around people’s purchases. The man buying eggplant and a six-pack of Bud at 9 p.m.: Which was the must-get item and which the impulse purchase? How did my former fifth-grade teacher feel about my observing her weekly purchase of Nutter Butters?

When high-IQ people, as the author evidently is, do boring low-skilled work, their minds tend to wander, whereas average-IQ people are focused on the task at hand.

A second reason for the viralness is everyone can lend their personal experience of dealing with boredom or the benefits of boredom, whereas politics, entertainment, and sports are less participatory and more observational owing to the relative rarity and exclusivity of being a politician or a celebrity, but everyone has experienced boredom. Shared narratives are universal, but not all universals are shared narratives. A story of a tragic car accident evokes universal sadness, but it is not a shared narrative because the evocation of such emotion in the context of the story is not exclusively limited to high-IQ readers.

Here is another passage that taks a shot at modernity:

We’ve stopped training children to do this. Rather than teach them to absorb material that is slower, duller and decidedly two-dimensional, like a lot of worthwhile information is, schools cave in to what they say children expect: fun. Teachers spend more time concocting ways to “engage” students through visuals and “interactive learning” (read: screens, games) tailored to their Candy Crushed attention spans. Kids won’t listen to long lectures, goes the argument, so it’s on us to serve up learning in easier-to-swallow portions.

But surely teaching children to endure boredom rather than ratcheting up the entertainment will prepare them for a more realistic future, one that doesn’t raise false expectations of what work or life itself actually entails. One day, even in a job they otherwise love, our kids may have to spend an entire day answering Friday’s leftover email. They may have to check spreadsheets. Or assist robots at a vast internet-ready warehouse.

It’s not like you have to read neoreactioany blogs to see attacks against modernity; even the left such as the NYTs and The New Yorker are in on it too, although it’s not an attack on leftism but rather against neophilia which is related to classical liberalism, which tends to be more optimistic about technology and modernity than left-liberalism. As the viralness of this article and similar articles show, such themes are surprisingly common, and I would go so far (as the backlash and controversy over Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now shows) as to say that to be pro-modernity and to reject such antediluvian themes, makes one more of a contrarian than supporting them.