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The Lost Art of Boredom

Better advice than "use your phone less."

The Lost Art of Boredom

Happy December. This month we’re investigating how certain types of psychological discomfort can lead to breakthroughs.

Let’s start with Ellis Paul Torrance, an American psychologist. In the 1950s, Torrance noticed something off-target about American classrooms.

Teachers tended to prefer the subdued, book-smart kids. They didn’t much care for the kids who had tons of energy and big ideas – kids who’d think up odd interpretations of readings, inventive excuses for why they didn’t do their homework, and morph into mad scientists every lab day.

The system deemed these kids “bad.” But Torrance felt they were misunderstood. Because if a problem comes up in the real world, all the book-smart kids look for an answer in … a book.

But what if the answer isn’t in a book? Then a person needs to get creative.

The Torrance Test

This realization led Torrance to devote his life to studying creativity and what it’s good for. In 1958 he developed the “Torrance Test.” It’s since become the gold standard for gauging creativity.

He had a large group of children in the Minnesota public school system take the exam. It includes exercises like showing a kid a toy and asking her, “how would you improve this toy to make it more fun?”

The kids who came up with more and better ideas in the initial tests were the ones who became the most accomplished adults. They were successful inventors and architects, CEOs and college presidents, authors and diplomats, etc. Torrance testing, in fact, smokes IQ testing.

A recent study of Torrance’s kids found that creativity was a threefold better predictor of much of the students’ accomplishment compared to their IQ scores.

Yet new research suggests that creativity is dropping.

The Creativity Crisis

A scientist at the University of William and Mary recently analyzed 300,000 Torrance Test scores since the 1950s. She found that creativity scores began to nosedive in 1990. She concluded that we’re now facing a “creativity crisis.” And that’s bad news – particularly when we consider that creativity is a critical skill in today’s economy, where most of us work with our brains rather than brawn.

The scientist blames our hurried, over-scheduled lives and “ever-increasing amounts of (time) interacting with electronic entertainment devices.” The average American spends more than 12 hours engaged with digital media (that’s up one hour since I published The Comfort Crisis).

How to Get Creative

Before digital media, which started with the adoption of the radio in the 1910s, people spent much more time grappling with boredom. If we got bored, we had to dream up a solution for our boredom.

But our modern media complex has essentially put boredom on the ropes. Anytime we feel the discomfort of boredom, we now have an easy, effortless, hyperstimulating escape from it. We reflexively pull out our cell phone, watch TV, listen to a podcast, or surf the internet.

But there are good evolutionary reasons why boredom can go a long way toward boosting our creativity. As humans evolved, we’d become bored anytime we were doing something with a low return on our time invested. For example, think of picking berries from a bush. It’s engaging as you gather all the big, easy-to-reach berries. But once you've picked the easy-to-reach berries, it eventually becomes harder and harder to find berries, and you have to reach deeper and deeper in the bush. Boredom kicks on because you aren’t getting as many berries for your time invested.

So boredom is a psychological discomfort that arose that tells us to do something else. And in the past, the “something else” we’d dream up was often productive. Our berry picker might decide to move to another berry bush or hunt an animal.

The Boredom and Creativity Connection

When we become bored, our attention and focus goes inward and our mind wanders. We search for a solution for our boredom. And it turns out that this mind-wandering is a crucial driver of creativity. Ideation and creativity happen when we’re inside our own head, dreaming up big ideas rather than watching or listening to someone else’s ideas through a screen or speakers.

This is why other studies have found that bored people score significantly higher on creativity tests. It’s also why people often report having their best ideas in the shower—it’s a time of pure mind wandering.

Get Bored to Get Creative—and More

And so, despite what productivity gurus will have us believe, the key to improving creativity might be to embrace the discomfort of boredom. It allows us to think and process information distinctly, in a way that delivers more original ideas.

The way we dealt with boredom before we began surrounding ourselves in constant comfort delivered benefits that are essential for our brain health, productivity, personal sanity, and sense of meaning. But there’s been a cosmic shift in our experience of boredom.

Rediscovering boredom is critical to get things done, tap into creativity, process complicated information, and more.

An easy way to flow boredom back into your life is to take a 20-minute daily walk outside. But remember: leave your cell phone at home so you don’t unbore yourself.


2% Top Two

My two favorite things this week ...

1. Slay The Anxiety Dragon, Kid

One in 11 kids now has an anxiety disorder and the rate grows every year. With that in mind, some kids are facing the dragon head on. This piece explains how exposure therapy, where we face our fears, has been helpful. There's a lesson about embracing discomfort here.

2. How to Write a Book

Just do this.

Sponsored by GORUCK

When I decided to accept sponsorships for this newsletter, GORUCK was a natural fit. Not only is the company's story included in The Comfort Crisis, but I've been using GORUCK's gear since the brand was founded. Seriously. They've been around ~12 years and I still regularly use a pack of theirs that is 11 years old. Their gear is made in the USA by former Special Forces soldiers. They make my favorite rucking setup: A Rucker and Ruck Plate.