Boredom, creativity and the addiction of distraction

Boredom: bored camel.Boredom may not be as boring as you think

Of the three things you most avoid that may be what you most need — suffering, failure and boredom — the latter seems like the most innocuous. Suffering and failure might feel more like an open wound or severed limb. In comparison, boredom’s more like a hangnail: not pleasant, but more of an annoyance you’d prefer would go away.

And that is exactly the problem.

You and I do all sorts of things to avoid being bored when in fact, embracing boredom may be one of the best things you can do to enhance your creativity and problem-solving abilities.

No, really.

Boredom and creativity

Being bored (and I’m talking about short-term boredom such as standing in line, being stuck in traffic, waiting for an appointment, etc. as opposed to long-term situations like a less-than-stimulating job) provides something rare: mental space for daydreaming. Without white space or a blank mental canvas, we don’t allow ourselves the ability to imagine. And without imagination, it’s hard to be creative.

Those stretches of time when you have nothing else to consider gives you the chance to make seemingly random connections that are at the heart of creativity. So much of our creative life occurs indirectly: we back into ideas or connect dots from different realms. Welcoming boredom or opportunities to not think about anything in particular allows you to ponder things in a different, non-linear way. And that’s when the creative ideas often flow.

But you’ll never get there if don’t open yourself to boredom. And if you’re like me, you can’t do that unless you address a hidden but powerful addiction: distraction.

The addiction of distraction

An addiction? You tell me. How long can you go without checking your phone or email or Facebook or a TV screen? How comfortable are you with silence? How often do you read the ads on the metro or subway just to have something to do? Distraction. It’s an addiction in our society and all the worse for the fact we don’t realize we suffer from it.

Distraction not only robs us of creative thought, it diverts us from deep thought. We’ve become so ingrained at checking our devices and living in a constant state of unfocus that we likely don’t even realize the toll it has taken on our ability to do better, insightful work.

Going deep

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport addresses the impact of distraction and its allies — networking and so-called productivity tools that keep us constantly connected and thus constantly checking rather than concentrating. I love this quote of his:

No one ever changed the world, created a new industry, or amassed a fortune due to their fast email response time.

Cal Newport

His point is that to do the kind of breakthrough work that makes a significant difference to society, we need focused time and effort. And that’s not easy in a culture addicted to distractions. Newport offers a wealth of solutions in the book, but one of my favorites is this.

Because distraction is so strong, we can’t beat it by trying to contain it. That’s why the approach many promote of carving out say, a day a week, for focused work with no social media rarely succeeds in the long run. That’s like telling an alcoholic to not drink one day a week. You don’t overcome addictions that way.

A better way to do focused work

Instead, Newport suggests a rather radical flipping of that process. Instead of carving out time in your week for focused work, instead, think of your week as being all about focus. Then, create small windows within each day for distraction. For example, as much as you can, arrange your schedule so that you refuse to go online or check your phone except every two hours and then for only 15 minutes. Be ruthless in sticking to this schedule. If you need to look something up online for the focused work you’re doing, wait until your two hours are up. If you absolutely can’t proceed without that information, at least wait five minutes. That way you’re training your brain not to give into the addiction pathology. You’re forcing yourself to at least pause before you automatically go online.

If you don’t do something dramatic like this, distraction will kick in. As an addiction, that means our brains have become trained to default to distraction whenever we’re agitated, bored or semi-engaged in something else. You need to break those habits of distraction and this reorienting your schedule is one way to do that.

Since reading Deep Work, I’ve tried this approach. I haven’t always been successful (addictions die hard), but when I stick to it and orient my day around focused time with distraction breaks rather than the other way round, the results have been dramatic. I get far more done and I haven’t missed out on any emergency emails, Slack messages or tweets that I just couldn’t live without.

What you may be missing most

I realize this last suggestion doesn’t relate directly to boredom. But it is a powerful way of breaking free of the addiction of distraction. So is embracing boredom. I highly recommend giving both a try. For when you do, you begin to realize how much you’ve been missing in your attempt not to miss out on anything.

If you haven’t already, check out the overview of this three-part series on the three things we avoid that we may most need, as well as the specific entries on suffering and failure.

 

Why failure isn’t

Why failure isn't - Thorny flowersFailure isn’t what you think it is

Failure. So many of us go to great lengths to avoid it. But should we? What if one of the greatest secrets to success turns out to be how we think about and approach failure?

How we interpret failure

In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck states that people tend to have one of two different mindsets or ways of interpreting the world. The first is what she calls a “fixed mindset” that assumes what we’ve got in terms of talent, intelligence or creative ability is all we’re ever going to have. Those with a fixed mindset judge success based on how they line up against some set standard. They feel better about themselves if they score well against that standard. They also pursue success or flee from any chance of failing in an effort to prove how innately talented or bright they are. If they get an “A,” that shows how smart they are. If they get a “C,” that affects their very identity as they now feel less smart just because of an average grade.

The alternative is a “growth mindset” that sees everything, including failure, as an opportunity for improvement. An “A” to this group means they studied hard (as opposed to feeling innately intelligent). A “C” means they should study harder next time. In comparing the two mindsets, Dweck writes:

 In one world — the world of fixed traits — success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other — the world of changing qualities — it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.

In one world, failure is about having a setback. Getting a bad grade. Losing a tournament. Getting fired. Getting rejected. It means you’re not smart or talented. In the other world, failure is about not growing. Not reaching for the things you value. It means you’re not fulfilling your potential.

In one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.

(Carol Dweck quoted in Maria Popova’s helpful summary of Dweck’s book)

In short, if you see the world through a fixed mindset, failure will always be bad. Growth mindset people, however, will see it as an indicator that you are improving. Two very different approaches to failure.

Other ways to think about failure

If you’re locked into a fixed mindset, I may not convince you failure can be a useful thing. But one way I’ve found to make failure seem less intimidating for anyone is this: redefine, or rather, reframe it.

Failure is a catchall term we use for anything that doesn’t go as planned. But as travelers know, sometimes the best journeys aren’t the ones we set out to take. What one person considers a failure, another sees as a boon. It all comes down to your perspective and that, in turn, is affected by terminology. So let’s explore some other labels or ways to consider failure.

Plot Twists

I love this comment in an email from entrepreneur Danny Iny of Mirasee.com:

…as long as you’re still breathing, it isn’t over. Failure is only failure if it happens in the last chapter – otherwise it’s a plot twist.

So true. If we see the story of our lives as long-form narrative, even some major setbacks are just road bumps that add interest. They are what build character, increase our resilience and make for more compelling lives.

Trying

If you try something and it doesn’t work out, you haven’t necessarily failed. You succeeded in trying. That’s a win. The biggest problem with avoiding failure is that you never try anything new. You take no risks. And if that happens, you never grow or frankly, truly live.

Improvement

How many times have you made a “mistake” only to find that the end result was better than planned? Would you call that a failure? No way. In the Renaissance, artists took the word pentimenti which originally meant regret or remorse and redefined it as meaning a reconsideration or change of thought. In this video from The Getty Museum, you can see how these “reconsiderations” play a big role in improving works of art.

Practice

In learning how to play a musical instrument, you’ll make multiple mistakes. That’s all a part of the process and why you practice. Those mistakes aren’t failures. They are essential steps in building your skills and capabilities.

Awareness

So-called failures make us aware for areas in which we need to improve. Without periodic failures, we can fall into the trap of thinking we’re successful at everything. That not only enhances arrogance, it decreases our desire and ability to learn new things. Again, like not trying or risking, the result is stagnation and complacency.

Experimentation

As Thomas Edison famously noted, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” He saw all that effort as a natural part of the process of eliminating unknown factors. This process includes experimentation (for exploring alternative approaches when you don’t know where to start) and testing to reduce unknown variables (for when you know where to start but not how to proceed). You’ll kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince, but that’s all part of the process.

Experience

I remember hearing the story of an executive who made a tremendous blunder costing his company something like $20 million. He walked into the CEO’s office and handed in his resignation. The CEO read the letter then tore it up saying, “I just spent $20 million to make you a better leader. Now go back and do your job.” That CEO understood one of the most valuable aspects of so-called failures: If we learn from the experience, we let it change us. We improve. We become wiser.

We learn far more from failures than successes because we pay better attention. And in so doing, we gain hard-won yet invaluable experience. As a result, we do better work not in spite of our failures, but because of them.

The necessity of failure

So I say to you, stop thinking about failure as something to avoid. Use one of the alternative terms above to name it for what it is, a positive, not a negative. A necessity, really, for any creative endeavor.

Consider this: You really can’t create without failure. There are no perfect first drafts. No unreworked canvases. No orchestral arrangements that spring to life in final form. Failure is baked into a process that is less about sparks of genius and more about plain old showing up and doing the work. As author Kevin Ashton notes in How to Fly a Horse, “Creation is a long journey where most turns are wrong and most ends are dead. The most important thing creators do is work. The most important thing they don’t do is quit.”

Neither should you.

Now go back and do your job.

Better.

 

If you haven’t already, check out the other entries in this series: 3 Things You Most Avoid May Be What You Most Need and Why Suffering May Be Better For You Than You Think

 

Why suffering may be better for you than you think

Suffering - tombstonesWhat do we do with suffering?

There are only two things which pierce the human heart. Beauty and affliction.

This quote from Simone Weil reflects the power of beauty and affliction to move us. Both cut through the superficiality of daily life to help us see what truly matters. Affliction, or suffering, comes in many forms. Some is forced upon us against our will: disease, injustice, oppression. Some is the result of our own mistakes or actions that went awry. Some just happens. The question isn’t why. Get in line to ask that one. Rather, what do we do with suffering?

Developing empathy

One benefit of suffering is that it forges empathy. Or it can. I know that when my wife went through chemotherapy for breast cancer, there were, in general, two types of patients in the chemo ward. The first — and fewest — were those who turned inward and became bitter. The second were those who, despite their own pain, reached out to others. They learned from their own struggle. As a result, they were better able to assist others going through their own dark seasons and hard places.

Suffering and learning

“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

This quote from Aeschylus, the originator of literary tragedy, was famously used by Robert Kennedy after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It reveals another aspect of suffering: We cannot truly learn without it. We can gather information, facts and data. But deep learning — wisdom — only comes through applying that learning through experience. And experience is not always a gentle teacher. We remember best those moments that were most emotionally charged.

There’s a reason many writers, composers and other artists often create their greatest works during times of heartache. We are more in touch with our emotions and we understand the world in a far richer way out of our suffering than we do during periods of elation. It may not be fun. But great art isn’t about fun. It’s about truth. And for complex reasons, we are able to see what is true and what matters with greater clarity through our pain more than through our pleasure. Or put another way, we’re more motivated to express our deepest thoughts as a way of coming to grips with our suffering. Wisdom and art frequently come at a painful cost. And yet, in hindsight, we tend to find that the suffering was worth it.

The value of struggle

Suffering can foster empathy, increase wisdom and change how we view the world and others. But it can also help us to grow and overcome.

Think of the mountain climber or triathlon winner. Each endures tremendous suffering not because he or she enjoys it, but because the ultimate goal is worth the struggle. In fact, that end result is only attainable because of the struggle. Most of us aren’t the best in our fields because we’re not willing to pay the price. “No pain, no gain” is fine we think, for a middle school PE slogan. But in reality, we dislike the pain so much that we sacrifice the gain. Simply put, greatness doesn’t happen without struggle. And struggle means suffering of some kind.

The idea of “grit” or the ability to endure what is hard in order to achieve something greater has become increasingly popular as a concept these days. But we’re still reticent to practice it. Why?

Because in the US, we have made an idol of comfort and we protect that comfort at all costs. We prefer a numb existence over the effort and discomfort that comes with striving or trying something new. But as all good travelers know, you never grow or truly feel alive inside that fluffy, padded comfort zone. Sure, it may not feel pleasant to step outside it and enter the struggle. But like going to the gym for a hard workout, you don’t focus on what it feels like at the moment. You think about how good you’ll feel when you’re done.

Is it worth it?

Here’s the funny thing. From my own experience and from that of everyone I know who has endured great suffering, the vast majority say the same thing: It was worth it. To anyone who hasn’t been through such pain, that seems unimaginable. And yet, it’s a common response. The suffering has produced hard-earned rewards.

Whether it is increased empathy, wisdom or growth, you do discover — but only by going through it — that suffering has value. Again, you need not pursue affliction for its own sake. Just realize when it finds you that there is blessing on the other side, and rarely in the way you expect.

In the end, the hard won lessons are the ones we end up valuing most.

 

Read the overview on the 3 things you most avoid that may be what you most need if you haven’t already to understand better why suffering, failure and boredom may not be all you thought they were.

 

3 things you most avoid may be what you most need

3 things you most avoid - walking surfersIn our creative work, in travel and in life overall, we often flee from the very things we most need. In particular, there are three things you most avoid that may be most beneficial to your creative work and to achieving your dreams.

What are the three things you most avoid that may most help you?

Suffering, failure and boredom. Those three.

“Well, of course,” you may be thinking. Who doesn’t want to avoid pain, failing or being bored? In and of themselves, they are no fun. But what they produce may be the very ingredients, resources or character traits you need for success.

I am not suggesting you actively pursue these three. You don’t have to. They are inevitable parts of life. But I am saying that making efforts to avoid them actually backfires. Like scientists are now telling us, washing your hands continuously with antibacterial soap only makes you more susceptible to germs in the long run. Trying to avoid germs in this way, much like trying to eliminate all suffering, failure and boredom from your life, just makes you more vulnerable to each when you do encounter them. You have no resistance.

I’ll explore each one in separate entries over the next few weeks since we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. But for now, let me give you a quick summary of why these things you most avoid may be what you most need.

Suffering

Suffering is the antidote to superficiality. Through it you gain empathy, acquire wisdom and build grit – the ability to overcome.

Failure

Failure is the antidote to blandness and playing it safe. Through it you learn how to take appropriate risks, eliminate your unknown variables, achieve better outcomes and reframe what success means.

Boredom

Boredom is the antidote to distraction. Through it you improve your concentration, imagination, creativity and most of all, your deep thinking.

How you approach these three

Intrigued? I hope so because this backwards way of embracing three things you most avoid can have a profound effect on how you live. I will explain the upside of each of these in detail in three successive posts here. In addition, I’ll show you how you can get positive outcomes through these experiences we normally view only as negative.

But until then, let me offer a helpful analogy on how to approach these less-than-popular notions of suffering, failure and boredom.

How a riptide works

In my youth, I spent a lot of time at the beach. If you swim or surf in the ocean much, you soon learn about riptides.

Riptides are strong currents usually caused by the outflow of other water (e.g. from an inlet or near a river) or a sudden change in the depth of the water. In these situations, the riptide tends to pull you out to sea in a relentless flow. Trying to swim toward shore means swimming against a current much stronger than you. Many people drown when they attempt to swim in against a riptide. They simply exhaust themselves.

With suffering, failure and boredom, our goal isn’t to pursue them nor to directly oppose them. Rather, it is to understand them, embrace them and use them to our advantage much like experienced swimmers and surfers do with riptides.

With a riptide, you don’t resist it. You move through it and swim at a 90 degree angle to it to escape it. If you fight it, you get exhausted and possibly drown. If you ignore it, you’ll be washed out to sea (and possibly drown). If you let the fear of it keep you from ever going into the water, you’ll never experience the joy of the ocean, or the thrill of the waves and surf. You won’t drown, but you won’t have much fun.

The upside of the riptide

However, if you embrace the riptide by recognizing it for what it is and you keep moving, not against it toward the beach but across it parallel to the beach, you succeed. You come to shore in a different place, tired but stronger — and better able to go back out the next time.

Surfers sometimes use riptides to help them get out to the bigger waves with less effort. Once there, they paddle parallel to the shore until they are free from the riptide and can surf in freely. They have leveraged a negative and used it to their advantage.

That is precisely how we can address suffering, failure and boredom. They may be three things try to you avoid. But as we shall see, they may also be more helpful to you than you realize.

 

You could die there

You could die here - Old Urgup, Cappadocia, Turkey

This is the old area of Urgup in Cappadocia, Turkey, just one of the many amazing places you’ll never see if you heed the fears of those who tell you, “You could die there!”

“You could die there.”

I heard that or related expressions of dismay when I told people I was about to travel to Turkey this past month. I heard similar comments last summer when my sons and I went to Egypt and Morocco. And the summer before that, I got the same impression from reading the State Department’s warnings about visiting Nicaragua. You could die there. Or at the very least, get hurt. Or kidnapped. Or robbed.

Some of these warnings stem from valid concerns. In the case of Nicaragua, there had been an uptick in murders, carjackings and robberies. But put it in perspective: The actual numbers were far fewer there than a typical summer weekend of violence in Chicago. And in the case of Turkey, yes they did experience horrific bombings in Istanbul last year. But again, in comparison, we’ve had our own terrorist violence here in places like Boston, Orlando or San Bernardino. You could die there too.

Look at the numbers

According to a study  done by the University of Maryland in October of 2015:

…80 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks from 2004 to 2013, including perpetrators and excluding deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq, the majority of which are combat related. Of those 80 Americans killed, 36 were killed in attacks that occurred in the United States.

That means that 44 Americans died overseas in terrorist attacks over a ten-year period. That’s less than five deaths per year. In comparison, an estimated 150 people die each year from being hit by a coconut.  12 people die annually from high school and college football injuries  and about the same number are killed each year by flying champagne corks . Thus, you’re more than twice as likely to die at a wedding from an errant bubbly cork than from a terrorist activity overseas. Hmmm.

When put into perspective, it starts to seem rather crazy that we let heightened media reports ramp up our fears and keep us from traveling.

Travel smart

Now obviously, you need to be wise. Where there are legitimate concerns, you should heed them or more importantly, understand them. For example, there are warnings not to go near ledges. Not to play with the cords on blinds. Not to drop your blow dryer in the bathtub. Even my pillow comes with a warning label. Those are all good to know, but within reason. If you understand them, you don’t avoid viewing the canyon, using blinds, your pillow or blow dryers. You just use them wisely. Same with travel warnings: Be aware of the threats but also keep them in perspective. Let them inform you, not immobilize you.

Ask the right questions

To me, the real question is, what will you live for, not against?

When you let fear keep you from traveling, the only ones who win are the terrorists. You miss out on what could be one of the greatest adventures of your life. More importantly, it’s not just you who loses when you stay home. The locals in these countries actually suffer the most. In countries I’ve recently visited like Turkey, Egypt and Morocco, tourism has been one of the leading industries. Now, with dramatically fewer visitors, so many jobs are lost and livelihoods ruined.

I was told while in Cappadocia, Turkey last week that previously, something like 1.5 million people visited the area in a year. Now, it is less than 100,000. And when I was there, of the few other visitors I did see, none of them was an American.

Final considerations

I’ll share some specifics about my trip to Turkey in a later post, but for now, let me leave you with two final thoughts.

First, now is the perfect time to visit countries like Turkey or Egypt. Prices are low, you have major attractions all to yourself and you are treated like royalty. Go now and you will not only have an amazing trip, you’ll also come to understand the whole issue of global terrorism — and its impact — from a different perspective.

Second, know that you could die there. True. But you could die anywhere for that matter. So why let fear of dying keep you from living? Especially when you realize that you’re more likely to die overseas from sun stroke than a terrorist attack. If you don’t travel to these amazing places, you eventually end up with a good deal of regret. And in a state of such disappointment, a part of you could die there too.

Ultimately, however, it’s not about where you might die. It’s about where and how you will live. Not just survive, but truly live. Now is the best time to do that. Set the fears aside. Start dreaming about all the places you could visit. Choose life and hope and trust.

And then, most of all, go.

 

P.S. – Here’s an afterthought based on a news report I heard this morning: travel overseas from the US is down right now based not just on concerns that the travelers themselves will be affected by President Trump’s proposed travel bans but because of fears of how people overseas will react to Americans in light of these bans.

Only time will tell. But I will say that I was in a predominantly Muslim country the day the ban was announced. No one there treated me, an American, any differently. And instead of anger, the most common response was sadness. Time after time, I have run into people in countries all over the world that vehemently hate our government (not just the current one, but many past administrations as well). But they love Americans. They are so glad we are visiting their country.

Again, I don’t know how this will play out. But I would be stunned to find that people in other countries treat American visitors badly just because of the travel ban. It’s another case of our fears sometimes exceeding reality. So my advice still holds.

Be wise. But go.

How to make the most of a business trip

Make the most of a business trip: Pike Place Market, SeattleGood business travelers are efficient and get their work done. Road Warriors do all that with upgrades, perks and insider tricks. But great business travelers do something more: they go beyond business on their business trips.

I recently met with a woman I’ll call Carol at a conference in Seattle. Carol lives and works on the East Coast but before returning there, she took a few extra days to get to know Seattle. Let me use Carol’s example to illustrate how you too can make the most of a business trip.

  1. She was intentional. Carol planned ahead and did her research as to places to see and things to do so that when she arrived, she wasted no time. She’d read about places like Kurt Farm Shop, a recently opened ice cream shop that I, as the local, had never heard of (but now definitely will check out). She went beyond the obvious tourist locations to discover what mattered to her.
  2. She made the time. People in Carol’s line of work are constantly dealing with new projects and deadlines. They are not people with much free time. But Carol carved out the time to do more than attend the conference. She took advantage of being in a place she rarely visits to explore.
  3. She gained more than she gave up. Because her time is such a precious resource, it would have been easy for Carol, like most business travelers, to say, “I just can’t take an extra day away from work or family to stay longer.” But creative work is not something easily measured by the clock: sometimes that break from work to refresh your spirit actually makes you more productive when you get back to work.
  4. She understood the freedom found in limitations. Too many tourists to Seattle try to take in Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, Pioneer Square, Fremont, Lake Union, the International District, Mount Rainier, ferry rides across the Sound and more, all in one day (which is roughly like trying to fit your head into a drinking glass). Instead, she made Ballard (a quaint Seattle neighborhood by the water) her base and only ventured as far as easy, local bus service allowed. She got more from less.
  5. She was flexible and inventive. To ride those local buses, she snagged a bunch of quarters from the bank only to find that in Seattle, you can ride within certain zones all for the same fare. Most of us might have begrudged lugging around all those coins. Instead, Carol found a pinball bar and put all that change to fun use.
  6. She reached out to others. She met up with work and personal contacts (some being friends of friends that were new to her) so that she was able to share her time in Seattle with others and learn from those she met. Solo travel doesn’t have to mean a solo experience.
  7. She inspired locals. I mentioned the ice cream place, but Carol also told me about some great restaurants I’ve not been to like Eve. She helped me see the place where I live with new eyes. She made the most of a business trip in part by inspiring me to do the same and to get out and make the most of the places close to home that can seem overly familiar.

I was at a gathering of filmmakers awhile back. One of them noted that the people who excel in their field are those who do the work others aren’t willing to do and who make the time to do what matters even when they don’t feel like it. That applies to making movies or any creative endeavor. And as Carol reminded me, it applies to travel as well – even a busy business trip.