Boredom is the Enemy

“Boredom is the enemy, not some abstract ‘failure.’”
Tim Ferriss

“People tolerate waaaay too much boredom in their lives.”
Ben Casnocha

If you measured your life, not by achievements, but by how much boredom you could avoid, would you live life differently? Would you accomplish less? Or, by eliminating the things that dull you, would you end up completing more interesting things?

Life is too short to waste on uninteresting pursuits. Too many people have the false idea that success requires putting up with years of boredom to get what you want. I’d argue the opposite: the more boredom you tolerate in your life, the fewer meaningful things you are accomplishing.

Boredom is NOT a Virtue

People grow up being taught that persevering through boredom is the recipe for success. As a result, they study boring subjects in school, take boring extra-curricular activities to be accepted into a boring graduate school, spend more time studying boring subjects, get hired to work at a boring job, marry a boring spouse, raise boring kids, retire and die without accomplishing anything worth mentioning.

Interesting pursuits are worth having. Pursuits that scare you are worth having. Challenging pursuits are worth having. Boring pursuits are just the admission that instead of failing at something remarkable, you didn’t bother to try.

Tolerate Frustration, Not Boredom

Frustration and boredom are not the same thing. Many people confuse the two, when they are actually opposites. Frustration is the result of a challenge being too hard, boredom is the result of a challenge being too easy. Facing those “abstract failures” makes you better, tolerating boredom makes you dull.

Starting an online business can be frustrating, but it’s rarely boring. Watching television is often boring, but it’s almost never frustrating. Boring activities are mentally under-stimulating. Under-stimulus means there is less chance for learning and growth. But, under-stimulus also means there is a lower chance of failure, so given a choice between boredom and frustration, many people pick the former.

Boring Jobs

I’m amazed at how many of my graduating friends are so eager to start working at a job. Yes, financially, most people will have to work at a job for at least part of their life. Also, there are jobs that are genuinely challenging, interesting and meaningful. I don’t want to degrade an entire category of income generation, just because it isn’t my personal preference.

But what amazes me isn’t the search for a job, but the eagerness to spend ten years working in dull, uninteresting positions. The thought of failing or going bankrupt running my own business doesn’t scare me nearly as much as selling away a decade of my life.

A friend of mine was the volunteer leader of a student sponsorship group. She managed a team of six volunteers to raise just under a quarter of a million dollars in sponsorship, coordinating communication between dozens of groups and managing a team of people who weren’t being paid.

She recently graduated and is now receiving a decent income doing mostly data entry for human resources. She recently commented that most of her workday is spent on the internet, because her job is far less demanding than the forty hours she’s required to be at work for. What’s worse is that many people I know are actually hunting down work like this, not as a temporary means, but as an end.

Do you think doing data entry and spending half your time on YouTube is building experience? Working at a start-up or launching a business might inevitably fail, but you would learn more. Even if you needed the job for the money, your excess time could be spent on something interesting and challenging.

Eliminate Boredom

If, on average, your degree program isn’t interesting, you’re in the wrong program. When you sum up the total of your classes and projects, and don’t find it to be interesting, you should probably transfer into something else or stop wasting money on school.

The same approach applies to almost any pursuit. Unfortunately, many complex activities are mixed bags, they have some interesting and some non-interesting components. It’s important to separate activities that are:

  1. Boring and not mentally stimulating
  2. Frustrating and uninteresting
  3. Frustrating, but interesting
  4. Genuinely interesting

If you’re faced with a genuinely boring activity, your goal should be to reduce the amount of effort applied to a bare minimum. These are the pursuits that drain energy out of life and kill you slowly, they are the enemy.

Pursuits that are frustrating, but uninteresting often deserve a second look. I’ve been in classes that first appear to fit this category. But that’s often because I didn’t invest in developing an appreciation for the ideas. If something is mentally stimulating it is often also useful. There are cases when a pursuit is both frustrating and genuinely boring, even after introspection, then it’s usually best to apply the same approach to boring activities –  get it out of your life.

Frustrating, interesting activities are worth your attention. Frustration and interestingness often go together because interesting activities that aren’t challenging soon lose their novelty and become boring. Not only are these activities more fun, but they make you better than when you started them.

Pursuing Interestingness

What would happen if you chose pursuits because of how interesting they were, not because you felt you should do them?

I suspect that you would be more successful, not less. Interesting activities are easier to put effort towards. If your life is full of boring pursuits you do because you should, not because they engage you, you’re probably using closer to 20% of your energy, not 100%.

Just in case you’re worried that interestingness as a criterion of decision making will result in a lack of discipline and laziness, I want you to do a quick experiment. Rate the following activities in terms of their perceived interestingness:

  • Watching television
  • Writing a book
  • Starting a business
  • Playing a computer game
  • Learning a foreign language
  • Getting drunk
  • Writing an email to your favorite author
  • Studying a martial art
  • Taking a nap
  • Looking through pictures on Facebook

Although this is a small sample of activities, my guess is that the most productive activities are also the most interesting. The easiest activities are also the least remarkable.

Conquer Boredom, Have Fun

If you aren’t having fun, you’re doing it wrong. Either you’ve picked a boring pursuit, which you should drop immediately, or your expectations are causing you to feel frustrated, which you should step back and reevaluate. Don’t tolerate boredom to compensate for a fear of failing at something remarkable.