Want to be creative? Try being bored first.

May 13, 2016

by Ravi Raman

If I didn’t sit at my desk and start writing this post, using pen and paper first thing in the morning, it wouldn’t have happened. My computer is shut down. My TV is off. My phone is on but silenced and resting on the living room table. I have no newspaper to read. My dog, patiently waiting for his morning pets, is also being tuned out.

Nothing is distracting me, and yet, I feel a tug in my mind to check Facebook. I do wonder how many people visited my blog yesterday. Randomly, to-do’s pop into my head that I feel compelled to add to my reminders list on the computer. How far shall I run today? I resist the pull of these thoughts.

I’m ignoring all the distractions, not for the sake of productivity. I’m doing it for another reason. To sit with boredom to get to what’s on the other side, my own original ideas and thoughts.

There is a benefit that comes from being bored. It’s highly undervalued, yet obvious.

As a kid, I had an untamed imagination. I used to design my own video games using pencils and paper (it was the 1980’s). Many weekends were spent creating my own role-playing games (RPGs) using notebooks and rudimentary drawing skills. I never actually played the games I made, I preferred just to create them.

Something happened in the ensuing years, around age 12.

Schooling took hold. I was trained to take in as much information as possible, and regurgitate it for the sake of quizzes and exams.

Later in life, work took away my free time and freedom to think on my own. I suppose work didn’t do this to me, I did, but the impact was the same.

My life became about consuming other people’s ideas, learning new subjects by reading other people’s books, responding to emails and moving around “deck chairs” and pretending it was innovative.

Even things that any reasonable person would consider creative (e.g. building new software products) were in practice so task-oriented, process-driven and structured (and limited by splintering of tasks across thousands of individuals working on the same product) that my own creativity atrophied.

Busyness was lauded. Productivity was admired. Being a team player (i.e. fitting in) was rewarded. Even worse, If you weren’t busy, you were labeled as lazy. Being simultaneously truly creative and super busy is hard. The two are like oil and water.

Boredom is a gateway to finding real creativity.

True creativity, as I am defining it in this blog, doesn’t build on the backs of other people’s ideas directly, but instead is generated from within. Just like a meditator will notice of flood of ideas arising when she closes her eyes, the same will happen when we remove the flood of external stimuli. It takes practice to feel the wave of ideas inside of us, but it’s always there under the surface. When I receive fewer foreign ideas and inputs, I get to notice more of my own ideas coming to the surface.

This is creativity!

This is also where boredom comes in handy. Boredom is a key to unlocking creativity.

For the past couple years, I’ve become comfortable with boredom. I’ve also noticed that what I am feeling isn’t boredom anyway, it is the feeling of a lack of busyness with a tinge of guilt that I should be doing something more productive with my time. It’s more like empty space than boredom, but since everyone equates “doing nothing” with boredom, I’ll use the same word for both states.

It can be unnerving at first to not feel the pressure of externalities on your mind. It can make you want to reach for your phone and browse your feed or respond to emails just to feel connected and productive. However, if you can sit with the feeling, you’ll soon tap into your own inner source of inspiration and a wellspring of ideas.

Kids are already excellent at this, just put a few 5-year-olds in a room without distractions and watch the creative sparks popping all over the place. Adults can tap into the same creativity too if we mindfully reject the idea that other people’s ideas are better than our own, and are willing to be patient enough to get to whatever ideas are sitting on the other side of this thing we call boredom.

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