Is constant stimulation hurting our creativity—and the economy? Scott Adams pays tribute to tedium
By Scott Adams
We’ve won the war on boredom! If you have a smartphone in your pocket, a game console in the living room, a Kindle in your backpack and an iPad in the kitchen, you never need to suffer a minute without stimulation. Yay!
But wait—we might be in dangerous territory. Experts say our brains need boredom so we can process thoughts and be creative. I think they’re right. I’ve noticed that my best ideas always bubble up when the outside world fails in its primary job of frightening, wounding or entertaining me.
I make my living being creative and have always assumed that my potential was inherited from my parents. But for allowing my creativity to flourish, I have to credit the soul–crushing boredom of my childhood.
I grew up in the tiny mountain town of Windham, N.Y., and graduated with the same 40 kids I met in kindergarten. When we picked teams during gym class, there was no mystery about which team would win. The fourth–grader with a mustache would hit four home runs, and the kid with a limp would get thrown out at first. I lived a surprise–free childhood.
The rabbit ears on our television only pulled in one channel well, and we grew accustomed to the picture rolling for the entire evening. Our radio wasn't much better, but if I kept my hand on the antennae I could hear a rhythmic noise that I later learned to call music.
We didn’t have many toys by modern standards. But I discovered that if you have a blob of clay and some Lincoln Logs, you can make your own toy rifle. You can use those same materials to create a FrankenBarbie doll with body–image issues and a G.I. Joe that looks like an angry starfish with snow shoes. I’d take turns shooting at both of them, sometimes using the Lincoln Log rifle and sometimes the handgun that I whittled out of a block of wood. I blame society for all of that.
When I wasn’t making something inappropriate out of nothing, I would stare out the window into the frosty tundra and watch birds freeze to death in midflight. In the summers I rode my bike for hours every day, imagining fantastic worlds in which ice cream was free and farm dogs didn’t attack kids on bicycles just because biting is fun.
My period of greatest creative output was during my corporate years, when every meeting felt like a play date with coma patients. I would sit in long meetings, pretending to pay attention while writing computer code in my mind and imagining the anatomically inspired nicknames I would assign to my boss after I won the lottery.
Years later, when “Dilbert” was in thousands of newspapers, people often asked me if I ever imagined being so lucky. I usually said no, because that’s the answer people expected. The truth is that I imagined every bit of good fortune that has come my way. But in my imagination I also invented a belt that would allow me to fly and had special permission from Congress to urinate like a bird wherever I wanted. I wake up every morning disappointed that I have to wear pants and walk. Imagination has a way of breeding disappointment.
Lately I've started worrying that I’m not getting enough boredom in my life. If I’m watching TV, I can fast–forward through commercials. If I'm standing in line at the store, I can check email or play “Angry Birds.” When I run on the treadmill, I listen to my iPod while reading the closed captions on the TV. I've eliminated boredom from my life.
Now let’s suppose that the people who are leaders and innovators around the world are experiencing a similar lack of boredom. I think it’s fair to say they are. What change would you expect to see in a world that has declining levels of boredom and therefore declining creativity? Allow me to describe that world. See if you recognize it.
For starters, you might see people acting more dogmatic than usual. If you don't have the option of thinking creatively, the easiest path is to adopt the default position of your political party, religion or culture. Yup, we see that.
You might see more movies that seem derivative or are sequels. Check.
You might see more reality shows and fewer scripted shows. Right.
You might see the best–seller lists dominated by fiction “factories” in which ghostwriters churn out familiar–feeling work under the brands of famous authors. Got it.
You might see the economy flat–line for lack of industry–changing innovation. Uh–oh.
You might see the headlines start to repeat, like the movie “Groundhog Day,” with nothing but the names changed. We're there.
You might find that bloggers are spending most of their energy writing about other bloggers. OK, maybe I do that. Shut up.
You might find that people seem almost incapable of even understanding new ideas. Yes.
To be fair, economics is to blame for some of the decrease in creativity. A movie studio can make more money with a sequel than a gamble on something creative. A similar dynamic is at work in every industry. And, to be fair, sometimes things seem to be getting worse when, in fact, you're only noticing it more. It seems as if folks are more dogmatic than ever, but maybe the pundits are creating that illusion.
Still, it’s worth keeping an eye on the link between our vanishing boredom and our lack of innovation. It's the sort of trend that could literally destroy the world without anyone realizing what the root problem is. A lack of creativity always looks like some other problem. If no one invents the next great thing, it will seem as if the problem is tax rates or government red tape or whatever we're blaming this week.
All I'm saying is that if you someday find yourself in a movie titled “The Hangover Part III,” that's a good time to sell all of your stocks and invest in gold.
— Mr. Adams is the creator of “Dilbert.”
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