When I was growing up, my older brother and I sometimes complained that we were bored. This drove our mother to distraction. “How can you be bored?” she’d ask. “Play a game, read a book, do some chores!” Chastened, we’d head to a different part of the house to be bored somewhere else.

It seems as if boredom gets a bad rap, as something to be avoided at all costs, for we certainly spend money trying to avoid being bored. There are now televisions in doctors’ waiting rooms and bank lobbies. We carry phones with us constantly. My iPod has songs, photos, games, movies, radio programs, and I don’t know what else…

Seems as if it’s pretty hard to be bored these days. Which I’m not so sure is a good thing.

I’m beginning to see boredom as a state of mind not unlike the “neutral” gear in a car transmission. I got this idea from John Muir in his book How to Keep Your Volkswagon Alive. Muir recommends pausing momentarily in neutral when shifting gears. He suggests that doing this is gentler on the gears and extends the life of the transmission.

I think boredom does the same thing for our brains. It’s likeĀ  a pause and disengagement with one’s usual way of interacting with one’s surroundings. In fact, there’s a 2008 article in The Boston Globe that links stretches of boredom to the creative impulse.

With my own children, I used to repeat my mother’s line, asking them how they can be bored when they’ve so much to do. Now I try to teach them to accept, if not welcome, the boredom.

My answer when my kids tell me they’re bored? “Good.”

Funny thing is, within five minutes of telling me they’re bored, they’ve gone and invented a new kind of game and play happily at it for hours. They would have missed that if I’d tried to alleviate their boredom for them.

Boredom… gateway to creativity?

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