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Boredom: "The Secret Ailment"


We have to face the fact that most men and women out there in the world of work are more stale than they know, more bored than they would care to admit. Boredom is the secret ailment of large-scale organizations. Someone said to me the other day "How can I be so bored when I'm so busy?" And I said "Let me count the ways." Logan Pearsall Smith said that boredom can rise to the level of a mystical experience, and if that's true I know some very busy middle level executives who are among the great mystics of all time. 

                            --John Gardner, from Personal Renewal

As I work with people at mid-career, many of them quite successful by any conventional terms, part of what I realize is that they are gripped by a profound sense of boredom. No longer pushed forward by the sheer momentum of establishing themselves  and "moving up the ladder," they begin to look around and ask, "Why am I doing this anyway?" 

Or maybe they don't. Maybe they just keep doing what they've been doing, but they are dogged by a sense that something isn't right anymore. They can't quite put their finger on it, but if they could, they would recognize that it's a deep, soul-sucking malaise.

Boredom can be good, if it ultimately drives individuals to seek something new, to ask new questions and explore new territory.  As a child, boredom for me was often the fuel I needed to invent new games or engage in other creative projects.  And some research suggests that bored people seek new meaning in helping others. 

But boredom can also be a problem. It can fuel hostility to "outsiders," making us more insular and less open to new ideas and approaches.  Boredom is stressful, too, in an insidious way that is de-moralizing and ennervating. It drains us of energy and enthusiasm, keeping us in a zombie-like state that is good for no one.

The antidote to boredom is self-renewal.  Back to John Gardner:

If we are conscious of the danger of going to seed, we can resort to countervailing measures. At almost any age. You don't need to run down like an unwound clock. And if your clock is unwound, you can wind it up again. You can stay alive in every sense of the word until you fail physically. I know some pretty successful people who feel that that just isn't possible for them, that life has trapped them. But they don't really know that. Life takes unexpected turns. 

I said in my book, "Self-Renewal," that we build our own prisons and serve as our own jail-keepers. I no longer completely agree with that. I still think we're our own jailkeepers, but I've concluded that our parents and the society at large have a hand in building our prisons. They create roles for us -- and self images -- that hold us captive for a long time. The individual intent on self-renewal will have to deal with ghosts of the past -- the memory of earlier failures, the remnants of childhood dramas and rebellions, accumulated grievances and resentments that have long outlived their cause. Sometimes people cling to the ghosts with something almost approaching pleasure -- but the hampering effect on growth is inescapable. As Jim Whitaker, who climbed Mount Everest, said "You never conquer the mountain, You only conquer yourself." . . . 

Learn all your life. Learn from your failures. Learn from your successes, When you hit a spell of trouble, ask "What is it trying to teach me?" The lessons aren't always happy ones, but they keep coming. It isn't a bad idea to pause occasionally for an inward look. By midlife, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves. 

We learn from our jobs, from our friends and families. We learn by accepting the commitments of life, by playing the roles that life hands us (not necessarily the roles we would have chosen). We learn by growing older, by suffering, by loving, by bearing with the things we can't change, by taking risks.

Boredom can be a disease of mid-career, but it's a disease with a cure. We just have to know it when we see it and then take steps toward self-renewal.  

Are you bored at work? What are you going to do about it? 



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Great post, Michele. I think this is a good summary of why the government sector specifically can be difficult to work with. People are bored and not given (or don't want) the flexibility to be creative and get out of their own ruts.

Thanks, Savannah--I think you're right. Gardner was in the government sector and was acutely aware of this too, which is why his words resonate so much there, I think.

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