I just finished Cal Newport’s new book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.
Although I do have some quibbles with it, and would dearly love to read a version of this book written by a woman outside of academia, I’m certainly glad I read it. I found it both affirming and eye-opening, both as a person who works in the online space and a parent raising the most connected (as in, to their devices) generation ever.
Much of the information in the book is not new, and I enjoyed Newport’s call backs to work I’ve previously read and enjoyed, by authors like Winifred Gallagher and Sherry Turkle.
Funny thing: Gallagher’s book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life was the subject of one of the very first posts on this blog. I’ve since taken it down, because the writing was truly terrible, but it’s still sitting in drafts, waiting for a brush-up.
I came to Turkle’s work more recently. Almost exactly three years ago, I read her newest work Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age. Her insights affected, and still affect, my day-to-day life, and isn’t that the highest compliment you can pay a nonfiction title?
Newport must agree, because he quotes Turkle extensively in Digital Minimalism.
Today I’m reposting my favorite of those posts, about being bored. It’s really important, we don’t do enough of it these days, but there’s hope.
I’m sure you have thoughts on being bored AND on Digital Minimalism. I’m interested in hearing all about both in comments.
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Lately my kids and I have been spending a lot of time in the waiting room.
It hasn’t been easy.
Last week, halfway through yet another 90-minute waiting room session, my eight-year-old looked up at me and said I’m bored. She’s a spunky kid (if we’re being polite about it) and she didn’t say it so much as a statement of fact but as a challenge: a what are you gonna do about it, Mom?
Poor girl. She wanted sympathy, or some ideas on how to occupy her time, or at the very least, yet another snack. I feel bad about our accumulating waiting room hours, which, though temporary, are taxing.
A big part of me wanted to jump in and fix it for her. But I’m reading Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation, which is all about the value of real-time human interaction in a digital age. So instead of a Honey, how can I help? she got a swift You’ll be fine. And when she protested that she hated being bored, I told her everyone needs to be bored sometimes. Boredom is good for you.
Lucy looked up, clearly surprised, but I put my head back down and kept reading my book.
(There probably was a better strategy, but oh well.)
It’s not just my 8-year-old who’s complaining about boredom. According to Turkle, it’s the greatest fear of 18-24 year-olds, who are accustomed to a constant stream of stimulation from their digital devices that keeps their frontal lobes occupied and eliminates any need for them to be alone with their thoughts.
Technology makes it easy to avoid boredom and anxiety, but that’s not actually a good thing. Kids need to be bored. Grown-ups need to experience boredom, too.
Lucy doesn’t know or care why I want her to be bored; she just thinks I’m being unsympathetic. She’s still learning to appreciate the value of quiet moments. She hasn’t heard Erickson’s theory that children need “stillness” to find their identity. She doesn’t know that boredom is directly linked to creativity.
And yet when I look at my child, I see the good things that happen when she takes some time to herself, with just her own thoughts for company. The fruits of those hours are obvious.
My daughter doesn’t yet know that solitude lets you hear your own thoughts, or that the ability to sit with one’s thoughts is a gift, and a skill that needs cultivating. She’s still learning how boredom is not a curse, but a cue—a sign that you need to recharge, or that you’re learning something, or that it’s time to turn to your own imagination for comfort, for a change.
She can’t yet articulate that these things are important, but I see what happens when she spends time alone—and what happens when she doesn’t escape her 3 siblings for a bit—and I see its value.
And so I let her be bored, and I kept reading my book.
When I looked up a little while later, she was sitting in the chair, staring at the ceiling.
You still bored? I said.
I’m not exactly bored, she said. I’m thinking.
I didn’t say anything. I just nodded, and returned to my book, silently thanking Sherry Turkle.