That we spend much, if not most, of our lives working, in itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing — unless, we get tired of doing it. In the Big Think video above, London Business School Professor of Organizational Behavior Dan Cable cites a Gallup poll showing that “about 70 percent of people are not engaged in what they do during the day, and about eighteen percent of people are disengaged.” This may sound normal enough, but Cable refers to this perception of work as “something we all have to live with on the way to the weekend” a “humanistic illness”: conditions that are terrible for people, sure, but also for “organizations that earn lackluster performance.”
Cable traces civilization’s roots from workplace boredom to decades after the Industrial Revolution. In the mid-19th century, a shoe shopper would go to the local cobbler. “Everyone in the store would see a customer come in, and then they would make shoes for that customer.” But towards the end of the century, “we got this different idea, as a species, where we shouldn’t be selling two pairs of shoes a day, but two million.”
This huge increase in productivity entails “breaking work into very small tasks, where most of the people do not meet with customers. Most people don’t invent shoes. Most people don’t actually see a shoe made from start to finish.”
That means, in other words, “taking the meaning out of work” in the name of ever greater scale and efficiency. The nature of the resulting task does not match the part of our brain called the ventral striatum. Always “urging us to explore the limits of what we know, urging us to be curious”, it throws our minds out of work that no longer gives us the opportunity to learn anything new. One solution is to work for smaller organizations, whose members tend to play multiple roles in closer proximity to customers; another way is to engage in big picture thinking while remaining aware of what Cable calls “the reason for the job,” its greater impact on the world, and its alignment with your own goals. But then, workplace boredom isn’t all bad: the bout may, after all, have made you read this post in the first place.
The Benefits of Boredom: How to Stop Being Distractioned and Get Creative Ideas Again
The Philosophy of “Optimistic Nihilism”, Or How to Find Purpose in a Meaningless Universe
How to Tap into Boredom, the Secret Ingredient of Creativity
Finding Purpose & Meaning In Life: Living for What Matters Most — Free Online Course from the University of Michigan
Lynda Barry on How Smartphones Harm the Three Elements of Creativity: Loneliness, Uncertainty & Boredom
Why 1999 Was The Year Of The Dystopian Office Movie: What Matrix, Fight Club, American beauty, Office room & Become John Malkovich Shared Together
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastst about the city, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter book about cities, book The City Without a State: A Journey through 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarsall or on Facebook.