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John Cage on the Necessity of Boredom

September 5th, 2014 · 15 comments

jcage

Words of Wisdom

A reader recently pointed my attention to the following quote from the composer and artist John Cage:

“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

She thought I would like it and she was right. Cage captures something fundamental about deep work on important things: there’s a stage — sometimes a long stage — that’s tedious.

The good news, of course, is that over time, tedium gives way to glimpses of potential that then grow into something downright eudaimonic.

Once you recognize this reality, your potential to do things that matter is unleashed.

15 thoughts on “John Cage on the Necessity of Boredom

  1. Carl Milsted says:

    John Cage was definitely the world’s foremost expert in boring…

  2. Sara says:

    Hi,

    please, could you explain what this phrase means exactly. I’m struggling to understand. By chance, would the phrase imply that after thirty two minutes, nothing can be boring at all? I don’t see the wisdom behind this.

  3. Prabhjot says:

    Yes, I agree that there comes a point when boredom paves way to creativity. This is a phase all writers and some students go through. Anyone who does exceptionally in his or her area of work must have faced this situation and overcome it.

  4. Charles Ngo says:

    My interpretation of the phrase…

    Most of the skills we want to develop are difficult in the beginning because of the learning curve. It takes time to get good at anything, and most people will feel bored because they suck.

    But as you push through the boring period, you start learning. The more you learn and the more you improve, you become more enthusiastic about what you’re trying to improve.

    A few examples from my own life:

    -I HATED going to the gym the first few months. I had no idea what I was doing. I was scared what others thought of me, and I wasn’t seeing any progress. But as I kept going, I started loving it. I made friends at the gym, and I started to see PROGRESS from my work.

    – I hated writing blog posts when I first started. I had all these ideas in my brain, but I found it boring to write and a real chore. It’s because I didn’t develop the writing skill yet. An average post would take me 4 hours to complete, and my audience was small.

    Now it’s the opposite and I love writing. Overtime I’ve become a better writer. Because of that I can spend more time expressing my ideas, and less time worry about structure and my voice.

    Another benefit is overtime you have an audience, and it’s naturally less boring when you have feedback.

    Great post Cal!

  5. LD says:

    This advice can be good or bad. Good if you have confidence that the task assigned to you will, eventually, become interesting because you respect the person who assigned it to you. Bad if the person assigning it had no sense of what is and isn’t useful and the task truly is busywork.

    Having somehow survived 12 years of public school, I can attest that boring usually equates to useless and not interesting.

    In graduate school, maybe 15% of boring topics turn out to be interesting. The fraction can vary by professor, from 0% to 100%.

    So the likelihood that boring will turn into fascinating is highy contingent on the fundamental usefulness of the assigned topic, which is in turn often dependent on the talent of the person who assigned it to you. If you can find trusted mentors, that is great.

    I am reminded of the scene in The Karate Kid when the sensei makes the kid wash decks and wax cars for weeks. Eventually the kid snaps from the tedium. Then he suddenly realizes he was training karate all along through manual exercise. Again, this works great if you have a great mentor, as the sensei was. But in real life, most people who will tell you what to do–parents, teachers, supervisors–have no idea what they are actually doing themselves and so their instruction is often useless.

    tl;dr: Find good mentors and ignore everyone else.

  6. IN MY OPINION EVERYTHING DEPENDS ON THE INTEREST ONE HAS ON THE SUBJECT BEING FOCUSED ON. If the subject is interesting for him/her one has to insist on it eventhough been bored .

  7. brandon says:

    @Sara, I believe the point is similar to the one made explicitly in Cal’s previous post, “Deep Habits: Pursue Clarity Before Pursuing Results.” That is, if you’re having trouble “settling in,” “finding momentum,” or taking advantage of inertia in a project or research it is because you aren’t deep enough into the project. If you’ve only been working for two minutes, four minutes, etc…inertia hasn’t been created yet. This is of course just my interpretation…and could be wrong!

    1. Sara says:

      I see. It would be an analogy for perseverance, maybe? I believe that in all professions there are boring stuff which sometimes we’re obliged to do. Maybe this way of thinking applies when we’re facing such circumstance. If we’re going to face tedium, why not take the most positive attitude possible. My doubt about this is if there is any correlation, for example, with writing block or any creative work which demands fresh results. But, even yet, sometimes we have better things to do than striving among drudgery boring stuff. Personally, I’d rather delegate and avoid.

  8. Sabrina says:

    Sara-

    It’s not exactly that after thirty-two minutes, everything becomes less boring, but with time and interest and concentration, you discover the essence of a person or a thing or a hobby and deem that interesting and worthwhile.

    Take running, for example, to someone who’s out of shape and has never run a mile in their life. There’s a good chance that it’s initially going to be painful for them and that they are going to hate it, but after a few months, a persistent few people get over the initial discomfort and start to like it.

    Cage was very much influenced by Eastern philosophy so you could probably take this example and apply it to meditation if you wanted to.

    1. Sara says:

      I agree when it comes to a hobby or the process of researching some theory or philosophy that at first appears to be irrelevant to our lives. But, I guess that running is a unfortunate example, because pain and physical effort has nothing to do with something being boring. What might make running boring for some, I believe, would be the lack of mental stimulation since running is more mechanical than intellectual activity. Unless you’re in a marathon and is calculating how much effort you should exert to overcome the opponents.

      My concern is that life is too short for someone afford to keep doing boring stuff, instead to focus in what this person enjoy and do best. But, I admit, it’s difficult to discern how open our minds must be when it comes to recognize new opportunities regards trying something else, which at first glance, appears to be irrelevant and boring.

  9. Masoud says:

    I came across this quote by today. I thought you might like it:

    “I WANT TO BE THOROUGHLY USED UP WHEN I DIE, FOR THE HARDER I WORK THE MORE I LIVE. I REJOICE IN LIFE FOR ITS OWN SAKE.”
    – GEORGE BERNARD SHAW

  10. Masoud says:

    And another quote:

    “THE SECRET OF BEING MISERABLE IS TO HAVE LEISURE TO BOTHER ABOUT WHETHER YOU ARE HAPPY OR NOT. THE CURE FOR IT IS OCCUPATION.”
    -GEORGE BERNARD SHAW

    In my opinion, it’s very related to your article titled: “Stop Looking for the *Right* Career and Start Looking for a Job.”

  11. TK says:

    For me, the quote is showing how to learn to see.

    There is, I agree, a Zen aspect to it, a practice of sitting with one’s boredom, but I take that to be a necessary part of learning to sit through (and get beyond) the non-conscious prodding to find novelty. Only then can the internal filters, absorbed beliefs, etc., get nudged aside to allow us to see more than we realized was there.

    With the seeing comes questions, exploding out in all directions and, for me, it’s in those questions that creativity and possibility live.

  12. Kel Mohror says:

    The first two slides in a HealthDataManagement slideshow “7 Signs You are too Smart for Your Job” depict boredom. Perhaps this is a chronic state of mind when one lacks sufficient robust career capital? Once in the workplace, this deficit is exacerbated by house payments, family commitments and uncertainty about what capital “should” be developed.

    The url for “7 Signs” is http://tinyurl.com/oxdo2cv

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