“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Few articles have evoked a visceral reaction on par with my response to The Atlantic’s piece, Dorms for Grownups: A Solution for Lonely Millennials. I all but threw my hands up in an existential fit.
That’s it, I thought. We’re all screwed.
The article featured Commonspace, a co-living space for millennials who pop a Xanax at the idea of returning home to an empty apartment. Taking a hint from the impressive hockey stick popularity of co-working spaces, Commonspace offers millennials who “want to be social and never lonely (hence #FOMO)… the benefits of living with roommates—they can save money and stay up late watching Gilmore Girls.”
I mourn the future of my post-date conversations: Nextflix and chill with sixty FOMO infected roomies? My commune or yours?
And Commonspace is not alone in their crusade to shelter the boredom fearing masses with the dorm-like security of a live in BFF, zero commitment furniture, and the faint smell of melted plastic and disinfectant. Similar concepts include Pure House, recently dubbed The Millennial Commune by The New York Times, WeWork’s WeLive, and the entrepreneur-focused Krash. It appears we have a fucking movement on our hands.
Why am I so perturbed by “Dorms for Grownups” when we’ve embraced equally extreme millennial obsessions, like $30 spin classes and the overpriced sugar water we call “green juice”?
It’s because communal living may be the tipping point in millennials’ full blown allergy to solitude. Call me a crazy social conservationist, but I’m blowing the whistle. I’m forewarning the extinction of our rich creative and intellectual heritage that has its roots in boredom and isolation.
Like an antibiotic creates resistance to a strain of beneficial bacteria, each additional hour in a “co-environment” reduces our tolerance for the benevolent boredom that catalyzes the creative process.
Before millennials cover their Warby Parker bespectacled eyes and dive into the deep end of perpetual stimulation, allow me to make an argument for the historical, cultural, and scientific importance of embracing your inner FOMO.
History’s top minds exhibit an intimate relationship with boredom and solitude.
Einstein famously declared, “The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.” The great and powerful Woz provocatively advised, “I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone.” And Hemingway’s Nobel Prize speech was nothing less than a tribute to solitude’s role in the creative process.
There’s an undeniable link between the ability to tolerate isolation and extraordinary intellectual output. But to understand to true importance of boredom, we must turn to science.
Boredom is actually an adaptive emotion. That’s right. It motivates us to explore new cities, jobs, hobbies, and dates (use this excuse with caution) when the original option no longer revs our engine. Boredom nudges you to sample social, cognitive, and emotional opportunities that you might have otherwise missed.
From an evolutionary standpoint, this is major. If Homo erectus never grew bored on the plains of Africa, they wouldn’t have packed their Paleo snacks and made the trek to Eurasia. If young folks never grew angsty on the streets of Manhattan, there wouldn’t have been a mass hipster exodus and migration to Brooklyn.
And voila, science justifies FOMO. It’s part of your biology. Great news.
But the issue with millennials is not that we get bored. Boredom isn’t a bad thing. Multiple studies found that bored subjects outperform control subjects on tests of creativity. Researcher Andreas Elpidorou explains these surprising results, “boredom helps to restore the perception that one’s activities are meaningful or significant… Boredom is both a warning that we are not doing what we want to be doing and a ‘push’ that motivates us to switch goals and projects.”
The issue with millennials is that we don’t let our boredom take root. Instead of directing it into creative and productive processes, we squash it like the mother who pacifies her screaming 3 year old with an iPhone and a gluten free candy bar.
Unlike the young Da Vinci who channeled his boredom into long wilderness retreats for isolated painting, Charles Darwin and Steve Jobs who famously indulged in daily meditative walks, or the prolific feminist author Susan Sontag who lamented “One can never be alone enough to write,” we instead turn to BuzzFeed, reality TV, and anti-isolationist youth hostels like Commonspace.
“People who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger.”
Delacroix knew the struggle was real. While trying to keep one foot in the social world and one foot in the bottomless solitude required for creative genius, he lamented, “How can one keep one’s enthusiasm concentrated on a subject when one is always at the mercy of other people and in constant need of their society?”
“The things we experience for ourselves when we are alone are much stronger and much fresher.”
The conflicting demands of millennial culture can seem irreconcilably at odds with optimal conditions for creativity. We idolize creatives and intellectuals – the “thinkers” found at coffee shops who rock awesome facial hair and smell faintly of wood chips – while insisting their seamless integration into the universal social fabric.
The great millennial paradox is that we must be creative and authentic, while somehow achieving this self-realization in the company of others. Author Sara Maitland hits this contradiction squarely on its man-bunned head: “We think we are unique, special and deserving of happiness, but we are terrified of being alone. We are supposed now to seek our own fulfillment, to act on our feelings, to achieve authenticity and personal happiness — but mysteriously not do it on our own.”
Fear not – you don’t have to be a hermit to create great work. But you do have to be okay with temporary isolation and the terrifying rabbit hole of stewing in your own mental crap. Famous modern day creatives and thought-leaders like Sting and JK Rowling distance themselves during productive bursts and reintegrate when the time is right. A process that adult dorms would inhibit altogether.
Whether for self-exploration or intellectual progress, millennials must reevaluate their relationship with boredom and isolation. Would the Greeks have mapped every star in the sky or Noah Webster have sat down to write the dictionary if they could satiate their boredom with Pin-sta-tweet-ing and 24 hour access to a communal beer pong match? Not likely.
Similar to the way we’re backtracking to preserve our carelessly stripped forests and micro-biomes, I propose a social experiment to preserve the millennia-old tradition of using boredom as fuel in the creative and intellectual process.
So the next time the familiar suffocation of loneliness, the existential nausea of boredom, the impending doom of FOMO, or the Sunday scaries knock on your commune door, I have a request: Like working out kinks on a foam roller, lean into the pain of boredom.
It was boredom that prompted me to put on stretchy pants, get off the couch, and drag my sorry self to a cafe to write this article. Is it the epitome of brilliance? No. But I really do believe you’ll never know if you’re a creative genius until you let yourself get desperately, hopelessly bored.
“I can excuse anything but boredom.”