Boredom is a Sign of Complacency

Wayne Shorter jazz composer

This guy composes free-form jazz. Figure that one out.

I was listening to NPR earlier today and overhead this enlightening interview with jazz composer Wayne Shorter. Just heading home after getting a beer with a friend, I listened to Wayne talk and answer questions:

Something I say is that boredom is just a sign of complacency.

He was talking, of course, about Jazz. People who listen to something new, like free-form jazz (or classical music, or whatever offends the palate–for me, it was actually Top 40 pop music that set off my alarms for a long time), they might be confused or offended, or more likely, just plain bored.

Change the radio station. Find the comfort zone. Don’t be willing to doubt your first reaction.

Embrace your skeptcism and protect it. It keeps you safe and warm and unchallenged, like the ugly threadbare blanket from your childhood. That blanket is cherished and sentimental–sure, but is it really keeping you warm? Or are you just afraid to grow?

Wayne Shorter went on to say ridiculous things during the interview, like talking about how when he played with Miles Davis and his band, they never rehearsed or talked even about music. They just talked to each other. Listening to the way the other person said a phrase was enough to riff off of later: they could hear something in the cadence of the other’s voice that was echoed in their improvisations, if the other musician cared enough to listen really closely.

Jazz isn’t about safety. It’s breaking out of a form, not fitting into one.

That quote was  taken from my memory, not from what Wayne’s own mouth. It might not be exactly right. Call it jazz, if you like. Here’s a direct one:

No one really knows how to deal with the unexpected. How do you rehearse the unknown?


For me, the word ‘jazz’ means, ‘I dare you.’

Full circle:

Boredom is just a sign of complacency.

If you are bored at work, bored by your coworkers, bored by your boss–are you just being complacent? Have you given others permission to like you? More importantly, have you given yourself permission to like them? To enjoy the work and push yourself beyond the work’s less compelling exterior to the truly interesting, human bit hidden inside of it? It might be in there. Look for it.

Some of the music I most love I didn’t like the first time I listened to it.

Love at first sight is the happy exception, not the rule.

I didn’t love any of Rufus Wainwright’s albums wholly, not at first. It took me awhile to warm up to Fleet Foxes’s self-titled album. I didn’t understand Sigur Ros’s ( ) well enough the first time through to say much other than “I don’t think I like this. But it’s interesting, in a weird way, maybe.” Thanks goodness for the latter part of that first impression. Listening to Sigur Ros has taught me something new about being a human being, but it didn’t until the 3rd or 4th listen.

The same goes for the other people around you. Everyone has a superhuman ability. The difference is whether their environment has nurtured that superhuman ability or not. If it’s been stomped and tamped down, or if someone has watered that ability with a refreshing draught of encouragement and support.

You can focus on a person’s flaws and all the things they do that are stupid. Many people do. It’s easy to dismiss people. It’s risky and strange and often hard work to find the gem of talent, insight, or worthiness (C.S. Lewis would call it “glory”) that’s enbedded deep in the geode of neglect and self-doubt that encases many people’s talents.

Not being able to see and encourage the best in someone isn’t realism or being a straight shooter or the other person’s fault.

Your boredom with others is complacency.

My boredom with others is complacency.

And while it’s a tragedy that we aren’t there to offer the (literally) transformative  word of encouragement and support and belief, it’s a far greater tragedy that we can’t learn something from that person. When you can’t see through the haze of superiority, you’re losing something.

“Every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Not that we should expect to be perfect at appreciating people right away. It takes time and practice to develop a skill, and listening to people and learning from them is a skill. I have a lot of learning ahead of me, and an embarrassing amount of needless boredom behind me.

But it starts with a change of mindset.

If you aren’t willing to do battle with a first reaction when you listen to a weird song, you might not be missing out this time. But if you adopt a mindset of not being willing to listen, you will miss out, eventually. It’s easy to believe all of Katie Perry’s songs are trash. (and some might be–but do you know about the ones that aren’t?) It’s easy to believe Les Miserables is too long a book for you to enjoy. You’re not really “a reader.”

The point is people, music, books, and causes are far too interesting–and matter way too much–to be bored by them.

Mastery comes after practicing (and being uncomfortable).

Boredom is a sign of complacency.

Delight is a sign of engagement.

[Image source: Murphys Law]



  1. Michael

    I like your thoughts, Marc. I’d even go as far as to say that I agree with your thoughts =P
    You left the topic wide open for discussion and I think concentrating on boredom in terms of music and in terms of, well, life was an applicable route. I’ve found myself in the same position when listening to music/bands. It’s strange because some of those bands that really rubbed me the wrong way the first time I listened to them have become some of my favorites. Some of the people I never thought I’d like are some of my closest friends. My best friend since 3rd grade for instance…we didn’t like each other at first…rude glances in the gymnasium of our small elementary school turned into laughs and beers and more memories that I can count.

    I think many people find reading or books “boring” because they don’t know what they like and they’ll never know until they read it. Books are boring? Sure, some are – to me, to you, to aunt Sue and the rest of the gang, but collectively, no way. It’d be ignorant to say so.

    Perhaps there is an underlying issue behind this (especially the reading) and perhaps another blog for you or just thoughts for my journal, but I think our society has created people who are ok with boredom, ok with mediocrity – and we allow it.

    Don’t feel like reading? Turn on the TV – let us feed you entertainment.
    Don’t feel like learning an instrument, here, play this video game and pretend you can…

    Don’t get me wrong, I love TV and the cinema and was once an avid gamer (still am occasionally) but in some respects I think it has made us lazy people with short attention spans that are ok with just getting by.

    Anywho, I feel like I’ve written enough.
    Thanks for another good read, Marc.

    • Marc Koenig

      Thanks for another thoughtful comment. Glad you’re a reader here.

      “I think our society has created people who are ok with boredom, ok with mediocrity – and we allow it.”

      Totally! I am thinking a lot about our habits unintentionally sculpting our lives for us… e.g., if we have a habit to avoid risk, or a habit towards consumption instead of creation. The interesting thing is these behaviors aren’t bad in and of themselves (much like playing video games or reading blog posts instead of making a new game or writing a new blog post), but when they are layered on top of one another as a consistent HABIT of avoiding new/interesting things, it gets hairy.

      • Michael

        You’re welcome, thanks for the thought provoking posts.

        I think you hit the nail on the head…a lot of what we do isn’t intentional, but it happens, because like you said – we’ve made it a habit.

        Check out this article. I’m not sure how familiar you are with the site, sometimes you have to take it with a grain of salt, but more often than not, they have some interesting nuggets of thought and great points.
        This article made a ton of sense to me and when I read it, I was about to take a nap…stuck in a fit of writer’s block…after reading the article I went downstairs and wrote all afternoon. It provided the push I needed (most specifically the point made in #3 – and even more specific the very last paragraph where it talks about how much time we spend enjoying OTHER people’s creations…)

        Anywho, your reply made me think of this.

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