“Avoid boring people”
This warning is the title of scientist James D. Watson’s memoir. (That’s Watson of Watson & Crick. DNA. Double helix. Adenine-Thymine base pairs. Bueller?)
Don’t worry about high school bio. Focus on the title. First, note the double meaning. It’s an admonition about who to avoid as well as a prescription for yourself. Two pieces of advice in one punchy aphorism. What a value. I can see how people might use the advice as a compass to find their orientation when they feel life has spun them around a few times.
You know me too well by now to know I can’t leave a perfectly fine adage with its ankles unbitten. Let’s deconstruct.
What does it even mean to be boring?
Feels a bit rubbery when you try to pin it down. Like that time the Supreme Court tried to define porn by appealing to common sense — “I know it when I see it”.
Maybe it’s easier to answer “what’s not boring?”
- Ordinary people with extraordinary life paths. Extreme example: Louie Zamperini from Unbroken whose life was Forrest Gump-esque.
- Very rich or famous people. They have access to exclusive life experiences. And their day-to-day life is hard to recognize to us normies. Chrissy Teigen did a candid AMA last December on Twitter if you want proof. (Link)
- People with dangerous jobs. CIA agents. Navy Seals. Lion tamers. Orca trainers. If you hang out with these people, you won’t even want to talk about yourself. You will naturally ask questions and listen.
- Excellence. This one might be personal, but I happen to find anyone who is elite at anything to be interesting. Maybe it’s a byproduct of the “unusual life path” definition. I’m strangely fascinated by the idea of spending 10,000 hours of shuffling cards to develop sleight of hand.
Even after listing what’s not boring, it’s hard to shake the sense that I’m just projecting my own preferences rather than honing in on some universal acceptance of “interesting”.
Why being less boring might not make you happier?
Tyler Cowen brought my attention to a 4-line short story:
We know only four boring people. The rest of our friends we find very interesting. However, most of the friends we find interesting find us boring: the most interesting find us the most boring. The few who are somewhere in the middle, with whom there is reciprocal interest, we distrust: at any moment, we feel, they may become too interesting for us, or we too interesting for them. — excerpted from Lydia Davis’ Samuel Johnson is Indignant (Link)
1) Within the dynamics of a relationship the spread of boringness between 2 individuals moderates trust. If your friend became famous and dropped into a different life petri dish of experience is it reasonable to expect your relationship to change? Probably.
2) Maybe boringness, like status, is zero-sum. If nobody is boring the word’s meaning calibrates to once again set a fixed proportion of people of and below the bar. If everyone shoots like Steph Curry the 3-point line will just get pushed back. Mental model fanboys and fangirls will recall the “red queen effect”.
“Avoid boring people” as a North Star is easily contradicted
1) Boringness is relative.
The pretty, rich brat teen Astrid in the Politician runs away from home because she’s bored of being part of the Santa Barbara super-affluent crowd. (I’m sure there are better examples but I couldn’t resist a dog whistle for fans of the Netflix series). She wants to be broke and feel risk, believing it will recharge her deadened senses.
Speculating aloud, if “boring” is indeed relative then our novelty-seeking instinct may be a vestige that outlived its usefulness. Boring may be nothing more than a perspective.
2) Dutiful grandmas
This is how I describe my mother and mother-in-law. I am thinking most people would look at these women’s lives and think “boring”. But they are tremendous inspirations because of how committed they are to their duties. I don’t need to expand on this. We all know these people. Unheralded heroes in our life stories. Nobody writes a Wikipedia page for them. They got a dance when their sons married for all they endured. Big whoop.
“Avoid boring people” feels like elitist advice when you put it under a microscope.
It’s just hustleporn
Venkat Rao, as he does, stirred the pot with a Twitter thread. (Link)
Here’s how I understand it. Self-described “lifelong learners” and the growth mindsetters are just following a religion they think will make them rich. These people are actually boring and if they ever fell into FU money, personal growth would cease being an altar to worship at. Being one of these self-described lifelong learners I had to take the bait and read the thread. Ouch.
So then I started wondering: is the “avoid boring people” crowd the same as the “lifelong learner” crowd? Is everyone in this Venn diagram just trying to get to any combo that includes “rich”? If you ever figure it out let me know.
If you have the time to actually be bored, sure shake it up. Get a pet. Do a local Skillshare or class. Find a rabbit hole. Get arrested. But organizing your life so as to not be boring is hardly a proven recipe for anything valuable. It might work for you. But remember “Avoid Boring People” is just a book title. Lots of them can work for you, I’m not convinced this one is special.