Dealing with dull

An advisor once told me: “Life can be pretty dull sometimes.”

I did not appreciate the perspective.

Normally, I like to think my life is pretty exciting. I live in the city of my dreams. I have a job that brings me great satisfaction, loved ones close to me, and hobbies that fuel me creatively. I’ve traveled the world and leaned into my growth areas. I’ve taken to heart the Helen Keller quote: “Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.”

My life is not dull.

But his words stuck with me for several days afterwards… a sure sign, I knew, that they were right in some important way that I couldn’t see. So after a few days of avoidance, I gave the thought its full due:

“Life can be pretty dull sometimes… is that true?” (I channeled my inner Byron Katie.)

The answers hit me immediately. Well, yes, in business, of course it’s true. The Lean Startup community has pointed out convincingly that the difference between a successful venture and a failed one is the willingness to do painstaking, intellectually honest, data-driven work. Michael Gerber in The E-Myth Revisted describes how many small business owners throw their heart and soul into service delivery, while ignoring the more challenging aspects of their business. Getting to Carnegie Hall—or the equivalent in any field—requires at least 10,000 hours of practice. Many people find long-term financial planning enormously dull until it’s quite late.

First Lesson: If you’re not actively doing things you find dull, you might be avoiding your real work.

There’s a second lesson. If you strip away your story, your accomplishments, your setting, your goals, your cultivated community, your online persona: who are you? Who are you when you are alone with yourself… with the messy, unfinished you that Yeats called the “rag and bone shop of the heart”?

Many people find this more terrifying than they’d like to admit. So they fill their lives with things and experiences. Never able to be fully present with themselves, they end up always lonely.

It’s a shame, because the emptiness most people feel behind their provisional, social self can be a source of enormous creativity. The actress Thandie Newton describes this eloquently in a recent TED video: “Let’s not be freaked out by our bountiful nothingness.”

Madeline Levine also touches on this topic in The Price of Privilege, exploring how children of affluent, overly involved parents are increasingly the most at risk of psychological and emotional maladjustment. She writes of one teenager:

“Allison’s whole life had been defined by well-meaning parents, relatives, and teachers, robbing Allison of the opportunity to think about what she wanted for herself… She stormed out of therapy one day, declaring the whole endeavor ‘boring.’ What was really boring to Allison was Allison herself. She had evaded growing into a complex, robust, conflicted, normal adolescent.”

The Second Lesson is to know yourself, deeply—it’s never too late. For most people, that looks like some kind of regular meditation practice or other deep check-in… a place where you can witness and be present for what arises for its own sake. In our go-go-go, entertainment-on-demand culture, that may seem dull, challenging, or scary, but it pays enormous dividends.

In the play Our Town, the Stage Manager says at the end that perhaps only “poets and saints” realize their lives as they live them. But that richness of experience is actually available to all of us.

We just need to first embrace the dull.

  • Todd

    For an article on dull this is very interesting.

  • Nancy

    Mark, great article. So much of what’s required to be successful in work isn’t very exciting … but often the difference between making it or not. Love to catch up! nancy@fingerprintplay.com

  • Pamowens

    mark – thanks for this. it’s nice to know others feel this way. as i slow down and meditate more, i realize how rich each moment is, so i am embracing dull more.