Is there a simple explanation for why some people pick up demanding activities (such a career in science) while some others are happy watching television most of their spare time?
Maybe it’s as simple as this: boredom is aversive to everyone, but people differ on when they get so bored they need to do something about it or their head will explode. Let’s call this the boredom threshold. So let’s play with the naive theory that people with a low boredom threshold do science (or art, or some other complex, demanding activities). And let’s assume that mainstream jobs (i. e. those that apply existing knowledge instead of living at the bleeding edge) can get away doing the same things over and over again. This is a caricature, but bear with me.
Some job descriptions value resistance to boredom. Of course, that’s not in the contract, but it’s implicit. And the humility it takes to take such a job is not only accepted, but encouraged in Western society. It’s almost getting to a point where the trait could suffer natural selection (if our standards lasted a few million years ). There are more boring jobs than interesting jobs (i.e., interesting jobs are in the ‘long tail’ of a power-law distribution). People willing to accept a boring job have thus more chances of being employed. More so, most jobs have some boring part, so a caricature of a person that would only take non-boring jobs and would quit as soon as something boring comes up would be kicked out of the gene pool.
One could think that the industrial revolution (i.e., letting machines do the repetitive work) should have taken away some boring jobs and shifted the distribution… but the fact is that the industrial revolution seems to shift the
Thus conformists have a clear advantage here. It shows in the proportion of people who keep a job compared to those who build a company (assume here, for simplicity’s shake that all companies are perceived by their founders as non-boring; this doesn’t have to be the case).
But what shocked me was to realize that this high valuation of resistance to boredom has permeated to the academic world.
Our culture values scientific exploration highly and readily concedes that it takes unusual mental capabilities to engage in such activities at a high level. But does it? I argue that modern society rewards the careerist and not the risk-taking explorer. The academic system rewards papers, not ideas. And often, the peer review process makes reviewing and revising a paper excruciatingly slow. That biases the selection criteria towards submissive, conformist science.
As Demonfreaker says:
The ‘publish or perish’ culture, and the sinister ‘peer review’ stranglehold on thinking in universities, has cut down on the number of interesting thinkers produced by these higher places of learning. What good thinkers need is freedom and, like a plant, the right ‘soil’ to flourish in (nice facilities, steady funding, lots of debate). But today’s universities are stifling dens of political correctness.
So, to reiterate my point: far from the romantic idea of the creative genius, Today’s science values a lot more people who can survive in extremely boring conditions. The above article mentions that Ludwig Wittgenstein might have been a genius, but it took him decades to produce a book, so he will habe been kicked out in the current system.
When boredom is necessary
Some activities that can be excellent sources of joy come surrounded by an unavoidable barrier of boredom. For example, learning a new language or a new instrument both involve an initial phase of rote learning in which one is not proficient enough to actually have fun! Could science (or scholarship) be like this?
In scholarship, there is of course a ‘learning the ropes’ period that may be cataloged by some as ‘boring’.
But what I’m talking about here is not that. Sometimes the intrinsic activities of doing science are repetitive and boring beyond words. I just finished watching ‘Kinsey‘. There, the main character spends most of his career collecting and cataloging wasps (Of course, he changes his main topic to sex at some point, and everyone loves him ) .
But again, I’m not arguing that some topics rely on methods that are boring; what I think happens in modern academia is that it forces people to do gray, boring, and conservative work. Once, while I was working on my PhD. I attended a party where someone said to me: “So… you do research. That’s just pushing paper (i.e., meaningless red tape)”. At that time, I was so excited doing my research that his statement sounded deeply out of touch with reality. I would sleep in my office just to get to see the results on time. Now, time has passed, and I’m almost agreeing with him in this article (!).