An image sowing red nails

It was my birthday last month and I decided to do something different. I wanted to spend time with a group of people that would benefit from having access to someone like me but would usually struggle because our worlds are far apart. I shared this wish with my friends and family and I was so glad when it happened. Here is a reflective piece of my visit to a secondary school in Ajegunle of Lagos, Nigeria.

I stood at the balcony and took in the view. The way it is, you have to pause at that balcony and take a second look. The view of the ocean water and Apapa Wharf across from us calmed my nerves. The ships, containers and picturesque view could pass for a postcard. It was ironic that I was standing in a school in an impoverished part of Lagos, yet I was experiencing one of the best views in the city. I felt a bit unnerved. I always am before a speech, regardless of the audience; you can never be completely ready for a speech. I thought, “What if I am so disconnected from their world? What if they don’t get me? Should I speak in vernacular?” So many “what if’s” ran through my mind. I started chatting with Bukky, who helped arrange the visit with the school. I am very chatty when I am nervous.

After my career talk with the students, it was time for questions from them. And as they rolled in, I became curious about Samson. I was standing in the middle of the class so everyone could hear me. As I paced around answering the various questions, I made sure to come back to the centre where Samson sat just on my left side. Here’s a picture of Samson, who is probably the noisemaker in the class. You know the type: sitting facing away from the class stage, muttering, making side remarks, and poking at his friends. I could spot his crimson painted nails, they screamed rebel. His body movements did not hide his restlessness; he was looking for any reason to leave yet in a sly way asking for attention. I could hear some of his remarks, something about leaving school and pursuing his passion for Bitcoin. I made several attempts to give him attention and ask that he shared his comments with the audience or ask a question. He would give some shy responses and decline until he finally felt comfortable enough and decided he wanted to ask a question. I would spend days thinking about that question, vulnerable yet sincere. Others asked questions regarding future choices: how to ascertain that their dreams and goals will come to pass, how to set goals, how to choose the right career for the future, all pointing to the anxiety that comes with trying to figure out your future as a teenager. However, Samson was more concerned with the now, almost as if saying he got the future but the present was holding him back.

“Have you ever felt bored and restless while in school? Did you ever feel like giving up?” His question stopped me in my tracks and I tried to answer as sincerely as I could though I knew the teachers in the room might be observing us.

I recall my response being something along the lines of “I would say I almost gave up once, not so much bored and restless.” The truth is that the academic system has always been behind the industry, market or workplace. As a student in Engineering, I was being taught a programming language called Fortran while the industry has moved on to more advanced languages like C++, HTML, Java.  I continued as I nudged him to acknowledge the gap but seek for something in this phase to hang on to, maybe see it as a training place for learning the rigours of striving for excellence in life. As we both discussed and the class listened I could somehow draw parallels between Samson and a movie of Albert Einstein I had just seen on Amazon Prime. Einstein, the bored and restless student in physics class, felt that the teachers were not teaching him anything new in Physics. Einstein wanted to make a mark and answer the questions of life, push for new boundaries in physics and not regurgitate old theories.

In truth, I avoided the first part of Samson’s question. That was the hard part for me: recognizing that we can get bored and restless doing something we love or with something everyone expects us to navigate. Sharing about the giving up part was easy, I shared a story with him about how I gave up during my fourth year studying Engineering and with a turn of faith was able to continue. The part I had no immediate answer to was how to deal with boredom and restlessness, something I found intolerable with my extroverted nature yet an occurring theme in my career journey time and time again.

My exchange with Samson got me reflecting a lot these past weeks.  I thought about those of us in our careers who are faced with boredom and restlessness (trust me, it will come if you have not yet experienced it). The Covid-19 Pandemic over a year ago that disrupted our routines also exacerbated this. How do we deal with it? I come across people who have been in jobs they love and become bored with what they do. How do you manage this phase?

When boredom and restlessness are traced to more ephemeral causes; goals requiring tasks that don’t interest us, not being challenged at work, not learning enough, not having enough work or having too much work. You have to learn to deal with this, dealing with boredom is a life skill.  As professor at University of Florida named Erin Westgate notes Boredom is an emotion,  it is a useful tool, a way of alerting us to that problem somewhere, and motivating us to take steps to stop it. For instance I easily get bored  when I am faced with certain tasks, when I have loads of reports to write or paper work. I struggle with these and my coping mechanisms to make it through include taking short breaks, having calming music in the background as i work. It is still a drag though and my pace is usually slower. In these cases .Boredom is adaptive, it is really important because it signals instances to us when we’re not meaningfully engaged in the world, and it gives us an opportunity to fix it.

Duckworth, Peterson, Mathews, and Kelly note that Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course. They define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.

The tougher case is when boredom is chronic,  when the root cause is traced to situations or environments that are at  conflict with our core values. when you feel trapped, and  we don’t have good options on the table to fix it.  It could be working for an organization that is not aligned with your values, or working in a role that does not align with our strength and drains us or being in a relationship that stresses our mental health and we believe we do not have options. Following Angela Duckworths’s logic, Boredom is the opposite of interests. If we graph emotions on these two axes; High/low energy and Positivity/Negativity then  boredom is low energy and negative. Chronic boredom falls within this remit.

In cases of chronic boredom my knee jerk reaction is to fill up my time in the bid to manage this, and it has probably never been effective. In hindsight, what has really worked for me was going back to my core values, trying to stay grounded, seeking meaning and aligning my activities to things that bring meaning and happiness to me. It is an uncomfortable situation with no quick fix but requiring acceptance, followed by deep introspection to understand the root cause then addressing it. For each individual, it can be a different reason. While going through this phase, I have learnt to focus on elements in my life that I can control, my health habits, my mental state, my goals, the routine I chose.  Only then can I say no to the things that never mattered but filled my time.

There is research that confirms we can reduce boredom by fixing the problems that  caused it. This is important when it comes to chronic cases of boredom. It is about listening to our emotions, and listening to the information that those emotions are trying to tell us. In terms of resolution while for simple cases you could either go do something else or find a way to see the meaning in what you’re doing, for chronic cases you need to determine the root cause and confront it. You might need professional help doing that . The trick is to identify the type of boredom and hopefully seek or identify life tools to apply.