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The Magic of Boredom

February 11, 2019
AUTHOR: Emilie
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As I sit on a crowded Delta flight, the folks sitting next to me closing in, I find myself in a mind place that I haven’t been in a while. I finished the book I brought with me on the last flight (and because of my #bookbuyingban there won’t be another until I get home). I’ve hit email #InboxZero. I’ve read all the tabs that I prepped open. I left my headphones at home.

So here I am. Bored.

Whenever I hear the word “bored”, I always picture some middle-school-aged boy saying it to his mother on a sitcom. I’m so booooored, he says with his face doing just as much talking as the words coming out of his mouth. In this way, boredom always seemed like a bad thing.

Usually my boredom isn’t bad, but it is guilt-ridden. How dare I be bored when there is X, Y, and Z on my todo list? (How is re-scheduling that dentist appointment going, Emilie?) How dare I be bored when there are still more books to read, more lessons to learn, more code to improve? How dare I be bored when there is so much to do, to learn, to encounter, to consume?

That’s it, isn’t it? Consumption. The guilt is from non-consumption- from not moving on to the next thing on whatever schedule.

Manoush Zomorodi’s Bored and Brilliant (admittedly, I haven’t read it, but I did participate in the five day series that prompted the book title) asserts that it’s in this place of boredom that our mind has space to wonder and grow. I don’t need to have read the book to enthusiastically nod in agreement. Why do we have such deep thoughts in the shower? Or in bed? Do you know how much more deep thought I’ve had since I gave up Facebook and Instagram? Why is it that sitting with a notebook right in front of you can just prompt ideas that you didn’t even know were rolling around in your brain?

Lately, I’ve hit the state of flow more often. I thought I knew what flow was until I started hitting it more regularly in my work. I can only equate it to feeling like a snowball rolling down a mountain which slowly over time becomes a snowBALL. It’s where I can just cruise through a problem because I am rocking and rolling all the way.

I’ve been working through a project at work that has been hard. It has been some of the hardest data modeling that I have done in my career thus far. There were lots of upstream data quality issues that I had to find and then work with those teams to fix. There has been a lot of pressure on this project because of its importance to the business. I pride myself on doing good work and having it scale. I definitely did not want to have to come back to this project in three months because it needed in a rewrite or three weeks because someone found a bug in it.

I thought I was done with it two Fridays ago. I had laid out a multi-step plan a couple of weeks prior that I had finally finished. All the data models looked exactly as expected. I had implemented a ton of testing to help capture errors. And then the numbers were just… wrong. They were not kinda wrong they were an order of magnitude wrong. They were overwhelmingly wrong, and I knew it before anyone had to tell me. I was not done.

Monday comes around and I’m committed to finding the bug which I’ve isolated to one part of the analysis. No luck. Tuesday comes around and here I am spending my second work day doing the same thing- finding a bug that I can’t find, that I don’t even know where else to look for. I pinged someone I don’t often talk to and asked him if I could talk him through the weird numbers I was seeing. We spent an hour and a half going through what I was doing. And neither of us saw it.

I stepped away from my computer and let myself get bored. I didn’t turn on Netflix; I didn’t crack open my book. I just sat there with my bullet journal. The list of to-dos that popped into my brain got noted but not handled. Nothing. I went and I took a shower- a long, hot shower and washed my hair. More to-dos popped into my head but no solution to my work problems. Still stumped, I sat back at my desk and looked at the data for one of the earliest month for which the data existed, knowing this meant that the set would be small.

After looking at that data, I drew in my notebook what the next step of the transformation should output. I ran the transformation, and it didn’t match.

Just like that, I found the bug. You see, it’s not that I hadn’t been running the transformation step-by-step to try to find the error. It’s that I hadn’t given my brain the space to work on the project in the background. It needed to run through what the transformations would look like without me running the code for them.

(In case you’re curious, I ended up submitting the final merge request on Thursday. Four work days after I thought I was “done”, I was actually done.)

Boredom gets a bad rap, but in this day and age of constant stimulation perhaps more boredom is exactly what we need. Of course, having this realization doesn’t cure the guilt I experience from boredom. That is its own issue that I need to work through, but realizing the positive power of boredom is the first step in the right direction.

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