In a Cubicle with the Desert Fathers
We were talking about work, naturally. The table was littered with beer bottles and the view out the plate-glass restaurant window was of a street in Kansas City, but it could have been a street in any number of towns. Our conversation was as typical as our surroundings, down to Nate summing up his job in the pharmaceutical industry with “Yeah, I’m bored at work all the time.”
There are few more ordinary sentiments. Over 70 percent of Americans, and 80 percent of people worldwide, are bored with or actively dislike their jobs. None of us sitting around the table that night knew this statistic, but we did know plenty of people, which amounted to more or less the same thing. Nate said he could “count on one hand the people I know who bounce out of bed excited to go to work.”
One of them was his wife, Amy, sitting next to him in a crisp, white collared shirt even though it was a Saturday (Nate wore a faded Royals T- shirt). Amy had decided she wanted to be a lawyer when she was twelve and never wavered, even during her Alice Cooper years—which was how we’d met, because her skull- and- crossbones T- shirt and my patchwork corduroys were the only non- pantsuits at a Women in Leadership seminar we both attended in college. Amy no longer dyes her hair black but she’s still on the same path, still corresponds with the seminar speakers; less than a decade after the seminar, she is a woman in leadership, with an in-house counsel gig at a global bank. Meanwhile, I’d burned through more careers than Nate, which, he agreed, was saying something.
It worried me, this restlessness, so much so that I’d begun studying boredom itself in hopes of finding answers. I didn’t know until that night in Kansas City that Nate was similarly concerned, and that he’d also been talking and thinking quite a bit about boredom as a result. “Most people are relieved when I bring it up,” he told me. “Like, Oh, thank god, someone I can talk to about this. So now I’m more comfortable with talking about boredom than I used to be, and that helps a lot. Because, you know, boredom doesn’t mean it’s not a good job. I’m busy. I make a living. I just don’t know if I’ll ever be that into work. Which feels weird to say.” Amy scooted closer to him, and he put his arm around her and smiled at his driven wife, with whom he raises chickens and dogs, plays video games, and attends Royals games. “But I have other things I do care about,” he added. “At the end of the day, I have to ask: What’s really so shitty about being bored at work?”
The question nagged me all the way back to New York, back to the fifth-floor walk-up where I live with my boyfriend, our fingers perpetually crossed in hopes that our landlord won’t raise the rent. What’s really so shitty about being bored at work? It takes two jobs to cover my portion of rent: working as a writing associate at a college and as a researcher for private clients, which is kind of like being a private detective, without the danger and sex. Most of my work is done in libraries—from the dim stacks of Columbia to the tourist-crammed halls of Schwarzman, with its grand columns and stone lions—though sometimes I also conduct interviews. Once I interviewed a real private detective, a former city cop who’d quit the force, moved to New Jersey, and found detective work a nice change of pace. He explained how he tails people on the subway (“you never get in the same car as your mark; it’s too obvious”) and described a stakeout: sitting awake and alert in his car throughout the night, no radio, no book or TV, resisting the urge to look at his phone because “if you miss that moment”—usually the moment the adulterer leaves the hotel—“you don’t get paid.”
I envied his single-minded focus. We both enjoyed our work, the detective and I, and both felt lucky to be doing what we were doing, but for some reason I was still restless, easily distracted, checking my phone or the fridge or jolting back into work mode after finding myself knee-deep in a daydream, even while working under multiple tight deadlines. It bothered me, this restlessness; made me wonder if something was wrong with me. But Nate had a similar experience, and so, I was finding, did many other people. The more I asked around, the more common this restlessness seemed to be. Even friends who always complained about job stress and heavy workloads confessed to checking Facebook multiple times a day, or keeping up running conversations on Slack or Gchat. It seemed that nobody was always fully engaged in what they were doing, a trend I’d assumed was obviously bad, a sign of something flawed in our generation or our culture or our moment in time, until Nate’s question, What’s really so shitty about being bored at work?
Maybe nothing. As the light shining through the apartment window began to fade, I studied the growing piles of books referencing boredom, from academic studies to novels, that had come to dominate the living room as I embarked on a self- assigned study of the enemy, like Sherlock’s obsession with Moriarty (though again, less dangerous). I picked them up, put them down again, looked out the window at the clouds, which scudded across the pinkening sky in a way that called to mind the easily forgotten fact that New York is a seaside town, which in turn reminded me of Melville and the “insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs.” My mom used to paint pictures of the sea, and the sunset was always the first thing on her list of reasons why not to be bored. “How can you be bored in a world with sunsets?” she’d ask, a trace of desperation in her voice, a hint of Oh, man, you kids have no idea, and anyway, aren’t you supposed to be the ones reawakening our sense of childlike wonder? Boredom when we were kids was a problem to be solved, with craft projects or books or playing with our friends or TV if nothing else. It was worrying to find that these solutions just amounted to procrastination in the working world, where being busy didn’t necessarily mean not being bored, not by a long shot. Friends my age were all a little bit worn-out and weary and slightly shocked, still, nearly ten years after college, by the realization that this was it: these offices were where we would spend most of our waking lives. But few people (Nate excepted) seemed to want to talk about it at length, and there were never any real solutions presented for adults, besides Be grateful for what you have and Only boring people get bored, which didn’t scrub away the feeling, just coated it in a fine sheen of self- reproach. Nate’s attitude seemed more reasonable: boredom wasn’t the problem-to-be- squelched I’d grown up thinking it was—it was normal. Which maybe meant it wasn’t worth thinking about so much. I could ditch the books and stop worrying about why things are the way they are.
A phone conversation with my cousin Connie only strengthened these misgivings. Connie works in an orange juice concentrate factory, an experience I’d imagined as like that of the former autoworker Ben Hamper, who wrote in his memoir Rivethead : “Car, windshield. Car, windshield. Drudgery piled atop drudgery. Cigarette to cigarette. Decades rolling through the rafters, bones turning to dust, stubborn clocks gagging down flesh, another windshield, another cigarette . . .” (except juice instead of cars, and no cigarettes, since food- producing factories have to be more hygienic). I expected boredom, and I expected complaining. All seemed promising at first: when I asked if her job was interesting, Connie chuckled and answered, “Not really.” But when I asked if she liked it, it was as if she’d never even considered the question. “Do I like it?” she repeated. There was a moment of silence on her end. “Well, it’s regular work. And I don’t have to deal with people. I wish they’d let us have music, but nobody minds if I sing. And I have a lot of time to think and plan things. Yeah, honey, it’s a fine job. Why, are you looking for one?”
“No. Thanks, though,” I replied, glancing at the books piled on the ottoman, spilling onto the floor, which I noticed could use a cleaning. I had plenty of work. I was looking for answers.
Through the books on the ottoman I’d learned that workplace boredom hasn’t been around that long, at least not the way it’s understood today. In the preindustrial era “sons simply did the jobs (or, higher up the hierarchy, moved into the positions) that their fathers picked for them,” according to the historian Thomas Lutz. There would have been no point in labeling a job boring or interesting, because there weren’t any alternatives. So useless would these words have been that they didn’t exist in English until the 1800s, after the Industrial Revolution created loads of new jobs and thus introduced the workforce to the novel idea of options.
Now we have the language to make comparisons between boring and interesting work, plus an unprecedented ability to compare. The Internet and mass media shape our worldview to such a degree that the ethnographer Martin Demant Frederiksen—who’s studied boredom and depression among young men in the Republic of Georgia—told me he couldn’t imagine what his study would have looked like without them. “The Internet especially had a massive impact in terms of the men realizing how marginal Georgia is in relationship to the world,” he explained. “It made it much more obvious to them how boring a city they lived in.”
When my sister and I complained about how boring the town we grew up in was, tucked away as it was in industrial northern Indiana, our mom, a nurse, would say that comparisons were odious, and our dad, a preacher, would remind us that covetousness was a sin. Do not covet thy neighbor’s Disney vacation, for example, or thy neighbor’s Barbie car. As an adult, try not to covet thy neighbor’s globe-trotting job or thy neighbor’s seeming sense of abiding purpose. Our parents were just being parents, giving advice they hoped would shape us into functional expectation- managing adults. But over the years I’ve wanted, and watched them want, enough things to wonder if wanting not to covet things was just another want, another not-good-enough pang, like coveting Connie’s sense of chill or Nate’s ability to manage his expectations or a seventeenth-century farmhand’s vocabulary, lacking the word for boredom along with any notion of its being shitty or not.
I can’t be someone else, or live in a different era. What I can do is research. With a deep sigh (what my mom—whose own restlessness has led her to explore many alternatives to nursing over the years, including Reiki certification—calls a cleansing breath) I scooped up the books on the floor, straightened them up in two neat stacks on the ottoman, picked an unread one, and settled back on the couch so the lamplight hit the pages.
Long before there was an En glish word for boredom, a group of men began their workday in silence, a complete and all-encompassing silence, unbroken by traffic or birdsong. Their offices were insulated by miles and miles of sand, valleys and hills and rivers of sand, the uniformity broken here and there by a pile of sand-colored rocks. Singing birds and lowing cattle and barking dogs couldn’t live there. Most humans wouldn’t attempt it either, which was exactly why these men had set up shop in Egypt’s Nitrian Desert. They were the Desert Fathers, and their job was communing with God.
In some ways their surroundings weren’t so different from those of a modern corporation. Free from nature noises, the Desert Fathers still had one another’s sounds to contend with, pacing and sniffling, throat- clearing and muttering, turning pages, gulping water—repetitive human sounds like those you might obsess over in an equally subdued office, the tick-tick-tick of typing or a coworker’s habitual phone-answering cadence. Many of the Desert Fathers also worked in cubicles, more or less, living and praying in tiny side-by-side cells. Other times they shared cells, kneeling in the sand in a dystopian version of the open- plan office.
This particular impression of the Fathers— who are more often remembered as wild- eyed mystics than as proto–office workers— comes from the writings of a fourth- century monk named Cassian, who lived with and observed the Desert Fathers in hopes of creating a similar setup in France. Their biggest challenge was an invisible enemy, Cassian explained, “which we may describe as tedium or perturbation of heart,” attacking around noon and inducing “such lassitude of body and craving for food, as one might feel after . . . hard toil . . . Finally one gazes anxiously here and there, and sighs that no brother of any description is to be seen approaching: one is forever in and out of one’s cell, gazing at the sun as though it were tarrying to its setting.”
Elsewhere in the same essay, he wrote in a more personal tone, “Towards any work that may be done within the enclosure of our own lair, we become listless and inert.”
While reading Cassian’s words I imagined the characters from the American version of The Office , their desks morphed into cells, the omnipresent clock replaced with the slow- setting sun. I pictured a monk Jim faking a swoon as a visiting nun named Pam explained in a voice-over: “Every so often, Jim dies of boredom.” Maybe the Fathers’ plight was funnier than they knew, I thought, imagining a Michael Scott monk running from cell to cell, robes flying behind him as he rushed to share bad puns with his fellow monks, all to avoid the small amount of work waiting in his own cell. Maybe their invisible enemy really wasn’t so bad.
Similar logic informed my friend Sonya’s therapist’s suggestion that she cope with her ultra-boring corporate job by visualizing herself in an episode of The Office. “It’s supposed to help me be less annoyed by making me feel like a passive observer,” Sonya told me when we met for happy hour on a rainy evening. “I’m supposed to laugh at stuff, let it slide off, instead of thinking, Oh god, this is my life.” She’d put a recurring reminder on her calendar, so the words “The Office” appeared on her phone every morning at ten o’clock, but eventually removed it because “it started to feel like second nature.”
It helped, she said, but didn’t entirely fix things. She was able to laugh at the tediousness and seeming pointlessness of her office, where every project dragged on indefinitely, her work going unread and ignored, everyone around her reading Twitter or the news or watching YouTube videos with headphones on. But she still found the basic acts of waking up, going to work, and making it through the day to feel more daunting than they should have—“It’s just work, not war.” She might have simply quit, saved some time and annoyance and therapy hours, if it wasn’t for the money.
I wonder what percentage of the boredom people put up with is endured for money. It’s high, judging by how closely the emotion is associated with work (and school, preparing us for work). If he didn’t need money, I’m certain Nate wouldn’t work at all—nearly every other facet of his life gives him more sense of purpose than his job. Even Connie would “love to be retired,” but doesn’t get paid enough to stop working anytime soon.
Sonya has the opposite problem. She’s being paid heaps, and will get a bonus on top of that on her one-year anniversary. All she has to do is . . . nothing. “I come in at ten,” she told me, “and I finish all my work by like ten-seventeen. I used to try to supplement that with self-initiated projects, but that just made people angry. Now I watch the clock, or do something non-work-related and feel guilty. So. Just two hundred and forty-seven more days of that.” She didn’t hesitate in calculating the days; like a cartoon prisoner making hash marks on a cell wall, she’s been keeping close track.
“I mean, what the fuck,” she added. “If I have any perspective at all: it’s a year, I do nothing, I make money. How is that so hard?” What’s really so shitty about being bored at work? Coming straight from the office, Sonya was able to answer her own question immediately: “It feels hard. It’s your time, and it’s being wasted. It hurts your soul and your mind and your brain. It’s a shitty feeling, especially when you know you’re capable of being useful.”
When we met seven years ago, Sonya was one of those people who thrived on work. She was the product manager of a tech start-up, and she was constantly needed: answering questions, putting out fires, building and refining strategies to make everything run smoother. A mutual friend once caught sight of Sonya leaving a lunch meeting and described her as “like the president in The West Wing”: striding down the street, surrounded by a scrum of coworkers asking urgent questions that she answered decisively. She was necessary for the building of a brand- new company, and the confidence that gave her spilled over into the rest of her life. When the start-up was folded into the corporation she works for now, she knew things would be different, but she didn’t know how much that would change her. Now, she says, she doubts what she’s good at—“Losing that sense of yourself doesn’t take long”—and the malaise of the new office has seeped into her life. “I’m exhausted all the time, more than I ever used to be after a day of back-to-back meetings,” she told me. “I’m always just straining toward the end of the day.”
It was something a Desert Father might have said in confession, except . . . Sonya’s eyes were narrowed with anger about her wasted time and her own choice to stay, and I pictured the Desert Father’s eyes filled with tears. In my mind the Father looked like my own father, an association not solely based on their identical titles; my dad has always woken up to pray before the sun rises, a ritual of bringing himself closer to God that he’s had since before he became a priest, but by nightfall he’s inevitably earthbound like the rest of us, so exhausted by disenchantment that he barely has the energy to drink a beer in front of a M*A*S*H rerun. I used to think he was just another guy who didn’t like his job, like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman or Peter Gibbons in Office Space . But now I also have work I wake up voluntarily early for, and I understand that weariness or restlessness experienced while doing something you care about feels different from being bored at any old job. It feels a lot like failing.
For the Desert Fathers, monkhood wasn’t just a career; it was a calling—the thing they were born to do, the reason for their very existence. This idea of a calling began in the religious world and spread to the secular as more and more people began to have career choices. If you have more than one option, how do you know which job to pursue? Well, which one calls to you? “Following a calling” lends a pleasing mystical flavor to job selection, and suggests that what ever moneymaking endeavor we spend most of our waking hours doing might also be spiritually fulfilling. It also soothes anxieties over our limited life spans: if we’re following a calling then we’re spending our time well, using it for something we care about rather than losing it to pointless work.
Over the last decade, the phrase “Do what you love” has appeared on posters and T- shirts and social media. It’s become so prominent that it has provoked backlash against the slogan, which seems to snub anyone who can’t afford a degree and the time to figure out what they love. Many people now understand it as a classist notion. Yet the idea behind it persists, having been deeply engrained in our culture long before Instagram images of posters in tech offices. “Our work must be the chief natural interest in life,” wrote the Jesuit scholar John C. Kelly in 1949. “If our life does not pivot round our work, we can never be at equilibrium.”
It’s an unbelievable amount of pressure to put on one thing. A period of disinterest, even just an hour, might send the whole thing toppling. How can you claim to love something that has the potential to bore you? How can you make any claim on it at all? Plagued with boredom, the Desert Fathers were also wracked with guilt for feeling bored and doubtful about their calling, which had heretofore been the very reason for their existence. This compound of bad feelings was known as “the ‘demon of noontide,’ ” according to the theologian Michael Raposa, “a powerful boredom that ‘besieges’ the devotee, resulting in distraction from, sometimes even abandonment of, the spiritual life.”
In this light Sonya seemed almost lucky, in the same off- kilter way that Romeo and Juliet were lucky— she’d loved and lost and never risked the possibility that decades of routine might chip away at that certainty. Meanwhile, I still feel lucky to be doing the work I do, talking with students and playing private detective in the library stacks, but every stray moment of boredom feels like a small betrayal I’ve committed against luck, and a frightening reminder that I might not feel so lucky forever. If Sonya were a character in a book or play I might feel a perverse envy for her, similarly to how people experience Romeo and Juliet as a great love story. But she wasn’t a character, she was my friend, and it broke my heart to see my strong friend look at me with fear in her eyes and say, “Honestly, Mary, these past few months are the closest I’ve ever been to depression.”
After a few more drinks and a couple of tacos, we said our goodbyes and good lucks and, hoping to cheer up, I walked home, splashing defiantly through rain puddles in my galoshes and observing other happy hours in other bars. In one window, three slim men in blazers leaned against a counter, bodies canted toward one another, and sipped from squat glasses with visible relief. In a window farther south, bar tables looked like doll house furniture next to five huge guys with unidentifiable insignias on their shirts— firemen or a bowling league, or maybe the military. I forded another puddle and recalled having read that happy hour originated in the military, in the navy specifically, as a period of entertainment for sailors whose lives were otherwise full of routine tasks and unvarying seascapes, “exceedingly monotonous and forbidding,” as Melville’s Ishmael put it, “not the slightest variety that I could see.”
It used to seem like such nonsense that Ishmael could describe the sea like that and still want to work on a boat. He didn’t just want to; he needed to—it was the only cure he knew for feeling “grim about the mouth,” so dull and irritable that he longed to run into the street and start knocking strangers’ hats off. This inconsistency always bugged me, not least because it was the basis for everything else in Moby-Dick , including long meditations on ship rope. These encyclopedia-like passages are strangely pleasurable to read, but they also add to the impression that ship life really is that dull—not at all worth getting mixed up with Ahab for.
I began to change my mind after meeting Lindsay. It was the semester after the Women in Leadership seminar, which hadn’t managed to take—I was feeling no stirrings toward law, business, or politics—and we were both assisting a biologist named Gail who once told us flat- out that she preferred primates to people. Gail wasn’t much for conversation, so Lindsay and I were often left to our own devices, and we got to know each other well. She was from Alaska and had worked in the salmon industry ever since she got her first job in a cannery at sixteen. The summer before we met had been her first on a fishing boat: at sea for weeks at a time, tracking down schools of salmon, dropping nets and hauling the fishes’ flopping forms up and into the waiting hold. I recognized that this meant performing the same set of tasks over and over again and not seeing anyone, besides her crewmates, for weeks at a time. Still, as she described her summer framed in sparkle and spray, it appeared startlingly 3-D next to my own July and August spent tossing pizzas and sweeping up pepperoni spills in the walk-in. When she e- mailed me with an application for a guiding job at a friend’s kayak company, I knocked my roommate’s printer off the shelf in my hurry to submit it. “Almost all men in their degree,” said Ishmael in his knocking- off- hats phase, “some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”
My Alaska story has no sparkle and spray; it’s mostly gray—pale gray sky, medium gray rain, dark gray sea. I paddled my kayak slowly, so as to keep pace with the tourists, pointing out eagles’ nests and rattling off Alaska facts during each of the four two- hour tours I led every day. It was more routine than any job I’ve had since. The only speck of sparkle was Lindsay, driving the motorboat that shuttled tourists to and from the tours, her red cheeks a beacon as she grinned into the rain-flecked wind. At the end of the day I’d watch her tie up the boat, pull up the motor, do all the countless little things she did every single other day at this time. It was all very relaxing to watch because of the way she did it, so clearly satisfied by the repetitive physicality of the work, like a basketball player practicing free throws or a singer doing vocal exercises.
This is what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”: being so single-mindedly absorbed in what you’re doing that you may lose track of time. It’s the optimal state of human experience, according to Csikszentmihalyi. “The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow.” Flow is most commonly associated with people whose jobs are physically or creatively demanding—athletes, artists, musicians, scientists—though I did speak to an accountant who told me he experiences something like flow during tax season. He told me this with a delight that suggested there might be something extra special about experiencing flow while performing a dry and repetitive activity, something that would just frustrate almost anyone else. We expect to be delighted by variety, hence commercials always touting products as “new and improved.” It’s a pleasant surprise to be delighted by sameness.
Several years after we worked together, I called Lindsay to ask her a question I was always too embarrassed to bring up when I lived in Alaska: Was she ever bored at work? “No,” she said, “not really.” Fishing is tedious, she said—the work is repetitive, the view monotonous, the crew unchanging—but she’d just finished her seventh season and rarely felt bored. Which is not to say she’s incapable of boredom. A couple of years ago she briefly held a job as a full-time newspaper reporter. “I started in September,” she told me, “then it got to be April and I got restless, then it got to be May and I was like, oh my god, why am I in this office every day.” By June she couldn’t take it anymore—she went part-time at the paper so she could run a water taxi for half the week. “That first day I was soaring. I couldn’t believe how much better I felt on a boat.”
Just that hint of splash and sparkle, and Ishmael’s desire to “get to sea as soon as I can” surged within me. But the feeling quickly passed, ushered out by the memory of performing my end- of- day guiding routines—sliding kayaks up onto racks, stacking paddles, sorting damp life jackets by size, all the while thinking: I would so much rather be reading about this.
It was lucky, then, that I ended up in libraries, spending all the hours that I’m not working with students instead on fact-finding missions for clients, searching for seventeenth-century town records or twentieth-century free speech violations or what ever else I’m fishing for that day. Fresh air and sun aside, the stacks do have their similarities to the sea—row after row of books like wave after wave of water, the smell of old paper as distinctive and pervasive as that of salt.
Submerged in this dim and dusty deep one morning, I sat cross-legged on the floor between two shelves of 802s (literature, miscellany) and trawled for phrases from a thick red book. It’s the surprise of this enforced idleness. It makes you feel not at home with yourself. That was Nora Watson, editor. I don’t think it’s terribly different from somebody who works on the assembly line forty hours a week and comes home cut off, numb, dehumanized. Roberta Victor, prostitute. You got to keep from going crazy from boredom. Frank Decker, truck driver. “It is about a search,” wrote Studs Terkel in the introduction to Working, his book of interviews with people about their jobs, “for daily meaning as well as daily bread. For a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
Terkel’s book was published in 1974, and more than four decades later I was having conversations with people about the same damn thing—about the 80 percent of people world wide who are unhappy at work and the 20 percent who are happy, often in jobs that might bore anyone else into a stupor. There was no clear solution, no obvious path away from restlessness and into the clear light of f low. The unsolvable nature of the project I’d given myself was making me itchy. If I were a detective I would have opened my desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of whiskey and two glasses, one for me and one for my suspicious but strangely compelling new client. If I were a ship’s captain I would have pulled a flask from my boot and taken a deep drink as I stared at the horizon, muttering that I’d get my deep-dwelling nemesis if it was the last thing I did. But I’m a researcher, and outside beverages aren’t allowed in the library, so I stood, stretched my legs, and walked away from the 802s. I had other work to do—searching for pieces of information that it would not be my job to make sense of, and earning an hourly rate in the process.
Dust motes floated around me, library plankton, as I made my way to the 550s, or earth sciences. I’d come to the library that day at the behest of an artist who was doing a project involving ice. The exact parameters of the project were unclear to me—possibly she was making something out of ice, or doing a concept piece about ice, or maybe ice was just a side component of a larger project—but for my purposes none of that mattered. I was hired for ice facts, and ice facts I would obtain.
Through the stacks and down the stairwell I went, alone. As a freelancer, I’m usually alone while I work, and for the most part I like it that way. No coworkers whose habits impose even more of a sense of routine on my everyday, like a co-copywriter at my last job who got up to get candy from the receptionist’s desk at ten o’clock on the dot every morning (and who was probably equally irked by my own candy bowl visits at four every afternoon), or, at the upscale yoga clothing store where I worked before that, a fellow saleswoman who approached each customer with an identically cadenced “Hi there! What are you looking for today?” No boss with complete salary-based control of my time. My time is my own and the cast of people who fill it is constantly changing. On a bad day, this means every wasted hour is my own fault, not to mention unpaid, and there’s nobody around who can sympathize.
Well, the latter isn’t strictly true. About one in three working Americans is an independent worker, according to the Freelancers Union, and at any given moment, I can go online and find many of these fifty-four million people tweeting or blogging or otherwise sharing with the world what it’s like to work alone and have control of their own time. They wake up early and go to coworking spaces or they treat themselves to matinees and work late into the night; they post pictures of window-facing desks or dogs napping at their feet or the coffee shops they frequent, full of other freelancers fighting over outlets and nursing six-dollar lattes. I used to turn to this online community when I was having an off day, but it only ever made me feel worse—more physically alone, and more useless with time management, the could-have-been work hours sliding by as I idly scrolled entries for a contest over who on Twitter could come up with the most disturbing twist on a children’s book title. Our time was ours; were we so afraid of boredom or loneliness or the combination of the two that this was how we wanted to spend it? My own contest entry, No Margaret, God Isn’t There. He Never Was, was mostly disturbing in that it betrayed my fear that there was no overarching purpose for my time. I canceled my Twitter account soon afterward, and not long after that began reading about boredom during those restless moments instead. I began e- mailing experts to set up interviews in person or over Skype. On days like that one spent searching for ice facts in the library, I found books that dealt with boredom and stopped the clock for my client while I jotted down notes for what was rapidly becoming a project. I liked the sound of that, “project”—like a bucket for my time to pour into, so that not a drop of it was wasted. Exploring other people’s restlessness lent some purpose to my own.
With this on my mind I was easily waylaid in the 658s (management, general management) by a book called Selling with Noble Purpose. The author, the management consultant Lisa Earle McLeod, found that the highest- earning salespeople were those who truly believed that their products helped customers. They were also happier. These people weren’t confined to one type of product or line of work; they could be found everywhere from pharmaceutical companies, like the one that employs Nate, to political campaigns. According to a congressional staffer friend of McLeod’s, there’s a “true believer” in every office, “that starry- eyed optimist who still believes they can make a difference. But here’s the thing all the jaded staffers don’t tell you—everyone else in the office is secretly jealous of the true believer.” Thus the mission of McLeod’s book is to give the “secret true believer inside of us . . . permission to come out.”
It might have been tempting if I wasn’t only a few years out of a job that did give me that permission, a sales position at that yoga clothing store where my coworker greeted each customer in the same cadence. Really, the permission we were given to unleash our “secret true believer” was more like an ultimatum—even if we didn’t completely buy the premise that selling expensive yoga clothes was meaningful work, we were expected to at least act like we believed. From the outside the company’s insistence on retail as a mission seemed nice, the kind of validation that salespeople rarely get, but once inside I quickly learned that a sense of purpose isn’t something you can just will into existence. The store’s enforced optimism just exaggerated my tendencies toward doubt and cantankerousness until I felt like a cartoon version of my worst self: that unstable bar patron who gives teary- eyed lectures to anyone who’ll listen about the inevitable self- inflicted doom of humanity. Capitalism! I’d proclaim over my fourth beer when I ran out of cogent arguments, as if the word itself said everything there was to say about days and weeks and months spent selling products nobody really needs to people who already have enough of said products anyway.
It was a bad time, a weird time, an embarrassing time, and I was jealous of anyone who had a job that seemed to have real purpose, like my friend Erica in nonprofit marketing. But when I asked her, she told me the world of social enterprise and nonprofits is also more complicated than it might appear to an outsider. “Your company can have a purpose, but that doesn’t mean you do,” she explained. “It’s not transitive.” Around the same time, Sonya was worrying that she wouldn’t like her new job at a tech start-up because it didn’t have a cause, per se—it wasn’t trying to cure poverty or clothe the kids of Africa or make people care about opera again. But she was surprised and grateful to see herself become one of those people whom Nate had declared to be so rare, who “bounce out of bed excited to go to work.” It was less about being a true believer, per se, and more about feeling useful; in her current role at the big corporation she registers the absence of this usefulness as boredom.
Some researchers argue that this is boredom’s function, or at least one of them. “Boredom is an emotional signal that makes people very aware that in their current situation there is a lack of purpose,” the social psychologist Wijnand van Tilburg told me. Before we spoke, I’d read several studies of Van Tilburg’s to this effect, and put them in a folder along with an essay by the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips that declares: “Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time.” Even with an alert system, it still takes patience—trying and failing and trying again— for an individual to figure out which activities give him or her a sense of purpose. There’s no tried-and-true company or position or lifestyle that works for everyone.
If the Desert Fathers are any indication, the need for patience doesn’t ever truly go away, even once you find a purpose. The work that they were willing to give up everything and move to the middle of nowhere for, the work that brought them the greatest joy, also sometimes bored them to tears. “It sounds a lot like parenthood,” joked our downstairs neighbor, a fellow freelancer as well as a mother of two, when I mentioned the Fathers to her—a comment that shed a different light on my instinctual comparison of the Fathers to my dad, as well as on my mom’s standard plea for us to stop saying we were bored and start appreciating the sunset instead. “This is where you’re going to judge me,” said our neighbor when I asked to know more; then she launched into the many tedious aspects of parenting, from figuring out how to plan the kids’ summers so they’re not overscheduled but don’t just “stare at me all day,” to repetitive readings of the same favored books, to waiting, waiting, waiting for the kids to do such basic things as figure out what they want to wear and how to put it on. “Why would you think I’d judge you for that?” I asked afterward. “Well, I love my kids,” she answered, “and you’re not supposed to be bored with people you love.”
I understood what she was saying; it was similar to the monks’ feeling guilty when they were bored in their cells, or my feeling like a failure when I grow restless while researching. If boredom is an alert system that tells us what we’re doing lacks purpose, in a roundabout way it might imply that her kids don’t matter to her, though they clearly do. And research matters to me, even though, lost in thought, I’d overshot the 550s and ended up all the way down in the 095s (books notable for their bindings) in the sub-sub-basement of the library, almost as rarely visited by humans as the deepest parts of the sea. I felt for the dust- layered books—it’s hard going it alone—and took a few minutes to admire their celebrated bindings before turning around and heading back up the stairs, bound for ice facts, back to work.