Help me understand the condition of being unable to thrive unless one is given very intellectually challenging work.
June 4, 2009 1:43 PM   Subscribe

Help me understand the condition of being unable to thrive unless one is given very intellectually challenging work.

Everybody hates doing boring work, but in some people this trait appears to be more pronounced. For example, many of my most brilliant mathematician friends did poorly in high school because they found the work intolerably dull and unchallenging, and as a result were unable to bring themselves to work/study. (OTOH, I also know many smart people who did great in high school.) Once these people found work that was intellectually stimulating, though, they were able to hyper-focus and thrive. Is there a term used in psychology to describe this trait? It seems to be associated with ADD and introversion, but I can't find much beyond that.
posted by wireless to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Just a low boredom threshold?
posted by Phanx at 1:46 PM on June 4, 2009

Not a trait, but related: you might be interested in the psychological concept of flow.
posted by phoenixy at 1:49 PM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can't tell you much about the psychological terminology, but I can offer you an analogy that has helped people I know understand this issue.

Have you ever tried to watch a really boring movie or TV show? How much of it did you actually pay attention to, and how much do you remember after the fact? Virtually 0, right? Exactly. Imagine now that every day you were forced to watch the most boring thing on TV - that's what its like.
posted by strixus at 2:08 PM on June 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

A lot of people think ADD is just summed up as "scatterbrained" but really the hyperfocus stuff pretty much comes along with it, at least in the cases I'm familiar with. So for something that's not an appealing task -- and this can be something like doing the laundry, getting somewhere on time, shopping for food -- it just never achieves escape velocity to be prioritized among a zillion other things. However, for something that is engaging or fun -- and these can be the same things or for some people things like math, video games, competitive sports, whatever -- the same person is able to basically focus to the elimination of all other inputs. This is, as you can tell, a good news bad news thing.

I'm not ADD but I have this problem to some degree. My brain gets restless. If I feel that I'm doing something -- especially something assigned from elsewhere and not my own "to do" list -- I have a very difficult time doing it unless I can recreate the task with my own reasons for doing it. So I can make it into a game [i.e. "finish all this stupid filing before everyone else/lunchtime/3 pm"] or some other sort of challenge ["make sure every single folder in this cabinet is all in order starting from the bginning, Go!"] but otherwise I just dragass and can't even get started. It's weird because I can watch myself not do it and say "what the hell is wrong with you?" but knowing how to name the problem doesn't make it surmountable. To me it feels like being so sleepy that you just can't keep your eyes open, it's like being so unchallenged that you can't maintain enough momentum to do the thing.
posted by jessamyn at 2:08 PM on June 4, 2009 [14 favorites]

I'm no maths savant but I find intellectual challenge deeply energising. It is literally exercise. After a period of hard mental graft I feel tired but excited and refreshed and a bit buzzy. Being unstimulated makes me petulant and cranky. And I agree with phoenixy, for me it is about flow. I chase that feeling, it motivates me way more than most externally derived incentives.

Not so much fun for my employers, I've found.
posted by freya_lamb at 2:21 PM on June 4, 2009

Following strixus great analogy, I don't think it's necessarily more pronounced in some people, it's that people find things differently interesting. If someone can't find relevance in something, why spend time on it?

To use your "Some smart people do well in school some don't" as the basis:

Take several average adults. Put them in third grade, an environment where adults should find no scholastic challege.

Person A will be bored to tears because they know all of this stuff. They're not going to learn a damn thing.

Person B likes good grades, so they'll answer all the questions right, even though (or especially because) its easy.

Person C can't focus when they're surrounded by fidgety children and does poorly.

Person D is a suckup and goes out of their way to indulge the teacher and does pretty well.

Person E likes to help people so becomes essentially a teaching assistant and tutor to the class. She doesn't care about her grades because it's about helping people.

Person D likes competition so not only tries hard on every test but beats up little kids during recess.

etc, etc, etc.
posted by Ookseer at 2:21 PM on June 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Seconding phoenixy's pointer to flow: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi finds this same concept in successful people in very different areas.

I find his books fascinating. For example, I'm mathematically inclined and like computer programming a lot. Here's why:
  • "Balance between ability level and challenge"
  • "Direct and immediate feedback"

posted by willem at 3:19 PM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Some people have higher amounts of a trait called "novelty seeking" than others and they simply cannot motivate themselves to do boring things as a result. Sometimes, this is linked with ADD, sometimes not. Probably to do with dopamine.
posted by Maias at 4:24 PM on June 4, 2009

Allow me to raise my hand as a novelty-seeking person (with no signs of ADD) who did really poorly in school due to massive epic boredom but who has achieved much success in a career he's challenged by and engaged with.
posted by davejay at 5:06 PM on June 4, 2009

intrinsic motivation, perhaps?
posted by jus7brea7he at 7:27 PM on June 4, 2009

Oh man... I have this problem in spades.

I was just discussing with my wife a couple nights ago that I get bored with activities very soon after I become competent at them. I get bored with projects soon after I've finished building them. Some variable has to be changed to make my competence insufficient.

It means I've taken up a dozen (a hundred?) hobbies, gotten to the point where I could basically do them, and then discarded them.

For me the fun is in learning how to do a thing. Once I know how to do it, actually doing it over and over again (almost completely regardless of extrinsic reward) bores me. It was this way in school. I'd pay plenty of attention when the teacher taught the concept and bang out the first assignment with no troubles; then, when they gave the second "refresher" assignment, I'd totally skip it in favor of goofing off.

Oh, and I'm a computer programmer (who's working on going back to school to be a couples/sex therapist), if you care.
posted by Netzapper at 9:02 PM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I wish I could remember which one, but I remember that one of the myers briggs NT types (associated with math) was described to me as having a list of things they needed to be able to do. Actually doing it? Much less important. But you have to know how / be able to do it in a pinch - so people who study languages to an advanced level and then are perfectly willing to use English in that country instead, pick up a dozen new projects and do just enough to learn how to do it well or test out their new ideas but then drop them, etc. I've got a lot of this in me, and sometimes it is like Jessamyn said - trying to do something non-novel is like fighting to keep your eyes open. The first time you have to do something it's new, and interesting, and you can see how important it is... maybe the second and third times too... but once it's "mastered" and you aren't having new insights it's just so hard to keep your mind on it. It's like fighting to stay awake in class - even if you manage to keep your eyes open and forward, the amount of energy required to focus is so much that you can hardly do anything with what's coming in, and it's so much easier to just let it go.

Except instead of sleep, the thing you're letting go of boredom in favor of is some interesting new thing to learn or try out. Way better.
posted by Lady Li at 12:42 AM on June 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I wish I could remember which one, but I remember that one of the myers briggs NT types (associated with math) was described to me as having a list of things they needed to be able to do. Actually doing it? Much less important. But you have to know how / be able to do it in a pinch

HAHAHA! Sorry. You didn't say anything funny. It was just one of those moments where you're like, "So I'm not uniquely crazy."

For instance, I desperately hope I'm never in a gunfight. But, I can promise that I won't lose based on poor marksmanship. Furthermore, I know how to start a fire without matches (traditional stick+board+bow method), but I use a Bic every time I camp. I've opened friends' doors and extracted broken keys from car locks, but not often enough to justify the fact that I carry lockpicks with me roughly all the time.

I test as strongly INTP. But I have far greater communication strength than is stereotypical. And I have learned, quite deeply, that emotions are real things despite being subjective--took me long enough, though. Of course, I'm also probably the only person I know who thinks emotions follow a logic... there's sometimes just a hidden variable.

To bring this back to the OP: you say everybody hates boring work. But, I think that I probably have a much broader view of boring than you do. I abstract effortlessly and automatically. So, to me, entire classes of activities seem functionally equivalent, even if each one individually is something you could spend a lifetime mastering.

For instance, I like rod/reel fishing well enough--though I haven't been in years. I'll probably never go deep sea fishing or fly fishing, though. Because, to me, they're the same exact activity: imagine where a fish might be, imagine what the fish might like to eat, and deliver a fish-food-like object concealing a hook to the place you think a fish is. The issue of bait versus lure versus fly strikes me as immaterial, despite the froth now issuing from fly fishers' mouths. I'd buy $300 worth of gear and use it one afternoon learning to cast the fly before putting it in the attic--and my wife would beat me again.

School was boring because it was all the same. The activity was the same every day (except for math and foreign language, and lab sciences when we got that far): memorizing some more facts to recite on a test. The content of those facts was irrelevant, because every one of them was in a book somewhere. I could go and look them up if I was ever interested--and, indeed, I have.

Assuming you have the book close at hand, knowing the causes of the Civil War and looking up the causes are functionally identical. At the end of retrieval (from brain or book), you can do whatever it is you wanted to do with that knowledge in the first place.

The same is not true of, say, flying an RC helicopter or picking a lock. If you have a book on lockpicking, and you open it to the appropriate page and read as you stand locked out, pretty much nothing happens. You have to actually learn the skill to use the skill--which, frequently, takes considerably longer than you have in the moment.

Related indirectly, I once had a telling exchange with my boss:

Him: I need you to refactor the whole codebase and internationalize it.
Me: That's a lot of work. None of our UI widgets are even designed to be resizable, let alone localizable.
H: You got something better to do?
Me: And it's going to be hard to get right.
H: You're always talking about how you like a challenge. You're the man for the job. It's definitely a challenge.
Me: No, figuring out how to do it is the challenge. Doing it is just shit work.

He never got it, and was forever appealing to my desire for challenging work by offering me trivial problems with laborious or tedious solutions.
posted by Netzapper at 2:50 AM on June 6, 2009 [5 favorites]

I think strixus hit on a perfect analogy to help you understand how the person you're asking about feels, Netzapper's "much broader view of boring....abstract effortlessly and automatically....entire classes of activities seem functionally equivalent." describes it well. That functional equivalence registers on the brain almost painfully. It can feel lonely, disorienting, and self-esteem can suffer.

The concept of purpose is really important to these individuals- things that involve tedium can be re-cast as meditative, or resting tasks... as long as one knows one is resting for the next big climb (toward the purpose the person holds as personally meaningful).

You seem to be asking for a way to call it, or categorize it, maybe to share this insight with others or to help make the best use of this person's abilities? I test novelty-seeking, and INTP (though I'd not made that connection), ADD traits, but I don't think this information helps you much.

How to work with someone like this? Affirm that its not just a matter of 'bucking up', or discipline, or low motivation. Its important to neither romanticize or penalize intolerance for tedium. It takes discipline to examine or override the tendency to abstract or categorize (sometimes we make mistakes when the 'functional equivalence' isn't really equivalent afterall). That discipline can be oriented, for example through the use of systems analysis.
posted by iiniisfree at 10:05 AM on June 8, 2009

iiniisfree, netzapper - you've just articulated something I've struggled with for a long time. I'm just beginning to discipline my drive to abstract - it's not easy to do, or to explain. Thanks.
posted by freya_lamb at 11:03 AM on June 8, 2009

The concept of purpose is really important to these individuals- things that involve tedium can be re-cast as meditative, or resting tasks... as long as one knows one is resting for the next big climb (toward the purpose the person holds as personally meaningful).

This rings true for me as well. I have several activities that are boring and mindless, but that I kind of enjoy since I've decided they're meditative.

Likewise, I can happily do boring or repetitive things in preparation for doing something novel and neat.

But, there has to be an intrinsic reason for those activities. It can't just be because I "need" to do them.
posted by Netzapper at 1:09 PM on June 8, 2009

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