The Virtues of Being a B

Lee Sigelman Aug 5 '08


Type-A people thrive on stress and can’t relax. They flit from task to task in order to stay busy and keep from getting bored. Type B people, by contrast, are laid-back, like to take it easy, and take every opportunity to do so. We don’t mind getting bored. We even like it.

So, given the prevailing norms in Western culture (“Work hard!” “Concentrate!” “Stay focused!” “Eyes on the prize!” “Shoulder to the grindstone!”), we lazy B’s will never get anywhere, right?

Maybe, just maybe, there’s much to be said for being a B, besides the obvious benefits of being able to fall right to sleep at night and being seen as pleasant people instead of up-tight asses. Maybe we’re more likely to succeed, at least at tasks that require some genuine insight rather than just countless hours of forced labor.

Consider the following:

In today’s New York Times, an interesting piece — not boring at all — by Benedict Carey, about boredom.

A key excerpt from that piece:

bq. [B]oredom is more than a mere flagging of interest or a precursor to mischief. Some experts say that people tune things out for good reasons, and that over time boredom becomes a tool for sorting information — an increasingly sensitive spam filter. In various fields including neuroscience and education, research suggests that falling into a numbed trance allows the brain to recast the outside world in ways that can be productive and creative at least as often as they are disruptive.

bq. In a recent paper in The Cambridge Journal of Education, Teresa Belton and Esther Priyadharshini of East Anglia University in England reviewed decades of research and theory on boredom, and concluded that it’s time that boredom “be recognized as a legitimate human emotion that can be central to learning and creativity.”

Which should immediately put readers of the New Yorker in mind of an even more interesting and not at all boring piece that appeared a couple of weeks ago. As Jonah Lehrer, the author of the New Yorker article, summarizes recent research on the topic, genuine insights tend to happen not when you’re as focused as possible on a problem and concentrating single-mindedly on it, but rather when your mind is at rest. Sleeping on it, going out for a relaxed walk, or lying at the beach reading a trashy novel: that’s when the real mental breakthrough is likely to occur.

Writing this post has worn me out. I think I’d better go lie down for a while. Probably I’ll wake up with a great new idea. How lucky I am to be a B!

[Thanks to Dubi for suggesting the photo above as a replacement for the copyrighted one I inadvertently stole.]