June 19, 2013 | 7
I clearly remember the day in the ninth grade that a classmate accosted me in the hallway of my junior high to recruit me for the high school debate team. I thought he was crazy. My heart would beat frantically at the prospect of answering a question in class. I could not talk in front of people—and I made this clear to my classmate. It didn’t matter, he said. The coach was looking for smart kids, he went on, and someone (I am not sure who) had decided I was one of those. My scholarly aptitude seemed irrelevant to me, but he spoke as if the decision had already been made. And it is probably fair to say that this brief conversation changed my life.
Although I recall the persistent nausea I felt on the bus that took me to my first novice speech competition, I ended up traveling with the debate team throughout high school. I survived every meet and even collected some trophies. I had been shy, but became much bolder—about speaking in front of others and, I think, in other ways as well. I believe that, in conquering that fear, I learned not to let sweaty palms and a thumping heartbeat hold me back. Trepidation was, in many cases, a sign of a hill that needed climbing rather than circumventing, as difficult as that might seem at first.
In the current issue of Scientific American Mind, Steven M. Southwick and Dennis S. Charney confirm that one of the best ways to build resilience is to make an effort to take on increasingly difficult, but manageable challenges (see “Enhance Your Resilience”). Doing so will help you handle higher levels of stress. (For more on why, see “When Is Stress Good for You? [Video].”) Other strategies for building resilience include getting physical exercise, learning to regulate your emotions, solidifying your personal relationships and looking for resilient role models. Resilience is apparently not just something that comes about by accident. You can train yourself to bounce back from adversity.
The Bored Brain
In addition to enhancing resilience, taking on challenges stifles boredom. I am rarely bored. In my case, I might explain this fact as follows: with a full-time job, a long commute and two kids, I have lots to do. But that’s apparently not quite right. That is, people think of boredom as a state brought on by the environment, as in the rainy-day complaint: “Mom, I’m bored. There’s nothing to do!” Another source of boredom might be having to do something tedious such as wait for a bus.
But then there’s my mother, who once said, “I’m hardly ever bored. I always bring something to think about.” The assumption behind this quite versatile solution gets closer to the true nature of boredom, according a story by James Danckert in the July/August Mind (see “Chronic Boredom May Be a Sign of Poor Health”). That is, boredom is primarily a product of your brain. People apparently differ in how prone they are to being bored, and how they react to that mental state. You can even measure it with something called the boredom proneness scale.
Other aspects of people’s thinking seem to interface with boredom proneness. Controlling attention plays some role in this, it turns out. “Lapses in focus, such as pouring orange juice on our cereal, reflect disengagement from one’s surroundings,” Dankert writes. To me, this makes perfect sense: What’s going on around me could be awesome, but if I’m not paying attention to it, then I could certainly be bored (unless, of course, like my mother, I’ve brought something interesting to think about). The ability to recognize novelty also seems to play a role. People who have suffered traumatic brain injuries often find life far more tedious than they did before they were hurt. Experiments now suggest that these people have lost some of their capacity to discriminate what is new from what is familiar. As a consequence, everything feels like the same old routine. Just the fact that brain injury can heighten boredom hammers home the concept that boredom, like depression or anger, has its roots in brain circuitry. Next time you are bored, remember that your current situation cannot produce ennui by itself.
Brave New Job Seekers
Maybe in the future, we’ll have therapies for boredom. After all, this emotional state is apparently bad for your health. Boredom boosts stress levels and the risk of heart disease, for example. People who are prone to boredom also do worse on the job and don’t like their jobs as much. But as far as I know, recruiters are not yet using the boredom proneness scale to screen job applicants. They are, however, relying on a variety of new tools for clues to a candidate’s suitability for a position.
Personality tests are excellent predictors of career success, studies show, as is IQ. But personality and IQ tests do not often fit well into the recruiting process, and are perceived as unfair, according to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Christopher Steinmetz (see “Psychological Testing on the Job Market: What You Need to Know”). As a result, recruiters are trying to glean aspects of openness, extroversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness and emotional stability from their footprints on the web. Existing software, for example, can translate information posted to Facebook, Twitter and other social media into personality dimensions including IQ.
Some firms have candidates play video games to determine how an applicant would make decisions on the job or how they might fit into the corporate culture. I am personally more comfortable with the idea of playing a game as part of an interview process than I am having potential employers scour my web postings, which may have been created for other purposes. But it’s a brave new world, and so it is important to be aware that whatever you put out there is fair game.
Now, for example, anyone who perceives me as outgoing will know that I am, in many ways, anything but. Despite my experience in high school, I still get nervous before giving speeches or talking on television. But the more I take those risks, the less scary they seem. And so whenever I am asked to step out in front of an audience, I no longer insist that I can’t—because I know that’s not true. Instead, I just go for it.