Boredom, Questions & Zombies


Zombies. They are an official "thing."

One Saturday evening, I was walking through the living room with a load of laundry in my hands. A commercial for a new movie flew across the screen. I exclaimed, startling everyone including Pickles, our evil cat: “Zombies! Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”

I don’t know how you feel about it, but the term zombies is creepy to me. It sounds creepy. It looks creepy (I know they are just letters, but they're both visually and audibly grating.). And the images that come to mind, planted by all those scenes from trailers and commercials? Creepy.

But creepy I can live with. What I cannot ignore is the fact that the idea of zombies terrifies me. And I suspect I am not alone; in fact, I suspect we might be on the verge of a zombie apocalypse. Students in grades 5–12 children are highly susceptible. Here are the top three symptoms indicative of a pre-zombie state.

  1. Does your student answer most questions with the following monosyllabic responses: "Uhh," "Yeah," "Eh," "Nah"?
  2. Does your student check their phone or tablet more often than they blink?
  3. What is the response when asked about their favorite subject? (Common answers include any and all of the responses listed in #1.)

Zombies, as far as I can tell, are running on autopilot, their interest and introspection sucked right out along with their souls and good looks.

“What is the opposite of happiness? Sadness?” Timothy Ferris asks. “No. Just as love and hate are two sides of the same coin, so are happiness and sadness. Crying out of happiness is a perfect illustration of this. The opposite of love is indifference, and the opposite of happiness is—here’s the clincher—boredom.”

A few weeks ago I had an initial consultation with Brad, a junior at one of our best local public high schools. Brad, his dad, and I sat for over an hour, during which we talked and I asked my routine set of questions. Brad is a straight A student. He is taking AP chemistry, AP US history, AP calculus, honors French 4 and honors English 11. Toss in a few electives. His mid-year GPA is 4.36.

“You are an excellent student, Brad. So tell me which of these classes do you find most interesting?” Brad stared back, confused. “Uh?”

“It’s not a trick question,” I tried to lighten the mood. “Do you have a teacher that you find engaging? Any projects or concepts or topics this year that you enjoyed or that stood out.” “Well, uh, eh.” Brad cleared his throat. “Uh, I guess so. History class can be okay some days. I mean I like it, I guess, because sometimes we get to talk about things.”

This painful exchange continued for a few moments. I asked new questions. I rephrased. I cracked silly jokes about my 11-year-old, whose favorite subject is, hands down, recess. Nothing. I got nothing. I couldn’t get him to crack, not a teeny-tiny little bit. A tough case.

We went back and forth until Dad could not take it anymore. “She wants to know what you like to study. Anything?” “I’m, uh, not sure,” said Brad.

A classic case of the pre-zombie state, an inability to answer routine questions about interests, even with us meeting for the first time. What I find most terrifying is that this is not uncommon.

I threw a life ring to Brad by taking back the conversation. “Okay, so part of this process, part of the work that you and I will be doing, is to help you identify some topics that interest you. Everyone has some. I’ve got two suggestions for you.”

Here is what I tell the Brads that I meet. (Secret: it's the first antidote.) I tell them that everyone has an interest, and many people even have more than one. I go on to explain it’s okay to not have identified those interests yet. I then ask the Brads to read two to three articles a week; they can be in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, Vanity Fair, you pick. I request they send me at least one link weekly, send me one thing a week they think is worth sharing.

The second antidote? Start asking questions. (This, in turn, leads to an ability to answer questions.) In one of my favorite TED Talks, this story is told about Nobel Laureate Isodor Isaac Rabi. “When Rabi was growing up in New York, all of his friends’ parents would ask them, 'What did you learn in school?” at the end of the day. And Rabi explained that in contrast, his Jewish mother would ask, 'Izzy, did you ask a good question today?' And so high expectations have to do with curiosity—and encouraging young people to be curious.

Brad, and others like him, do not need a specific interest to get them into college. What they do need, though, is far more valuable than an acceptance letter: an interest. Engagement in some pursuit driven by intellectual curiosity, is critical. Read. Ask questions. Slough off the boredom and engage to find happiness.

And the upside is... you may just stave off the next Zombie Apocalypse.

  1. What is the opposite of happiness Timothy Ferriss The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich (2007): page 51.
  2. Ted Freeman Hrabowski, 4 pillars of college success in science (February 2013): Minute 8:26


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