Founders can profit from those moments of boredom

First published in The Sunday Times on 12th February 2017.

There are various catalysts that spur entrepreneurs into action — revenge, frustration, greed, poverty and desire among them. But boredom can be a powerful stimulus, too.

Lots of entrepreneurs I’ve known have short attention spans and are restless by nature. Their low boredom threshold gets them into trouble. Yet it can also trigger unexpected and beneficial outcomes.

I have made both terrible and excellent investments because I was looking for something to do. When we bought Patisserie Valerie 10 years ago, we had no plan of any kind. We almost made up the project as we went along. Yet over the past decade it has become just about my most successful venture.

I would never recommend this as a strategy to anyone starting an enterprise, but I think I might never have bought the company if I had needed to prepare a detailed rationale for the endeavour.

Modern founders are much more organised than they used to be. Their business plans tend to be immaculate. Unfortunately, those carefully prepared documents then collide with reality. No theoretical concept translates unchanged when it is made concrete. Customers don’t do what they are meant to, competitors react aggressively, suppliers let you down, staff can’t be hired, and so forth.

So entrepreneurs must be masters of adapting to circumstances. Flexibility is essential. They cannot be too rigid in their thinking or behaviour. If they assume confidently that all will go precisely to plan, they will be disappointed.

I rather agree with the conclusion of Tim Harford’s new book Messy: How to be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World. We should not rely too much on an arranged script. That can lead to a conventional, safe career, but is unlikely to deliver breakthroughs.

This attitude should even transfer to how one organises a diary. I have far too many meetings booked weeks and even months ahead, clogging up my days. Life too often feels like a treadmill — a busy fool, achieving little. I fear we have insufficient space to think, and to welcome those impromptu occasions that might just lead to an exciting new opportunity. Being available at short notice for something unexpected should always trump the crushing routines.

A new book by the PR entrepreneur Chris Lewis called Too Fast to Think highlights the dilemma of our hyper-connected, “always on” work culture. He argues that relaxation, play and dreaming all help to fuel individual thought and bright ideas.

I used to think that boredom was the greatest enemy, but I realise now that it serves various purposes. It allows the creative juices to flow. The room to daydream frees one’s thoughts.

The responsibilities and commitments to work and family can come to resemble an intolerable burden. As Dr Johnson wrote: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

Unlike animals, we know we are mortal, and can take advantage of accumulated knowledge, but this can also hold us back from discovery and invention — and indeed fun. Instinct must sometimes come before structure and process. Our lives are generally all too regimented, especially if we labour in large institutions.

Some call ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) the entrepreneur’s gift. It fits with the notion that many of these people are crazy.

The book Worthless, Impossible and Stupid by Daniel Isenberg describes how exceptional entrepreneurs think and behave in a contrarian fashion and so innovate and capture extraordinary value.

Of course, companies need systems and methodical personalities alongside the brilliant crazies. Dealing with mundane stuff — safety, compliance, regulations — really matters.

David Neeleman, who has ADHD, has founded four commercial airlines: Morris Air, Westjet, JetBlue and Azul. But he could never have built them into thriving businesses without partners alongside him to look after all the somewhat repetitive, dull details that ensure passengers fly securely. I suspect that many of us in middle age feel stuck in a rut, constantly repeating ourselves in our work, even bored with our hobbies. This sort of boredom can be dangerous.

Part of the solution must be lifelong learning, regularly finding fresh challenges and keeping our brains aroused. I am hugely fortunate in that my profession allows me to educate myself about new industries. Increasingly we will all have to do this; we are living longer and our careers should last 50 years or more. Meanwhile, technological shifts and globalisation mean that many jobs are becoming redundant.

The great philosopher Bertrand Russell believed that “a certain power of enduring boredom is . . . essential to a happy life”, because too much excitement is exhausting. I agree. Between the thrills, we should seek private calm for reflection, recalibration and the generation of ideas. This periodic change of pace is necessary for both physical and mental health — to avoid burnout and keep the world guessing.

In truth, boredom is a necessary component of a full and busy life.