April 19, 2016
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Wake up sheeple, the doxa is real!
Surprisingly Awesome’s theme music is “How We Do” by Nicholas Britell. Our ad music is by Build Buildings. Nick DePrey and Louis Weeks composed original music for this week's episode. This episode was edited by Alex Blumberg and Annie-Rose Strasser. It was produced by Kalila Holt and Rachel Ward. It was mixed by David Herman with assistance from Matthew Boll. Robyn Wholey provided production assistance.
Special thanks to Jacob Cruz and Isabel Angell. Additional thanks to Peter Toohey at the University of Calgary, Richard Wolff at the New School, and Mary Mann, author of the upcoming book Yawn. Gillian Tett’s very good book is The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers.
RACHEL WARD: Okay, so, um. I’m setting my timer now. He does not know how long the timer’s for, but the timer is for fifteen minutes. Okay, and what’s he doing? He smiled at us… Robyn, can we ask you what you think might happen in this scenario?
ROBYN WHOLEY: He’ll fall asleep. Absolutely.
RACHEL: Can you tell us who you are?
ROBYN: I am Robyn. I work day in, day out with Adam McKay.
RACHEL: Your main job is keeping him from falling asleep?
ROBYN: Or waking him up from sleep.
ADAM DAVIDSON: From Gimlet Media, this is Surprisingly Awesome. I’m Adam Davidson.
ADAM MCKAY: And I’m Adam McKay. The reason you heard our colleague Robyn Wholey predicting that I was gonna fall asleep is because the producers were experimenting on us. An experiment we did for the sake of today’s topic: It’s an exciting one, get ready! Boredom.
DAVIDSON: That’s right. This may be our most meta show ever. This is a show about taking things that are boring and revealing them to be awesome, and so we went to BOREDOM ITSELF.
MCKAY: It’s got to exist for some reason. What, what secret powers lay behind a much maligned subject, boredom?
DAVIDSON: So we started thinking about boredom, as we do with every topic on the show, we start googling around and the first guy who appears when you start googling interesting things about boredom…
MCKAY: Can I guess?
MCKAY: You know what used to bore the crap out of me as a kid? Was the comic strip Andy Capp.
DAVIDSON: Oh yeah, that’s a bad one.
MCKAY: That was really bad, did that come up?
DAVIDSON: That did not come up.
DAVIDSON: But Andy Capp may have come up on this guy’s blog. Because the guy we really wanted to talk to is named James Ward. And the blog he writes is called “I Like Boring Things.” So obviously that caught our eye. James Ward perfectly illustrates what it is we want to say about boredom. Being bored, or just being afraid that you might be bored? That is a huge limitation. It can block off entire sections of the world if we let it. And to help fight that tendency, James runs a conference called the “Boring Conference.”
JAMES WARD: Originally there was similar event in London organized by a guy called Russell Davies. And he did a thing called the Interesting Conference. And then a couple of years ago he tweeted that he was too busy with work or whatever. He didn’t have time to organize the Interesting Conference that year. And so it seemed like the obvious thing to do would be to hold a Boring Conference.
DAVIDSON: The conference is amazing. It basically is Surprisingly Awesome meets TED Talks. James says their approach is that the theme of the conference is boring things, but the content should never bore anyone. So all year, he keeps a list of people who might be good presenters. People who are obsessed with barcodes or inkjet printers. People who record the sounds of vending machines. There’s this one guy who keeps a written record of every time he sneezes.
MCKAY: That sounds really boring.
DAVIDSON: It’s kind of this awesome, like, random view into someone’s life. And all of these things helped James develop a theory about boredom.
J. WARD: There’s a kind of split between what I call acceptable and unacceptable enthusiasms. Like in this country, obviously football, like soccer, is an enormous thing, so if you have two people in the pub and one of them’s a Spurs fan or something, and he can name the lineup of every team that’s played in the last ten years, he’s considered like, a regular guy who knows his football. Whereas if the person that he’s talking to says, “Oh, did you see the hand dryer that they’ve got in the toilets?” and starts talking with the same level of enthusiasm and knowledge about the electric hand dryers, then he’s considered weird. But the two people are doing exactly the same things.
DAVIDSON: So what James is saying is, there’s no objective agreement, no universal acceptance of any topic being boring or not boring. It’s cultural, it’s personal, it’s like beauty—it’s in the eye of the beholder. Like, McKay, you might not know this about me. I know you’re a big sports fan. You really like basketball and football. I find those boring.
MCKAY: That is, I am aghast. I can’t believe it. No. I know you hate sports, I know you find them boring. I used to do a thing with the girls when they would be misbehaving at the house, you know or being too rowdy or break something, I would say okay, time to watch C-SPAN. And I would put C-SPAN on and make ‘em watch C-SPAN for 5 minutes. They really did hate it.
DAVIDSON: So yeah, so different things bore different people, interest different people. But being bored, it turns out, is a universal feeling. We all feel it. So we started like, tying ourselves up in knots, what is boredom? What is that? Is it an attribute of things outside in the world, like the Federal Reserve is boring, sports are boring? Or is it an attribute of yourself? Is it a biological process? And we realized as we started asking these questions and talking to the experts… boredom is really interesting.
JAMES DANCKERT: At cocktail parties, if someone says, “What do you do for your research?” and you say, “I study boredom,” and they have this sort of nervous chuckle, and they then realize by looking at my face that they might have offended me, and they say, “Oh, that must be very interesting.”
DAVIDSON: This is James Danckert. He’s a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
MCKAY: It’s a little confusing that in like, less than 10 minutes we’ve introduced two dudes named Adam and two dudes named James. But, so can we call this one Doctor James? And we can call the other one Boring Conference James?
DAVIDSON: And you’re …
MCKAY: I’m Adam, and we’ll call you Stevie
DAVIDSON: ...I’m Adam.
MCKAY: I don’t want to argue about this, fine, you’re Adam, I’m Adam. Let the listener be confused. We’ll lose hundreds of thousands of listeners because you won’t be called Stevie. That’s fine.
DAVIDSON: So. Doctor James has devoted his life to peering into our brains and seeing what is going on when we feel boredom. Here’s how he defines it.
DANCKERT: So one of the sort of more colloquial terms I would use to refer to boredom is as an aggressively dissatisfying state. That sort of frustration that you feel at wanting something that you can’t then satisfy. Right so, if you think about the child that comes to its parents and says I’m bored, and the parent typically will say, “Well, try this.” And the kid says no. “Go ride your bike.” No. “Go play basketball with your friends.” No. “Go read a book.” No. So you’re in this conflict state where you really, really want something, but you're not really prepared to do the work to get there.
DAVIDSON: So according to Doctor James, the ingredients of boredom is not knowing what to do next, and feeling trapped by that. But it turns out, according to his research, some of us are way more susceptible to having that feeling than others are. And there’s actually a way to test for it: He calls it the “modified boredom proneness scale.” It’s basically a test of how easy it is to bore you.
MCKAY: I love that you’re excited, because you heard there was a test.
DAVIDSON: I got excited.
MCKAY: The University of Chicago in you was like, there’s a test ...
DAVIDSON: I’m going to ace this test. I have always aced tests. I’m a great test taker! And our producer Rachel Ward helped proctor the test.
DANCKERT: What we would normally do is, we’d ask you to answer this on a scale of one to seven. So one is strongly disagree and seven is strongly agree.
DANCKERT: So you ready?
DANCKERT: I often find myself at loose ends. Not knowing what to do.
DAVIDSON: Strongly disagree is one.
DAVIDSON: So I’d say one or two.
RACHEL: I think that’s fair. I’ll provide a running commentary about whether or not he’s being honest.
DANCKERT: It’s interesting because when we talk about doing these kinds of things with people with traumatic brain injury, one of the key questions or problems is they don’t often have insight into their own behavior, so what we normally do is have them fill out the questionnaire, and have a caregiver fill out the questionnaire. So we can treat you as Adam’s caregiver.
RACHEL: Extremely accurate.
DANCKERT: So, two, I find it hard to entertain myself.
DAVIDSON: Definitely strongly disagree. One. Yeah, I find it very easy to entertain myself. I’m always doing jokes and finding stuff to entertain myself.
DANCKERT: Many things I have to do are repetitive and monotonous.
DAVIDSON: Uh, one.
DANCKERT: Alright. It takes more stimulation to get me going than most people.
DANCKERT: I don’t feel motivated by most things that I do.
DAVIDSON: One, one.
DANCKERT: In most situations, it is hard for me to find something to do or see to keep me interested.
DANCKERT: Much of the time I just sit around doing nothing. Can I just answer for you and say one?
DAVIDSON: Yes, that is a definite one.
DANCKERT: The last one then: Unless I'm doing something exciting, even dangerous, I feel half dead and dull.
DAVIDSON: No, that’s definitely a one.
DANCKERT: Then your score on this will be eight, which is the lowest possible score on the boredom proneness scale that we use.
DAVIDSON: I win! I got the lowest possible score.
MCKAY: Well, I also took the test, and what was your score again, Adam?
MCKAY: I got a seven. No, I just did one lower than yours.
DAVIDSON: Yeah, it actually, eight is the lowest.
MCKAY: Yeah. I got a 13.5.
DAVIDSON: Alright. Let’s just say we have roughly equal boredom proneness. I actually, I buy that. And one thing I notice about both of us is one reason we’re never bored is we are really, really, busy all of the time. Like, I in particular, I know, I am never, ever, ever just sitting still, not doing anything. And a big reason for that is doing nothing really scares me. So, I notice that every spare moment I get, if I don’t have a pressing, crushing work deadline, I’m looking things up on my phone, I’m checking my Apple watch. And so Doctor James and Rachel wanted to know—what would happen if I didn’t have all those gadgets, all those defenses to fall back on?
DANCKERT: The ethics of this is questionable. The thing you have to do to make Adam bored is constraint. You need to put him in a circumstance where he can't do the things he would like to do. So take away the handheld device. Make him sit for some period of time without being able to engage in something.
DAVIDSON: I hate this idea.
RACHEL: Do you see the calendar invite I just sent you?
DAVIDSON: I do hate it! Wait, why'd you put... So while you were saying that Rachel invited me on my calendar to spend an hour...
DANCKERT: Oh, an hour's a bit rich. I mean, c'mon, just give him fifteen minutes.
DAVIDSON: I am definitely feeling increasing anxiety this very second.
RACHEL: Fifteen minutes, I feel like we should do it for forty-five. Two hours!
RACHEL: Full work day! Eight hours!
DAVIDSON: We did not do this for a full work day, because that would be crazy. But we did do it.
MCKAY: I am about to be put in an empty soundproof room for a period of time, that I don’t even know what the time is, to gage how bored I am.
RACHEL: What is your level of anxiety as I prepare to send you into the box?
MCKAY: Like a four.
RACHEL: …and anxiety.
DAVIDSON: Anxiety, yeah. That’s like a six or a seven?
RACHEL: You ready to go in? Okay.
DAVIDSON: I feel truly anxious. Yeah. I really do. Alright I’m going in.
RACHEL: Alright, alright.
MCKAY: Coming up, after the break, do we ever make it out of the box?
RACHEL: This episode of Surprisingly Awesome is brought to you by Audible. Audible has more than 180-thousand audio programs from the leading audiobook publishers. And in general, there’s just like a ton of stuff to listen to there, including audiobooks by one of our favorite people here at Surprisingly Awesome… Mr. John Hodgman.
JOHN HODGMAN: Some years ago, I wrote a volume entitled The Areas of My Expertise, which billed itself as an almanac of complete world knowledge. Now, some of you were skeptical. How could a single book of 236 pages, or if you were lucky, the audiobook of 937 CDs, contain all of complete world knowledge? Well, the answer is simple. I was lying.
RACHEL: You can find Mr. John Hodgman’s books and pretty much anything else you want to listen to on Audible. Go to audible.com/awesome right now to get a free 30 day trial plus a free audiobook of your choice. That’s audible.com/awesome.
NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: This episode of Surprisingly Awesome is brought to you by Ford Motor Company, where hybrid cars come with something called an efficiency display to help you keep track of you how efficiently you’re driving. Ford engineer Jeffrey Greenberg helped design the display, and as he explains, they have could gone for something dull like, a meter, instead they went with leaves on a tree.
JEFFREY GREENBERG: As you start to drive efficiently, it begins to grow these leaves and they are beautiful leaves, and they begin to grow on the vine, and in fact, the vine actually starts to grow. But if you’ve been idling your car for a long time and not going anywhere all the leaves will die so it will just look like a barren branch.
NAZANIN: And as Jeffrey tells it, a few years back, a journalist who was reviewing the feature, was was, um, inspired to use it by someone with great authority.
JEFFREY: His son was maybe eight or ten years old was in the backseat, and as he was driving kind of in a sporty way and some of the leaves were disappearing from the tree, his son cried out from the backseat, and said, “Daddy you’re killing the leaves!” And he said it just absolutely stopped him and he had to start driving in a more eco-friendly way just because his son was so disappointed.
NAZANIN: We are all shamed by our kids at one point or another, might as well be for the environment.
JEFFREY: Exactly, I think that’s one of their functions, to make us better people.
NAZANIN: Ford, helping grow conscientious backseat drivers. Go to Ford.com/awesome to learn more.
————————————————END AD BREAK——————————————————
DAVIDSON: This is Surprisingly Awesome from Gimlet Media, I’m Adam Davidson.
MCKAY: And I’m Adam McKay, and when you last heard us, we’d just been shoved into a box, alone, with no phones, no laptops, nothing to entertain us. Just our cold, dark, lonely thoughts. Because we were experimenting with BOREDOM! When you say boredom like that it actually helps.
DAVIDSON: Yeah, that sounds awesome! Boredom!
DAVIDSON: Boredom! Boredom! Boredom!
MCKAY: This week at the Worcester Armory—two straight days of boredom, boredom, boredom!
DAVIDSON: So, I was terrified going into the box. I really was.
DAVIDSON: Yeah, I was, I was worried. I felt like there was a chance that I’d have a panic attack. A small chance, but I did think hm, am I gonna have a panic attack? So I was really hesitant going into that room. And I have to say, it seems to me that our producers Kalila Holt, Rachel Ward and Robyn Wholey, they had a lot of pleasure in locking us in a room with no cellphones, no devices of any kind.
RACHEL: First he sat down in a chair, he sat in that chair for less than ten seconds and then he moved to a different chair… He’s adjusting the chair... He’s watching us watch him, which is pretty funny.
RACHEL: He actually chose the same chair Davidson chose, same position.
KALILA HOLT: He’s in a, like, what I would think of as a Ferris Bueller pose.
RACHEL: Um, he’s sitting, actually fairly erectly in that chair, he’s got his hands clasped together. It does kind of look like his eyes might be closed though. Do you think he’s falling asleep?
KALILA: I was gonna say, he looks like he might be meditating.
RACHEL: Half of his time has elapsed.
KALILA: He’s doing well, I’m proud.
RACHEL: Yeah, I’m actually surprised. I actually thought he would pace, like that was my prediction. Oh, he is, he put his hands on his head… He’s sort of moved away from Ferris Bueller towards like mild exasperation, I think. That’s my interpretation.
KALILA: More of a Cameron now than a Ferris.
RACHEL: He has 3 minutes left. And he’s essentially in the exact same position he’s been in the entire time. He crossed his legs, that’s the only change.
KALILA: In a Ferris Bueller scenario, he’d be like the Sears Tower.
[timer goes off]
RACHEL: Alright. Should we rescue him or should we leave him in there for another 10 minutes?
KALILA: I guess we should probably tell him.
MCKAY: That was fantastic. I could have done another half an hour. I wanna do that every day. It was great.
DAVIDSON: I loved it. It lowered my anxiety. I know this is a cliche, I know half of our listeners are like, “Yeah dude, you just sort of meditated.” My blood pressure went down. And it seemed like you had the exact same experience.
MCKAY: Incredibly relaxing. The only thing I battled with was I really wanted to go to sleep. That was it. I had two little flickers, each about three seconds each, of boredom. But other than that I found it completely relaxing.
DAVIDSON: Yeah, I felt exactly the same way. I came out just feeling refreshed and relaxed. And I realized like I’m so afraid of those flickers of boredom that I’ve structured my whole life so I never, ever feel them. And when I didn’t have a choice, I noticed they just pass. It’s no big deal. My brain is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing. James Danckert, the neurologist, told us this philosopher Andreas Elpidorou, writes about this.
DANCKERT: So what boredom is for, boredom's not meant to make you bored. It's meant to let you know that what you're doing now isn't working, do something else. I like this, he uses what we'd refer to as a pain metaphor. Right, pain isn't meant to hurt you. Pain is meant to spur you into action. So when you burn your hand, you withdraw it from the flame. that it’s a self-regulatory signal that says you know what, what you're doing now isn't working for you, it's not good enough.
MCKAY: So we actually did an okay job of self-regulating. We got stripped of our devices, left alone with our thoughts, which we thought was going to suck… but then our natural defenses against boredom kicked in and we wound up using the time productively. I’m proud of us.
DAVIDSON: I’m really proud of us. I feel like, hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution led to us having the ability to handle fifteen minutes alone in a room.
MCKAY: That makes it sound a lot less impressive.
DAVIDSON: Oh, really?
MCKAY: Yeah, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, I thought, you know, allowed us to create medical devices and drugs, but no, it allowed us to sit in a…
DAVIDSON: Fairly comfortable chair.
MCKAY: Without crying.
DAVIDSON: Without crying.
MCKAY: Alright. I’ll take it I guess.
DAVIDSON: It’s pretty good. Alright, I wanna shift the conversation to another aspect of boredom, which might actually be way more important than sitting in a room for fifteen minutes. The idea that boredom, it’s not just an internal, intimate, personal feeling. It’s a feeling that has huge implications about your place in society at large. But it’s a signal that we as society are woefully bad at paying any attention at all. In fact, if you want to know where to look, you need a specialist.
GILLIAN TETT: I am basically an undercover anthropologist and I have always been absolutely consumed by a desire to understand the other. And I've done that in, first in Pakistan and then Tibet, and then Tajikistan… the city of London financial community… I'm now operating in New York.
DAVIDSON: This is Gillian Tett. She’s the US managing editor of the Financial Times—it’s also called the FT. Gillian has been covering the world of financial markets. A lot of people would say that’s the most boring thing in the world. And she’s been doing this for a couple decades, but unlike most of her colleagues she’s an anthropologist, and views the world through the lens of her hero, this French anthropologist and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. He did fieldwork in rural France as the country was really changing after World War II.
GILLIAN: Well, one of the things he noticed was when the villagers in the village where he lived got together to dance, there was a kind of very striking pattern of exclusion. Which was in 1950s, the young men and women who wore trendy clothes and worked in the city all danced with each other, and that was where all the attention and focus was put on. But around the edges of the dance floor, there were all these bachelors, these people who didn't dance, or couldn't dance, who were still quite young but considered to be so completely uncool that they were almost unmarriageable. The reason why they weren't dancing was because essentially the wider economy had changed in a way that meant that the bachelors who were primarily farmers, they couldn't get married because their economic value had plummeted because all of the economic activity was moving to the cities. So the kind of pattern you saw at the dance hall was really reflecting and reinforcing a wider political economic pattern.
DAVIDSON: This idea became really important to Gillian. The idea that we’re always looking at the people in the center of the room dancing. We’re looking at the sexy exciting thing.
MCKAY: Right—but if you turn your focus from all of the stuff going on in the middle, to the margins, you notice that these people who you kind of thought were too boring to pay attention to, these like farmers, these bumpkins, there’s actually a really interesting story there.
DAVIDSON: It’s just like what James Ward, the Boring Conference organizer, was talking about. Knowing a lot about sports—that’s cool in our culture. Yeah, that’s like bang! Boom! Sports! Was that a good definition of sports?
MCKAY: That was terrible. It sounded like someone who had never seen a sporting event. But keep going.
DAVIDSON: But knowing a lot about public restroom hand-dryers—that’s embarrassing, that’s lame, that’s a lot like being a country bumpkin at the dance, not the flashy dancer in the middle of the room. There’s often a really big story in the things we consider boring, the things we consider unworthy of serious attention. And Bourdieu pointed out, if you delve deep into the shadows of the boring, it can reveal so much about how power and economics work in a society.
GILLIAN: Essentially what he did was try to understand the spoken and unspoken cultural rules and patterns that shape our lives and shape the way that we think and act and also, above all else, because he was quite political, maintain the hierarchy or the elite in their positions of power. And Bourdieu's key point was that the things that we ignore in life, the stuff that we label as boring and dull simply uncool and too not, humdrum to actually talk about, they're often crucial in terms of maintaining the social order and reproducing the power structure.
DAVIDSON: And Bourdieu has a term by the way for this. Are you ready, McKay, for the word I learned from Gillian Tett?
MCKAY: I love it, let’s hear it.
DAVIDSON: Doxa. It’s an old Greek word, but Bourdieu used it in a new technical way. Gillian can define it.
GILLIAN: The field, the space, of accepted discussion. And he argued that in any society, there are things that are viewed as acceptable topics of discussion.
DAVIDSON: So like the people in the center of the room, the thing that everyone’s looking at, the thing that you can say like wow, she’s really cute, or that guy’s a great dancer… That’s the doxa, that’s the acceptable discussion. The people on the outskirts, they’re the boring ones. So doxa is the field of accepted interest. Outside the doxa is eh, that’s boring, that’s silly.
MCKAY: So similar to how when the OJ trial was going on, the entire country was transfixed. Meanwhile, Clinton signs NAFTA, gets rid of Glass Steagall, signs that crime bill, all these major pieces of legislation that changed America in giant, giant ways but what were most people are talking about? Judge Ito and the glove. So that would be the doxa. That’s actually very cool. I like the word doxa too.
DAVIDSON: Yeah, you should drop that into conversation.
MCKAY: I definitely have to.
DAVIDSON: The doxa thing brings us to something that you and I know really well. Something that is in fact, the reason that we got to work together, how we became friends, how this podcast started, which is the financial crisis of 2007, 2008.
MCKAY: It happened and quickly became everyone’s doxa because we were all being affected by it, but before that was probably 38th on the list of things that most people were talking about and I just found that fascinating. I just started wondering like what was our culture telling us, what was our 24 hour media telling us is important, and how accurate is this. And you and I kept talking about that dynamic, what are being told is important versus what are we being told is boring. And we kept discovering that the boring subject is by far the most important subject.
DAVIDSON: And what Gillian explained is that even in the heart of finance, even there their doxa was putting the key elements of what would eventually almost destroy the global economy. That was outside of the doxa.The doxa said: Mortgages are secure, they’re boring. And in a sense the movie that you wrote and directed The Big Short is all about the weirdos who were hanging out on the edges of the doxa and saying no, no it’s really important.
MCKAY: These were the guys who were keeping track of their sneezes basically.
DAVIDSON: There’s a version of The Big Short where Gillian is the star. Cuz she… Well, she didn’t fully call the crisis, but she did do this cool, counterintuitive thing way before anyone knew there was anything fishy going on in the financial markets.
GILLIAN: I would never say that I predicted what was going to happen in 2007. But what I did notice starting in 2004 was there was a lot that was being ignored. Everyone was obsessively talking about the equity market and just ignoring this vast shadowy credit market and the derivatives market, even though that was getting bigger and bigger. So I likened it to an iceberg, where you had a small piece of the system poking above the water, that was readily reported on and discussed. And the vast shadowy underbelly that was being ignored. Because it was being labeled as boring. And I became kind of obsessed in trying to pierce it and expose it and show it, what was going on there, to varying degrees of success.
DAVIDSON: So I have to say Gillian Tett is like, amazing. But I do disagree with her on something. I buy the doxa story. I think that’s a real thing. But I also think that people, particularly when it comes to when it comes to Wall Street, to financial regulation, they weaponize boredom. I’m not saying this whole financial crisis was caused by boredom, but I think that there is a lot of deliberate use of complex, difficult financial products so that government won’t pay attention, the media won’t pay attention.
MCKAY: I think there’s no question. I gotta tell you, I love the phrase weaponized boredom. So how do we deal with the fact that many of the most important aspects and elements of our lives are designed to bore us into submission so that we don’t question them or challenge them?
DAVIDSON: So, does Bourdieu, Bourdieu, does he offer a solution? Is there something we can do...
GILLIAN: What he really believed in was just kind of what I believed in, is that nine-tenths of your job as an academic or as a journalist is to try and get people to talk and think. And the more that you can get people to talk and think about the conditions of their lives, the less the chance that they will end up acting like mindless robots. Doesn’t always work. Often doesn’t work. But if you can make just one person think and question some of the fabric internal to their lives, then these conscious patterns, or unconscious patterns if you want to see it this way, these patterns can be challenged.
DAVIDSON: So hearing this actually made me feel pretty good about our show. We are all about getting people to stop, look at something they weren’t paying a lot of attention to, and think about it. And see it in a new way. And when we first started the show, we set about doing this in a really straightforward, linear way: McKay is stoked about something, I’m bored by it, so he spends the episode trying to convince me it’s interesting. Or the other way around.
MCKAY: But then a whole bunch of listeners told us they do NOT like that.
RACHEL: Do you have, can you recall the letter in your email? Would you be willing to read a little bit of it?
SHELLEY VINYARD: Sure. Let me pull it up.
DAVIDSON: So this is a Surprisingly Awesome listener, Shelley Vinyard. Our co-host Rachel Ward and I talked with her about a letter she wrote. She hated that we set up the show by saying the topic was boring.
SHELLEY: Yeah, so it seems like you’re ambivalent about your audience. Is your audience people who think that things are boring and need to be convinced otherwise, or is people who love learning about things that other people think are boring?
MCKAY: It’s a really good question, and we didn’t really think it through as far as you know, targeting and marketing. But you know, the early days of the show, we kept hearing these complaints that we said things were boring too often. I actually didn’t agree with the complaints. I think there are people out there that are naturally curious. And that’s okay, you can ignore the part where we say something’s boring. But I also think there’s a large part of the audience for whom some of this stuff is boring and by acknowledging it, it lets them relax. So we’ve had arguments about this.
DAVIDSON: Yeah, I mean, it’s an ongoing thing. And I don’t feel like we’ve figured it out fully yet, I think we’re still playing with this. Although Shelley did, where she kind of touched me is just that word: boring. The thing you’re interested in is boring.
SHELLEY: I grew up in a small town in Texas and I basically tried to do as much as possible in the high school, like be as involved in everything but still felt kind of ostracized or limited. And as soon as I got to college, it felt really freeing to be enthusiastically interested in things and to find lots of other people who were too.
MCKAY: See, I think our show is sticking up for her. I think what we’re saying is the word boring is not a bad word. We’re saying the word boring is propaganda. We’re saying the word boring is a lie. And push past it.
DAVIDSON: I completely agree. We here at Surprisingly Awesome are celebrating boring. I love that feeling of hearing something that my initial reaction was, “Ugh, that’s gonna be so boring,” and then finding out it’s awesome. I like to think of myself as someone who can go through that journey. That, to me, is the spirit of the show. I mean, to be honest, I’d love it if we could subvert the doxa and do something profound. But what I really hope for this show, what I really want us to accomplish, is that we just trigger that rush, that moment, at least sometimes for at least some people. Whether it's the kind of boredom Gillian told us about, the big political boring, or the kind that James pointed out, the smaller, more intimate, opening yourselves up to the world, we want to fight against the feeling of boredom, and find out what's underneath it, or behind it, or whatever. Because for me, once you do that, it actually makes the whole world feel a whole lot richer.
MCKAY: I agree. That is exactly why we do this. And worst case scenario, if maybe we don’t achieve that spark of excitement for many listeners, at the least I would love it if in the future, the band Megadeth made an album called “Subvert the Doxa.”
DAVIDSON: “Subvert the Doxa” sounds awesome.
MCKAY: Surprisingly Awesome’s theme song is by Nicholas Britell, or as I call him “Little Nicky Britell.” Our ad music is by Build Buildings. We were edited this week by Alex Blumberg and Annie-Rose Strasser.
DAVIDSON: We were produced by Rachel Ward, and Kalila Holt. David Herman mixed the show and then Matthew Boll came along and messed it up. Jacob Cruz, Isabel Angell, and Robyn Wholey provided production assistance.
MCKAY: Original music in this episode was written by Nick DePrey and Louis Weeks.
DAVIDSON: Special thanks to Peter Toohey at the University of Calgary, Richard Wolff at the New School, and Mary Mann, author of the upcoming book “Yawn.” Gillian Tett’s very good book is “The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers.”
MCKAY: A cavalcade of delights awaits our newsletter subscribers. Every other Friday we send out premium facts that we weren’t able to get into our latest episode. Like for example, did you know that concrete is an important part of a healthy pigeon diet? It helps them digest!
DAVIDSON: But for this week’s newsletter facts you have to sign up. Go to Gimlet Media.com/awesome—it’s down on the lower right.
MCKAY: You can also tweet at us @surprisingshow, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re on Facebook. And our Tumblr is TrueSharkAttackStories.tumblr.com. And if you’re a true friend of the show, consider rating and reviewing us on iTunes. We’d really appreciate it!
DAVIDSON: Surprisingly Awesome is a production of Gimlet Media.
RACHEL: Thanks to our sponsor Ford Motor Company, where Ford engineers bring new and innovative ideas to life every day. Go to Ford.com/awesome to learn more.
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DAVIDSON: Hey, can I ask you… some of my British friends say boring more like annoying. Like – “Oh, I lost cell service.” “Oh, that’s boring.”
J. WARD: Yeah, I guess it can be used in that sort of sense, of just like the inevitable frustration of a failed signal or bad 3G or something.
RACHEL: Is that associated with a certain like tribe of people?
J. WARD: I guess it’s probably the same sort of people who describe lots of things as being random. When they’re not random, they’re at best arbitrary.