Being interesting is hard work. In Miss Americana, the recent Netflix documentary about Taylor Swift, the singer-songwriter tells of the pressure she feels to constantly reinvent herself, lest her fans lose interest. “The female artists I know of have to remake themselves, like, 20 times more than the male artists,” she explains, “or else you’re out of a job.”
Swift is “constantly finding new facets” of herself, living a narrative that her audience finds “interesting enough to entertain, but not so crazy that it makes [them] uncomfortable”. She worries that growing older makes this pursuit of interestingness more difficult. “As I’m reaching 30,” she muses, “I want to work really hard while society is still tolerating me being successful.”
In our digital economy, being interesting is a valuable asset. Our leisure time has become an endless quest to curate the perfect palate of interesting friends, experiences and objects to share through our social media feeds. On Instagram, we curate interesting personal lives replete with quirky hobbies and aesthetically pleasing interiors. On dating websites, we disclose interesting hobbies and witty anecdotes to distinguish our profiles from those of others. We sign up to classes, experiment with new styles, try new foods and stay on top of esoteric trends.
All too often the pressure to remain interesting follows gendered lines. Women often cultivate new skills, make new friendships and visit new destinations, while men seem more prone to luxuriating in the narrow set of interests they cultivated in adolescence – football, computer games, the music they listened to as teenagers.
But there’s something deeper at stake here. Our relentless pursuit of interestingness can feel repetitive, tiring and ultimately dull. Being interesting requires time, effort – and disposable income. “Interesting is now mainly a consumerist concept,” Susan Sontag wrote in her essay An Argument about Beauty. “The more things become interesting, the more the marketplace grows.” Perhaps the more interesting we become online, the more bored we become with ourselves.
Our pursuit of interestingness has been fuelled, in part, by a market that is beholden to innovation and ceaseless change. We are promised an endless feast of products and services that will keep us stimulated, improve our lives, and help make us more interesting. To ensure we keep on buying more products, companies have found new ways to differentiate the things they sell – creating goods in multiple shapes, sizes and colours, and inventing inbuilt product obsolescence to guarantee we replace our mobile phone every five years. Our desire for interest has been shaped by stealthy corporate marketing campaigns convincing us that new, interesting things are always good.
But a lot of the time, what we think of as innovation is what the author Umair Haque calls “unnovation” – inventions that have little authentic or meaningful value. Razors with five blades rather than four; mobile phones with four cameras rather than three; pop stars who can bridge three musical genres rather than two. Each new product or service offers interest and stimulation but often ends up just being more of the same. We’re promised that we’ll be endlessly interested, but we end up feeling strangely empty, and often bored.
All too often, boredom is treated as something to be escaped – by opening an app, scrolling through Twitter, or checking our inboxes. In a world that values being interesting and busy, boredom can feel like a personal defect. But instead of seeing boredom as a malady, Sontag thought we should think of it as an “antidote”. Acknowledging feelings such as boredom, melancholy and rage help us to “work toward a full notion of the interesting”, she wrote. The pursuit of newness doesn’t equate to an interesting life. In fact, boredom can be the kernel of creativity. By allowing ourselves to be bored, we open ourselves up to experiences and ideas that can be genuinely new and profoundly interesting. As researchers have found, it’s the moments when we’re bored or idle that can prove most fertile for creativity.
If Miss Americana does one thing, it forces us to look again at Taylor Swift and question our assumptions about who she is. The film shows us a woman who sometimes feels down, angry and empty. By capturing these other sides of Swift’s life, a much more interesting person emerges – one who is interesting because of her mundane human qualities. But it also reminds us that leading an interesting life isn’t just about seeking out endless novelty. It is also about reclaiming the value of being bored.
• André Spicer is professor of organisational behaviour at the Cass Business School at City, University of London