Sunday, January 17, 2010

Low Tolerance for Boredom

Editor's note: This piece was written by Aaron Iba following a conversation we had where I asked he share his story with others who may themselves identify with his experience or know of a student like Aaron. It is cross posted on Aaron Iba's blog. The conversation was also inspiration for the this Martin Luther King Day tribute When "Free at Last" Means Escaping the Boring Prison of School.

Lisa Nielsen stumbled across my psychological testing results from when I was 7 years old and wrote about it. She is giving a talk about innovation in education and asked me to share my story, so here it is.

I'm 26 years old. When I was 23 I founded a software company that was recently acquired by Google, and before that I went to MIT where I got a degree in mathematics and nearly perfect grades. So if you'll excuse the immodestly, I think based on my recent history most people would consider me pretty successful academically and professionally.

None of my early teachers, however, would have predicted any sort of success for me. At Estabrook Elementary School, I lit fires and sprayed graffiti in the bathrooms. At Diamond Middle School, Sopheak Un and I stole all the mouse balls from the computer lab, prompting an all-hands meeting of the students and teachers in the cafeteria. (I believe Joey Carroll ratted me out). I was permanently banned from riding the school bus for doing something I am too ashamed of to publish on the web. In 7th grade, I sold a 3" Israeli army knife to Matt Fallon, who pulled it out during English class. These are just some of the things I remember getting caught doing. Detention, suspension, and attempted expulsion were regular occurrences in my early life.

Everything changed during the summer before high school. My dad suggested I read the book Hackers, by Steven Levy. I was already interested in computers because they provided a great source of stimulation at a pace I could control. But after reading Hackers, I had a new purpose in life. I wanted to go to MIT and be a hacker myself. In order to get into MIT, I realized, I needed good grades and a clean academic record, so I made that happen. I was fanatically motivated to go to MIT, and this created a goal toward which I could leverage my energy and learn to control my impulses.

I'm not saying it was OK that I acted like a hoodlum in middle school. I feel bad for my teachers and my parents for all the grief I caused them. But I also suffered. I had a tremendous amount of energy and a craving for challenge and stimulation, yet I was forced to try to sit still in a classroom and passively take in information at a slow pace. School was a boring prison for me, and I did what I could to bring excitement into my life in an environment that seemed designed to prevent it.

At 26, I still have a low tolerance for boredom and consider this a virtue. It's what led me to entrepreneurship and gives me a healthy appetite for risk.

I don't have all the answers for how to fix the situation for other kids like me, and I don't know how common my situation is. My message to educators is simply to keep an open mind when it comes to rambunctious little problem students. Maybe they just have a low tolerance for boredom.


  1. Wouldn't it be amazing if teachers and principals could recognize that often acting out is a sign of boredom. Imagine that learning was real, fit for the person, interesting, authentic, fun... less discipline problems, more engaged kids, happier teachers... hmmm. So now that you've shared your dark past, you know it's permanent... :-)

  2. Reading this story really made me think about some of the students that I had in the past. I wonder if they just had a low tolerance for boredom? Thanks!

  3. I was just wondering if low tolerance for boredom is a psychological disease and decided to
    Google it. This article came up.

    "I had a tremendous amount of energy and a craving for challenge and stimulation, yet I was forced to try to sit still in a classroom and passively take in information at a slow pace." I'm sure alot of students can relate to this.

    Lucky for Aaron, his Dad found something that sparked a fire inside of him and gave him motivation to go through that "boring prison". I wonder if other kids had that luxury.

  4. Thank you for this great story. Here is one kid who could have ended up drugged into a stupor instead of becoming the success he became. I will link to your story on my website,

  5. @james e pricer, Thanks for sharing this story on your website. I shared your website on this post Cure ADHD without Drugs with These Resources from Doctors, Educators, and Parents at

  6. Wow this sounds like my son. Oh the Embarrassment for the school to call at one time almost every other day. With much work he is now focused on his artistic ability and sports the calls are now every two or three months. We still have to stay on him. I tell him that one day he will become someone great as an adult and my pain of his youth will be no more :). Good Story, I suggest you take your testimony to all schools grade school, High School and College. It is very much powerful. Your reward to help another is far greater than any amount of money.

  7. To a lesser degree, this story describes my struggle with boredom in school as well. I have been diagnosed with ADD as an adult, but that wasn't on the radar when I was in school so long ago (especially being female). I eventually dropped out with 1/3 of a credit short of grade 9. I now have an honours BA (with a publication in an academic journal), a BEd, and an MEd (but still no high school diploma).

    Now, here I am an elementary teacher (Gr. 2). This year's crop of students are predominantly boys (only 6 girls) and the least attentive group of students I've had in 22 years of teaching. They try so hard to attend, and I try so hard to engage them, but I feel like I'm losing the battle for the first time in my career. Sweet kids, but any lesson lasting longer than approximately 2 - 5 minutes ends up taking half an hour because I'm constantly having to redirect them. So, frequent mini-lessons it is.... and the use of technology as often as possible. But, what a toll it's taking on my own energy level.

    While I fully identify with and accept the issue of a low tolerance for boredom, I'm not really sure what to do about it at the 7 year old level. I would love to read more comments on possible solutions. Like Aaron suggests, I do have an open mind toward these kids and truly believe they can be successful one day (despite some obvious gaps in their learning already). But, I'm spent. . . and its only the first week of December.

    Can anyone share further options that other teachers and I can employ to create a better fit?

    1. I recently attended the Global Forum in Prague and met numerous incredibly innovative educators. The best of the best had one thing in common. They asked their students what and how they wanted to learn. Here are two examples:

      This post addresses the idea of letting students drive the learning.

      Start thinking of the young people in your class as learning partners who can help to guide their own learning and you might get the results you're looking for.