The value of friction in everyday life, part 2: Embracing boredom

Yesterday I wrote about how the concept of “friction”—things that slow us down and lead to inefficiency—can be applied to raising kids. I argued that while Jay and Wally create a lot of friction in my life, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

As it turns out, I’m not the first person to think about friction and family life. In fact, Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson have thought about it more than I have and have come to a very different conclusion than I did yesterday.  In their family, the reduction of friction is one of the highest goals.

Stevenson and Wolfers are economists.  They were profiled two weeks ago in The New York Times, which is where I learned about them.  She is 40, he is 39.  They are partnered but unmarried and they have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter named Matilda.  They are also big figures in the sub-field of economics known putatively as “lovenomics”—the study of the economic tradeoffs and happiness calculations involved with life decisions like getting married and having kids.

The theme of the article was how Stevenson and Wolfers, who are both on the faculty at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, use their academic research to guide their family life.  They think purposefully about the tradeoffs between different activities and they try to strike the maximal balance between leisure, money, professional achievement, and all the other good things in life.

To achieve this balance they hire people to do many of the tasks they don’t want to do themselves.  As the Times article put it: “If you’re relatively affluent, as they are, they recommend outsourcing child care and domestic chores so you can spend your time on more leisure or economically worthwhile pursuits. That’s what they do.” Stevenson and Wolfers hire people to do their cleaning, their grocery shopping, and to drive them to and from work.  They also have a nanny who takes care of Matilda from 8am-7pm every weekday.

Most of the choices they make are typical for people in their tax bracket and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them as such.  I have plenty of friends who have more money than time in their lives and I know that that for them, hiring people to help around the house just makes life more manageable.  What’s more unusual about Stevenson and Wolfers is the philosophy behind their choices, particularly in the context of parenting.

In a story in The Washington Post that ran a few days after the Times profile, Stevenson said she tries to “maximize the quality time” she spends with Matilda and to minimize the amount of time she and Wolfers spend on the tedious, boring, and frustrating sides of parenting.  In practice, this means that they have their nanny feed Matilda breakfast, get her dressed, pack her diaper bag, etc.  And because they outsource so much of the drudgery of parenting, they can spend more of the time they do have with Matilda on fun activities: coloring, singing, dancing.

This seems perfectly reasonable and I understand the need for childcare help when you have a demanding job. Yet as I read about Wolfers and Stevenson a queasy feeling started to well in my stomach.  On a gut level, something about an efficiency-maximizing approach to family life seemed wrong to me.  I don’t like boredom or frustration either, but instinctively it seems to me that it’s important to have at least a measure of them in your life.  When I thought about why that might be, the answer I kept coming back to was friction.

As I wrote yesterday, friction makes it easier to steer.  But it occurred to me last night that that’s only half it’s value in the context of family life.  Because not only does friction make it possible to steer—it also makes it possible to feel.

Over the weekend I wrote about how I spent my birthday taking care of Jay and Wally.  The day featured long stretches of boredom punctuated by brief moments of frustration—just the daily brew that Wolfers and Stevenson try to avoid.  But the slowness of the day—the absence of efficiency and top-shelf stimulation—left its own kind of quiet impression.

The late-novelist David Foster Wallace, who would have turned 50 today, also thought that friction is a necessary condition for feeling.  Wallace’s last novel, The Pale King, was published in 2011, a little more than two years after he took his own life; it is set in an IRS processing center in Peoria, Illinois and it’s about boredom.  Wallace left a note with the manuscript that began to explain why he thought boredom was so important:

Bliss—a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out and it’s like stepping from black and white into color.  Like water after days in the desert.  Instant bliss in every atom.

I don’t know if real awareness lies on the other side of boredom or if it’s part and parcel to the feeling—and bliss is a little far-out as a description for what I experienced on my birthday.  But I do agree with Wallace that in order to really feel alive you need to be willing to let some friction creep into your life.

American culture emphasizes making life easier, smoother, less painful, more efficient. But if you go too far in that direction you end up as a body sailing blissfully through a vacuum.  Friction lets you feel life, experience its texture, take its shape.  In this sense there’s no better source of friction than raising kids.

Related Content from Growing Sideways:

The value of friction in everyday life, part 1: Kid make it easier to steer

A new version of the American Dream

13 thoughts on “The value of friction in everyday life, part 2: Embracing boredom

  1. Great post – without the friction of everyday life how will you recognise and appreciate the good times? Stevenson and Wolfers sound pretty sad to me. Surely they are missing out on so much of their child’s life by outsourcing so much of her upbringing. I don’t think you can timetable magic moments with a child or anyone else, as they can happen at the most unlikely times. I also think relationships of any sort are built (or at least can be) on the foundation of coping with those moments of friction. Without those moments of friction can you ever really be truly close, or really understand each other, particularly if you’ve only ever experienced the good times and not the bad?

    • Kevin- I agree with Steve and had the same queasy feeling as you when I read the description of S and W’s home-life. Sure, feeding and dressing one’s child isn’t the most glamorous thing in the world, but it’s still what I consider quality time (when is time spent with one’s kids NOT quality time?). And for those of us who are part of two-working-parent households, you need to maximize all the time you can get with the kids–which means diving into all the tedious tasks. It also makes me wonder what kind of example this sets for Matilda as her parents essentially off-load these responsibilities. Surely you want your kids to learn that life isn’t always fun and games?

  2. I think the way Wolfers and Stevenson talk about their childcare choices makes them sound much more atypical than they actually are. Hiring a house cleaner, paying a taxi/car service, and ordering groceries online are basically side matters. They hire a nanny from 8am to 7pm M-F. Maybe this is a little longer per day than a typical day care situation, but for two working parents, it’s pretty darn close to normal. Also, at least part of the case they’re making is that by hiring others to take care of daily tasks, they have more time to spend with their daughter. E.g. from the Post piece:

    “Stevenson said the situation has allowed her to “maximize the quality time” with her daughter. “Yesterday, I was starting to unload the dishwasher when Matilda asked me to dance. I got a lot more joy out of dancing for 15 minutes with Matilda than I would have from a Starbucks cappuccino. And it cost me about a Starbucks drink to pay our assistant [to] spend 15 minutes cleaning up the kitchen.” “

  3. Hi Kevin. I’m a colleague of Caroline’s and have been reading the blog avidly through Caroline’s facebook updates. This is such a lovely post. The article you mention was the subject of a lot of conversation in our house when it came out and helped my partner and I think through what we want our eventual family life to look like. “Not like that” is a useful sentiment to think through! I think you’re right that they have taken too much of “life” out of their lives.

    Your blog often makes me think “Like that” and makes the idea of having kids sound so much more do-able and rewarding. So thanks!

  4. Absolutely! Live in that moment, even if it makes you yawn or cringe, for a great moment is just around the corner…and if we are not around we’ll miss that glance or aha moment that our kids have constantly…thanks for writing–beautiful piece!

  5. I appreciate your thinking through this question for your readers. On the
    question of eliminating friction from one’s life, I heard a discussion of E. M.
    Forster’s “The Machine Stops” last night on NPR that suggests a life without
    friction would be dreadfully dystopian rather than utopian.

  6. Hiring people to do “what they don’t want to do” is more than just hiring people for things they don’t have time for. I found it strange that two university professors would have full time nanny care from 8 am to 7 pm, but maybe my university teaching experience was abnormal in that I didn’t need that much time to devote to work on a daily basis.

    There are a lot of life lessons in doing the drudgery of routine chores and work with children. Instead of stopping the process of unloading the dishwasher when Matilda asked her mother to dance, wouldn’t it have been possible to unload the dishwasher in a way that incorporated “fun” or “dancing”? I found it more than off-putting for the mother to justify it by saying that for the price of a Starbucks, she could pay her assistant to do the task so she could dance with her daughter. Ugh. Can the daughter learn from this behavior that her desire for entertainment/attention is always more important than the act of doing some work?

  7. Yes. And the thing is, if we insulate ourselves from the tedium in order to maximize the “magical” or “quality” or “fun” moments with our kids, we are at risk of becoming phobic of any alternate experience with them. For many parents including myself, I find that the anxious anticipation (dread?) of a long day of caring for one or both of my kids is always worse than the experience itself. Avoidance of childcare breeds phobia of childcare, hence more avoidance.

  8. It seems that to S and W the ultimate goal of having children is to enjoy them, whereas I see the ultimate goal of having children is to raise them (which is enjoyable) If I’m only around when they are doing their coloring books, I miss the opportunity to teach them/influence them in the everyday. Another benefit to friction is contact(friction) = influence. Not only does the family friction give me better traction, hopefully it gives me the opportunity to teach my kids how to steer for themselves. Does any of this make sense?

  9. @ Anne, I think you are right in that stopping the work and entertaining is teaching the daughter that self indulgence is more important…it’s like allowing children to interrupt a conversation or something else that needs to be done…it’s good for them to not always be at the center of the universe…

    On the other hand–friction can get out of control…

  10. Steve, Marc, Peter, Michelle, CM, Chris, Anne, Naomi, Lee- thank you, all, for the thoughtful replies!

    I had enjoyable exchanges with both Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson on Twitter yesterday. Betsey replied, “How I spend my time w/ Matilda is not about me, it’s about her & her few hours w/ her mom during the workweek.” I thought that was a very nice way of putting it and I was glad she clarified a point that didn’t come through clearly in either the NYT or Washington Post stories.

    To some of the specific points that came up in the comments…

    Chris- Thanks for the tip about the EM Forster piece on NPR. He totally called the iPad 100 years ahead of time. For those interested, here’s a link to the piece:
    http://www.wbur.org/npr/147041182/our-media-ourselves-are-we-headed-for-a-matrix

    Peter H.- You’re right that the difference is more philosophical than practical. I’d just say that I think philosophical questions about the value friction are important ones to think about.

    Michelle- Caroline has told me about a colleague who follows the blog. It’s nice to ‘meet’ you here and I hope we meet for real sometime soon at ISR!

    Anne- I’ll echo what CM said. Nice point about alternative ways to approach scenarios like the dishwasher example.

    Naomi- Last night my wife and I nodded and laughed along with your line “I find that the anxious anticipation (dread?) of a long day of caring for one or both of my kids is always worse than the experience itself.” So true!

    Lee- It does make sense! And I think your reminder to keep the conversation at a philosophical rather than a personal level is a very important one.

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