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Wednesday
Mar312010

the terrible truth about boredom and money

This is one of the ultimate secrets of making money, a secret so blindlingly obvious, so common it has never, to my knowledge ever been given the importance it deserves.

I learnt this in Japan from Sato Sensei, a 6th Dan part time teacher of Aikido who was also the owner of a furniture company started by his family. He was a millionaire, the first I’d ever met. Sato Sensei was about fifty, very fit, and always laughing, having fun while every one else was grim faced and slogging away. This cheerful and lighthearted demeanor made it even more surprising when he told me, “the secret of making money is enduring boredom.” He saw me about to smile and for once did not grin back. He was serious. “In martial arts you learn how to deal with boredom without being bored. You do many many times the same throw, the same lock. But if you get bored you get hurt so you learn how to stay focused and interested. In business I hate it very much for years. For years! Then I finally learn: making money is boring! That made it easy. I ust made the boredom as interesting as I could!

Of course I forgot this except in its relation to my immediate concerns- which was doing martial arts. I did not relate it to money making activity until several years later when I actually had to make money rather than get paid a salary. I also started to observe the rich people I met. Sure enough they often made their fortune from something incredibly boring- the second millionaire I met had made his fortune from chicken drinkers, devices for allocating water to intensively reared chickens, but cast in plastic not metal. This cost, and weight, saving he passed on to the grateful farmers who bought them eagerly. But how boring! Or the next millionaire- who I actually attended college with- Roland- who was known as the least academicly gifted undergraduate around and ultimately sold his company for $70 million dollars. The product? Financial PR. Ie bullshit. Hotair. A spun story about widgets and loans and deals. Call me a philistine but what could be more tedious week in week out than meeting fat (or even thin) executives who tell you are boring story about their company which you then have to pretend is interesting to a bunch of journalists who have heard it all before.

But therein lies part of the key. Roland had found a challenge he could meet in making the boring stuff interesting- to himself and therefore to others. And he got paid very handsomely for it.

In brief, the terrible truth about making money is that you get paid in proportion to how much boredom you can stomach without getting bored yourself.

Take poker, often cited as a great school for money making training. Lots of businessmen in the world claim everything you need to learn about cutting a deal is in poker. For years I thought this meant reading faces, memorising details, calculating odds. Bull, I’m afraid. The main thing about playing poker to win is being able to endure the boredom of hours of bad hands that you must fold even though you’re dying to play just for something to do. Winning at poker is not about great hands, it’s about increasing your chip pile- and you do that by careful boring play with medium hands and chucking away bad hands. A good poker player shouldn’t have to rely on more than an average share of luck.

All jobs involve boredom, or rather, combating potential boredom. Take writing. Sitting for hours on your backside staring at a blank screen or page is boring. But a bored writer will only turn his reader off. So the writer must struggle to interest him or herself. By making the boring task interesting (and this isn’t just done through subject matter, it’s also done by counting words (to a writer a 1000 words HE’S WRITTEN is VERY interesting believe me), writing with a fancy inkpen (I have a Sailor collector’s pen for that very purpose) or a nice notebook (Hemingway and Bruce Chatwin preferred a moleskine one made in Paris) or sitting at a special desk or reading first a favourite inspiring fellow author- all ways of beating the intrinsic boredom of it.

Just recently I met another Japanese millionaire. He was travelling around the world with his young wife staying in the weirdest and funnest hotels they could find. They’d just come from an ice hotel in Finland and were on their way to an underwater hotel in Florida. Silly, maybe, but not boring, at least not compared to how he made his fortune. How had he done it? From a single car part he sold in millions, a device that contained the central processing unit of the car and prevented better its destruction in an accident. A box to put it bluntly. And he’d stuck to one product. “I did want to do more,” he told me, “But I thought it better to keep to the one thing I did best.” He’d weathered the boredom, bitten the bullet, and now he was taking his reward.

It’s boring to sit in a shop day after day waiting for customers. Or it can be.

It’s boring to make call after call trying to get the chance to make a sales pitch. Or it can be.

It’s boring having to make budgets and plans and talk to bankers and buy advertising and get people to do things they’d rather not do. Or it can be.

The terrible truth is: you have to be able to find a way to make boring things interesting if you want to make money out of your lifeshift. This is where you have to get inventive. Wear clothes that ‘express yourself’ rather than a dull suit. Drive a car that gives you a laugh or a thrill. Have that business meeting in a trendy restaurant rather than your usual place. Now you see why business folks tend to do these things that seemed a tad silly before- they’re trying to beat the boredom just as you will.

Luckily, a lifeshift activity is by its very nature, not boring. But turning it into money you run the risk of infecting it with boredom. But knowing this in advance is more than half the battle. Other tips include dividing up boring tasks into bitesized chunks, injecting silliness and fun wherever you can (one reason why Richard Branson is such an inveterate practical joker and party giver maybe) sticking to a ritual and making a challenge out of defeating boredom. But the main thing is facing up to it: if you want unalloyed fun you’re going to be poor.

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