Last week a colleague called me impatient. I bristled—I don’t like to be called impatient.
“What leads you to say that?” I asked, puzzled not knowing the evidence that led him to judgment.
“You sometimes look away from others, move around a bunch in your chair when others are talking with you or to the team, leave the room to go get things, frequently refer to your iPhone or iPad, make notes that don’t appear related to the topic of the moment…. How’s that for starters?”
“Oh, that!” Relieved, I now know what he meant. “What you see as impatience is actually boredom. When I’m unengaged around others, I find it almost impossible to sit passively as words fly back and forth. My mind is constantly generating ideas, opinions, memories, and other items that I want to follow up on. But when I’m engaged—when I’m in flow—when I am interested in what you or others have to discuss, I think you will find me attentive and willing to take all the time necessary to get to an agreeable stopping point.”
To cover up boredom is not patience, but dissembling for the sake of good manners. Impatience is wishing for, and urging, others to speed up. “Come on, hurry up!” The classic example of impatience is trying to rush something and not allowing it to take its normal course to maturity. “No wine before its time” is anathema to the impatient. Cutting corners, skipping steps, and, in general, lowering quality standards, are the signs of impatience. If I try to hurry my scrambled eggs by turning up the heat, that is impatience. If I get bored while the eggs slowly cook, and find a way to occupy my mind meanwhile (clean off the counter, make the toast, set the table, dice scallions for a topping, and so forth), that is avoiding boredom and preventing the temptation to cut corners out of impatience. And, it is a choice.
Do I get impatient while waiting for something to run its normal course? Well, I try not to.
When I go to the post office and find a line, that is normal. I can’t rush it. This is a recipe for impatience and boredom. However, I am in control of how I use my mind while waiting. To wait in line and not use my mind somehow means boredom and probably impatience. To wait in line and use my mind avoids boredom. When I am not in control of my mental life while having to wait—yes, I will be both bored and impatient. In a chess match, that is why time limits exist. I can study possible future moves while my opponent cogitates, but if they take too long I begin to fidget—there is a limit to my plotting the future, and manners say I shouldn’t read a magazine while my opponent ponders. But as in waiting in line and waiting for an opponent to move, usually I am in control of how I might engage my mind during this invitation to boredom. Standing in line, I can: calculate the average transaction time of the postal clerks, catch up on my email (on my iPhone), review recent Facebook entries, start a conversation with a neighbor, practice balancing on one leg, practice yoga deep breathing, read one of several books I’ve started on my iPhone Kindle app, jot down notes for a project I’m working on (I always have a pad of Post-It notes in my pocket along with pen and pencil, plus my iPhone), call Jane or another family or team member to check in, ask my neighbor to hold my place while I go shop for stamps, meditate while standing, people watch and make up stories about their possible backgrounds…. In short, ways to use my mind while waiting are limited only by will, imagination, and manners. And where there’s a will, there’s a way.
So, appearances can be deceiving. The next time someone appears to be impatient, it is possible that they are bored and disengaged, not impatient. Check in with them somehow, with “Looks like you’ve checked out of this discussion,” or “Are we boring you?”, or “What’s on your mind?” Find out the source of their inattention and find a way to either re-engage or liberate them (as in excusing them from the meeting).
People high in the Big Five trait of Originality (aka Openness) are more susceptible to boredom, those who are low in Big Five Accommodation (aka Agreeableness) are prone to impatience, and persons high in Big Five Consolidation (aka Conscientiousness) are more likely to be patient. Nonetheless, boredom and impatience are both choices. You can choose to find a way to engage your mind when bored, just as you can choose to find something meaningful to do while waiting for something to run its course. Boredom can look like impatience, but impatience seldom looks like boredom. The one is disengagement in need of meaning, while the other is intolerance of someone’s or something’s natural pace towards completion or maturity.