Most creative geniuses don’t start with a specific goal and follow it through with deliberate practice, said Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. Instead, they maintain an openness to discovering whatever arises.
The way we talk about distraction has always been a little self-serving—we say, in the passive voice, that we’re “distracted by” the Internet or our cats, and this makes us seem like the victims of our own decisions. But [German sociologist Georg] Crawford shows that this way of talking mischaracterizes the whole phenomenon. It’s not just that we choose our own distractions; it’s that the pleasure we get from being distracted is the pleasure of taking action and being free. There’s a glee that comes from making choices, a contentment that settles after we’ve asserted our autonomy. When you write an essay in Microsoft Word while watching, in another window, an episode of “American Ninja Warrior”—trust me, you can do this—you’re declaring your independence from the drudgery of work. When you’re waiting to cross the street and reach to check your e-mail, you’re pushing back against the indignity of being made to wait. Distraction is appealing precisely because it’s active and rebellious.
How did “rabbit hole,” which started its figurative life as a conduit to a fantastical land, evolve into a metaphor for extreme distraction? One obvious culprit is the Internet, which has altered to an indescribable degree the ways that we distract ourselves. Twenty years ago, you could browse for hours in a library or museum, spend Saturday night at the movies and Sunday at the mall, kill an afternoon at the local video arcade or an evening at its X-rated analogue—but you couldn’t do those things every day, let alone all day and night. Moreover, content-wise, you couldn’t leapfrog very far or very fast from wherever you started, and there was a limit to the depth and nichiness of what you were likely to find; back then, we had not yet paved the road between, say, Dorothy Hamill and a comprehensive list of Beaux-Arts structures in Manhattan, nor archived for the convenience of humankind ten thousand photographs of fingernail art. Then came the Internet, which operates twenty-four hours a day, boasts a trillion-plus pages, and breeds rabbit holes the way rabbits breed rabbits.