Hans Wilhelm is a best-selling author of children’s book and illustrator, and artist. He has written and/or illustrated over 200 books – mostly for children. Here is the full transcript of his TEDx Talk titled: “Boredom – A Source of Inspiration” at TEDxWestportLibrary.
TEDx Talk Transcript:
I’d like to share with you today how boredom has been a major inspiration in my life and in my work.
If we go by Merriam-Webster, “Boredom” means “The state of being weary and restless through lack of interest.”
I think this is an outdated kind of quote on the internet. It should be updated, and I think it’s also a “lack of distractions” today.
When we are bored today, what do we do first? Get out our little iPhone and check our emails or whatever it is.
So the lack of distraction, I think, is equally the reason why people are bored.
Now, I was an expert of lack of distraction and boredom when I grew up in Germany long, long time ago.
The city I grew up on is Bremen. Here is Bremen and as you can see, there is not much distraction up there.
The other day, I was lucky or we were lucky that our house wasn’t destroyed. It stood in a huge park, but I couldn’t really play much in this park, because when I grew up, it was always raining, raining, raining in Bremen, six weeks rain non-stop.
So, I was really, really bored. I was actually double bored because my parents also didn’t want to have a television. They didn’t think that was cool.
So, I really was clearly having it up to here with everything, but, thank God, I had my wonderful fairy godmother, my aunt Hetwig. She had a printing shop and supplied me with unlimited amount of paper.
So, I started to draw and create all these little stories, and I loved it. I discovered my passion and what I’d really love to do in my life.
I decided when I grew up, I wanted to become a God because Gods are creating whole new worlds and universes, new characters and plots, and this is what I’m going to be.
But when the time for me came to make my choices in career, I went to business school. I became a business person.
I moved to Africa and there, I worked in an office for many, many years. Eventually I came to America, and I liked this place so much that I decided I would stay here.
I got myself a green card; I rented a beach cottage; and I remembered my childhood dream to become a god.
So, I tried to start writing and illustrating children’s books. I was very lucky, the first two books sold immediately with the publisher.
But then came the periods of waiting, the periods of utter, utter boredom. You see, when you are a writer, you are submitting a new book proposal to your publishers, and they sit on it for weeks and weeks or months and months, and there isn’t much else you can do than wait.
So, I was really, really bored. Again, I was doubly bored because I also didn’t have a television. I saw some television here in America, and all I remembered were commercials for Preparation H and laxatives.
I thought I’m too young for this!
So suddenly, I heard the story about Yuri Gagarin. You remember him, the guy who traveled around the world in outer space?
The story goes that when he was in this little capsule, he suddenly heard this tapping on the outside of the capsule: “Tap, tap, tap, tap.” He was getting nervous.
He looked at his instrument to find the source, and he couldn’t. And it continued “Tap, tap, tap,” and he realized that if this continues on this whole journey, he is going mad, he’s going crazy.
Then, he remembered the famous saying: “What we resist persists.” I think he remembered that in Russian; so he decided to make friends with this tapping.
He closed his eyes and really embraced the tapping: “Tap, tap, tap.” As he was doing it, he had the inspiration that this tapping was the rhythm of a well-known Russian tune, and he started to hum it.
Then he started to sing it and then to whistle it, and he says this was his best companion on the entire trip.
So I thought, “If big Yuri Gagarin can do it in outer space, I can do it here on earth.”
So I took my boredom and I felt it in my body. I sat down and I really showered it with love. And you know what happened?
The charge, the intensity of boredom vanished, and it became merely a memory. And the moment it became a memory, it was no longer an active part in me, whoosh! it opened up into the world for me, the world of Boris, the little bear.
The bear was very, very bored, and he lived with his little sister, and his sister was a busybody. I could play with this whole subject. And out came the story of “Totally bored Boris.”
Now, the next time, a week later, I was bored again. But this time, it was different, I realized something very important.
Boredom, as we heard earlier, is the state of being weary and restless, but it’s just a state. Underneath the state are all the emotions we do not wish to deal with: all the negative things, the subtle things, the things which we rather don’t face.
And this time, the emotion was slightly different. It was a feeling of loneliness.
Having lived in Africa with lots of friends and many fellow workers, I suddenly had chosen a profession which is very isolating, very lonely. Anybody who wants to become a writer, think about it twice.
So there I was and having this feeling of loneliness, so I sat down and I really felt it in my body, allowed to feel it in my body, showered with love and it vanished.
And the moment I did it, the world opened up for Chestnut, the little squirrel in the tree trunk, who was lonely, and he meets Morris, the otter, and, of course, otters are never lonely.
Out of this comes this fun little story which was later called “Never lonely again.” So it can continue.
The week later, I had another feeling. I had a feeling on boredom which was slightly different. It was a feeling of loss.
A dear friend with whom I made many walks by the sea has got married and moved away, and I felt the loss of this person very much so. So I sat down and allowed myself to really feel this feeling and loved it.
At the moment I did, the charge and intensity of the feeling vanished and opened up the story of Brian and Warren.
Warren was a white duck, and Brian his friend was a wild mallard, and together they have these wonderful fun adventures.
Until one day, Warren says to Brian, “You know, I’m going with my family down south for the winter.” So they break up of the challenge of this friendship, and they’ve got this wonderful experience. This happened to me because I really was able to look at these emotions.
What I discovered is there’re only two actions in the whole universe. One is the giving and sending of love or energy, and the other one is receiving, being open or crying out for love and energy.
And obviously, our so-called subtle negative emotions are just there to want to be loved like any other kid or whatever wants to be loved. Once we love it, they calm down and they work.
At least, it worked for me.
A little bit later, again, I had a subtle feeling of boredom, and I realized “What is this?” It was actually a little soft-out I had.
I had to do a project. I wasn’t sure I could do. Once I sat down, felt it, allowed it in myself, again, the inspiration came of this Josephine.
Josephine was a little penguin who had to learn to dance ballet, and she didn’t want to, and she thought she couldn’t. But of course, in the end of the story, with lots of fun, she not only learns it, but she teaches all the other animals to do ballet too. So, this is how it worked.
After a while, I had something like a dozen of these little stories together, all inspired through my feeling of boredom. I didn’t know whether these stories were any good, but I took them to Random House anyway and showed them to them. They just flipped over, they loved everything.
They bought the whole lot, and then asked me whether I would be prepared to start my own Hans Wilhelm’s book club. Well, it was quite an honor, and I answered, “Yes.”
This is how the Merritales, which we later called it, the book club started. This all is a long, long time ago. This is something like 30 years plus ago in the last century.
Since then, I have created, as I said, over 200 more books, and many of these books were initiated or inspired by moments of boredom. But my life has changed, like your lives most likely have changed, because I sooner or later also got a television set.
I’ve got a computer, an iPad, an iPhone. And today, whenever I feel a little bit coming up of boredom, when there are check-out lists or at the dentist’s office, out comes the little distractor.
There’s always a cat video to watch or whatever. The only time where we can’t use our iPhone is actually in the shower, but that is, I think, only a question of time until Apple will have a shower proof iPhone, and then we can text there and exchange some “service.”
We have collectively given up the only luxury there is in life, which is time. I have to be really bored again, physically remove myself from the hectic East Coast, and go to my studio in Jamaica.
Here in Jamaica, in a small hotel which has no television, no radio, and no WiFi, I am allowing myself to be totally bored.
Do you want to see my studio? This is my studio and these are my feet. The walls are the sea and the palm trees, and the ceiling is the sky. This is where I can still fully relax, and really doodle and come up with new ideas.
Now, I have no idea whether that what works for me will also work for you, but if you want to try it out, simply saying, first of all, feel the feeling in your body.
Don’t think it, feel it, see where it is, how it is and how it works. Then shower it with love as much as you can.
Then be ready to be inspired, or I would say more poetically, “Be ready to be kissed by the muses.”