When I was 17, I read about the first natural language A.I., named SHRDLU, created by Terry Winograd way back in 1968. The user could talk to it about various shapes in a block world and it could respond and manipulate the world with impressive comprehension.
What struck me was how SHRDLU died. Operating systems back then were updated frequently and were rather bespoke. Each update caused a type of bit rot in existing programs, making various functions inaccessible. Every year or two, someone would try to have a conversation with SHRDLU, and it would error out earlier and earlier, becoming more and more aphasic and finally mute.
I found the slow death of this A.I. tragic, dramatic, and gripping. I tried to resurrect its code, and like so many others, I failed. There was no point to any of this. It was only a curiosity for me -- some might call it a waste of time.
But what I've found over and over is that the things you waste your time on lead to your best designs. This random inspiration and diverse interests approach to innovation and design is a repeatable technique, and I'm certainly not the first to say so. Nobel prize winners are about three times as likely as the general public to have an artistic avocation. It may also explain why the concept of a liberal arts education has endured for nearly two millennia.
Humboldt incorporated subjective emotional experience into his scientific works thanks to conversations with his friend Goethe. Elon Musk's use of Iain M. Banks's ship naming conventions is evidence of some wasted, or possibly well-spent, time reading the Culture series. Newton was a poet. Galileo was a painter. Before Oprah launched one of the most successful book clubs ever, there was Oprah's love of reading.
Turn Wasted Time Into a Resource
With the modern non-stop pressure to produce and the inundation of "productivity hacks," I can be as hard on myself as anyone for wasting time. In order to turn a waste of time into a valuable design resource, you need to be analytical about your consumption, but only after the fact. That's how you extract utility in the future. In Book 2 of The Analects, Confucius said, "Learning without thought is pointless; thought without learning is dangerous."
Firstly: Enjoy. Go toward what interests you. Don't judge yourself. Give yourself permission to abandon a book halfway through and start three more simultaneously. Spend an hour trying to take a photo of a bumblebee and fail entirely. Watch reality TV and watch the ads too. Learn to weld without having a welding project in mind. Eat a croissant.
Secondly: Be retrospectively analytical. You are always learning, even if you don't notice at the time. Take a moment to think about how you've chosen to spend your time and what you learned. Maybe you learned how a novel holds (or doesn't hold) your attention, how a new language-invariant interaction from a video game crosses cultural barriers, or lessons in teamwork from whirligig beetles. This analysis sometimes happens years after the experience, or you may revisit the same experience several times at different intervals and draw other lessons from it.
Finally: Always create. You will go through production and consumption cycles. But you can go through consumption cycles with no guilt if you know you will have a production cycle in the future. Without the confidence that you will create, you will always fear being only a consumer, a critic, or a viewer. With the confidence that you have created and will create, you can waste your time delightfully and without compunction.
In the End, Wasting Time Can Lead to Your Success
Wasting your time may be an example of exaptation, where traits evolved to serve one function end up serving another. In 2010, I sketched out a documentary series that was ultimately my inspiration for MasterClass. I wrote a list of possible instructors, and in looking back on that list, I see Annie Leibovitz, Hans Zimmer, and James Cameron, all instructors who now have their own MasterClass. I also found J.D. Salinger, Steve Jobs, Trent Reznor, and, strangely, Terry Winograd.
After working with my co-founder, David Rogier, and our team to build and shape the concept into MasterClass, I took a year off, traveled to 28 different countries, and became interested in for-credit education. The space seemed crowded and hard to break into, but in pondering why SHRDLU was so good at natural language responses, compared to, let's say, Siri, I realized how valuable a highly-constrained universe is for teaching. And introductory topics are well-constrained universes. This was the kick I needed to get out and start Outlier.org.
I might have called reading about an early A.I. and getting emotional over it a waste of time, but looking back, it's hard to think there isn't value that it provided in my most recent companies. Your interest and development of a trait like skill in music may end up serving another function, like writing dialogue the way Aaron Sorkin does, like music. For all you know, your waste of time will turn into your next big creation.