No. 6 — How to stay curious
Finding curiosity first
As a kid, the Sunday paper is what I looked forward to the most. But it wasn’t the sports section or the comics on the final page what made me rush to read it. It was the dominical poem. A tiny couplet. Two consecutive lines that typically rhymed. One day, I grabbed a pen and a notebook and I copied one of the poems. I later showed it to my mom (probably or probably not getting into the details of who was the author…), and her response was: "Interesting! Now try writing one more...”
Confronted with the challenge of coming up with a poem of my own (or stalling until the next Sunday paper edition), I had no choice but to figure it out. Meanwhile, my mom didn’t gave me a book about how to write, or a lecture about how to define a topic or vary my rhyme schemes… She simply gave me a challenge. And I was curious. And to me, that's what's worth learning.
In a world full of interesting ideas and countless options and resources, what is worth learning is what makes you curious. These can be stories or experiences, but also people. Especially people who challenge you (just like my mom did).
Now that we’ve briefly explored what makes us curious, the question that really interests me in this article is what causes curiosity to be sustained over time and what makes it grow.
My process of learning how to write a 2-stanza poem went like this: I would write something down. My mom would give me some feedback. I would rewrite, improve, and share. And then I’ll do it all over again.
Long story short, and after repeating the process described above, I ended up writing a whole collection of poems, and planting the seeds of what will become my future writing career. (I’m kidding!) What did happen is that I filled up my Disney notebook with (mostly poorly written) rhymes about gardens, zoo trips, and stars… but that’s not the point. The point is that I learned something new rather quickly.
Now, and as you might suspect, going through this iterative process of writing and rewriting could have become very boring really quickly, but I stayed curious because I had a medium-level of confidence in my poems. If the “right” answer was too obvious, I wouldn’t be curious – it's "too comprehensible". And if I had no idea of what the poem could even be, I also wouldn’t care – it's "too complex".
Which brings us to an interesting question: it’s easy to monitor my own performance -and figuring out if my process is “right” or “wrong”- when I build a tower of blocks and it either stands up or falls. But what about when working on an open-ended project, like writing a poem?
🧭 1. Build an internal compass
Michail Csíkszentmihályi followed a group of artists 20 years after they left school, and he found that the artist who had not learned to say whether this or that stroke of the brush produced a good color will drop out of art very soon (unless they become prolific immediately, which is almost impossible). If you don’t get the extrinsic reward of success and you don’t get the intrinsic reward of knowing you are doing a good job, then you give up.
Feedback, then, becomes key. And by building your own internal compass to figure out what’s good and bad in your paintings or your poems, you are able to persevere even without external recognition (or external rewards).
When I was learning to write a short poem, my mom would usually ask: “Do these two words rhyme?”, or “How can you make this line shorter? She was preparing me to build my own compass by simply asking questions; the same questions I would ask myself later on, without being dependent on her response. The ultimate gift you can give a learner is to help them develop their own goals and respond to their own feedback without them being around all the time. (Clearly my mom also had other things to do...)
⏳ 2. Avoid Distractions
Part of helping your curiosity grow is minimizing distractions. When you were younger it was the school bell, but nowadays it’s not that different: the sound of the bell fits in your pocket. If you’re constantly pulled into a new set of goals, you won’t give yourself permission to explore deeply something that makes you curious or interested.
I don’t think there’s evidence to prove something such as innate talent exists. Even the most gifted among us are the result of lots and lots of deliberate practice, which happens best without distractions.
As a 6-year old there were a lot of things that interested me and kept me distracted. But having a clear goal of finding catchy rhymes and writing down just two lines of text kept me focused.
🔀 3. Choose freely
Feeling that you are gaining freedom and control keeps you curious, and finding this freedom and control happens through varied, interesting options. Options help you become more intrigued, and as you become more intrigued, you gain more initiative and become more self-motivated and autonomous. This can happen through: 1) Selection: You can pick which challenges you want to overcome; and 2) Optionality: You can pick the order in which you work through something.
The more you can contribute your own ideas, suggestions, solutions or examples, the more you feel that you own your learning.
I could’ve been given a list of topics of what to write about for these mini-poems. Instead, I wrote about whatever I wanted. This gave me a sense of freedom and kept me interested in the task.
🍭 4. Have fun
Think about really great learning experiences you’ve had. They are probably ones that have engaged your interests and curiosity on an emotional level. How we feel about something is a gauge of how important we think it is.
Still, the objective of adding “fun” to a learning experience is not to slap a bunch of colors, animations, or memes on it. The objective is to help focus attention –not misdirect it.
The Disney characters on my tiny notebook might’ve seemed irrelevant, but they sparked ideas. Tarzan: a jungle adventure. The Little Mermaid: an underwater world. Aladdin: space travel on a magic carpet, anyone?
Before you quit...
There is one major barrier to staying curious long enough to acquire mastery: wanting to quit. Learning is hard and if we don't see results relatively quickly, we convince ourselves that “this is not for me”. But before you decide to move on to something else, ask yourself first:
Can I find ways to get feedback on my progress?
Have I spent enough time learning this without getting distracted?
Have I given myself the opportunity to learn in my own way?
Can I make this more fun?
It is still possible that investing a lot of time and effort in something can turn out to be very unpromising (otherwise everybody will be exploiting their talents all the time). But what’s the alternative?
I think it’s worth taking the risk...