Curiouser and curiouser

“Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.” 
― Samuel JohnsonThe Rambler

Does this sound familiar?  You're talking to someone at work about this exciting event you went to last night, this book you're reading, or whatever you're passionate about, and you can actually see the moment when they check out of the conversation.  Their eyes glaze over, they start to reach for their phone to check the time, or they look around in the hopes that someone will interrupt the conversation.  Eventually, they interrupt with a dismissive, "Wow, you're really into those video games, aren't you?"

There's a nerd culture version of the scenario, too: you come into work on Monday and start talking to your coworker about the amazing game you watched over the weekend, an epic struggle between two masters of their craft leading their teams toward victory, and he rolls his eyes and says, "Oh… sportsball.  I'd rather play Cards Against Humanity."

When did our passions and hobbies become competitive?  For that matter, when did the time you spend LARPing, lifting, hacking, hiking, biking, fracking, tweeting, or twerking become more meaningful than my pursuits?  In short, when did we lose our curiosity?

Children are little two-legged balls of curiosity.  Have you ever watched a toddler in a strange room?  he will sit in the middle of the floor, looking around with a wide-eyed and slightly stunned gaze for about ten seconds.  Then he's off to stick his fingers into the closest hole he can find, to explore the room with all of his senses (especially taste, if he can get something in his mouth), to wedge himself tightly behind every piece of furniture just to see what's back there.  He wants to know everything about that room and its contents, and God help the eardrums of any adult who tries to stop him.

Somewhere between toddlerhood and adulthood, we lose that curiosity and decide that it's cool to be into some things and terribly uncool to even discuss others.  We stay in our lane with our circle of friends (real or virtual) and we build walls around our community of interest.  Inside the walls, we're free to participate in whatever interests us as long as it stays within the boundaries of our self-identified group.  We can be passionate as long as our friends are passionate, and fads can sweep the group as long as they start from inside.  Outside, all is frightening, or worse, boring.

Frankly, I blame the cafeteria.  Right around middle school, or whenever kids are allowed to choose their seats instead of being forced to sit with their homeroom class, they start to clump by interests.  The jocks sit with the jocks, the theater kids sit with the theater kids, and that one smelly kid who's always eating his boogers sits by himself.  In the cafeteria, we define ourselves by our interests, then we find others who share those interests and create an identity around them.  We are no longer individuals with diverse hobbies, passions, and intellects; we are the Whovians, the weight lifters, the Goths.  Our interest becomes our identity, because otherwise we're afraid we'll have to go sit with Bobby Boogerbreath.

As we grow, if we're lucky, our passions become our jobs.  If we aren't quite that lucky, then they become our hobbies. Either way, we commit time and energy to them and we take pride in what we accomplish in their pursuit, whether those rewards come in the form of promotions, awards, or piles of imaginary electronic gold.  What we enjoy, we work at; when we work, we improve; when we improve, we achieve.  It's a virtuous circle, but it's also a closed loop.

When my passion becomes my identity, I become closed to anything new.  When I am passionate about history, philosophy, and classic movies, I turn up my nose at anything created after 1960.  When I spend all of my time writing software code, I sniff dismissively at the "jocks" who want to talk about last night's football game.  When I find my freedom in competitive athletics, I quietly deride anyone who eats food for enjoyment without measuring its potential as muscle fuel.  I become my passion, and it consumes me.  I lose interest in anything that doesn't make me the ultimate whatever-it-is that I'm interested in.  I become, in a word, incurious.

I think that the real heart of this issue is this: we're afraid to try new things because we might not be good at them.  I know that I'm good at math, so I'll just stick with the sciences and say that the arts are for potheads.  Or I know that I'm no good at sports, so I'll say that they're for people with nothing better to do than throw a ball around.  The fact that I might hurt myself if I tried it is completely beside the point, of course.  Or, because I've always been good at sports, I'll milk that for all it's worth, even though inside I have the sickening certainty that one day my body will give out and I'll only have my past glories to keep me company.

What if Einstein had looked at the motion of the celestial bodies and said, "Meh, good enough.  I've got patents to review."  What if Mark Twain had decided that he was the travel guy and stuck with writing brochures for riverboat trips?  What if Steve Jobs had looked at Steve Wozniak's computer and thought to himself, "That guy's weird.  I think I'll find something else to do on Saturday."  The world would be a much poorer place.  Curiosity drives innovation.  It creates something from nothing, brings order from chaos.  This fundamental dissatisfaction with what we know to be true pulls us onward, goads us to learn and grow.  Just as the toddler learns by tasting everything within reach, curiosity instills in us a thirst to know more.

I never fit in with those groups in the cafeteria.  When I hung out with my fellow athletes, I grew bored with the conversation.  When I sat with the other theater folks, I grew tired of the drama.  When I joined the smart kids, I wondered why they only wanted to talk about homework assignments.  I was dissatisfied; I wanted more.  I've tried to cultivate that feeling throughout my life.  Even now, I try to remain omni-curious, willing to try anything at least once.  It's OK if I don't like it; at least I tried.  This has led me on some fascinating excursions, and each experience has enriched me, both intellectually and spiritually.  Experiencing something new -- whether it's reading a book on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, joining a class on Talmud study, or eating at a new restaurant -- gives me a new perspective on my life, a new way to view my own tastes and interests.  And even if I didn't enjoy the meal, at least now I've learned that I don't like escargot. 

I haven't experienced everything the world has to offer, and I won't.  I haven't packed up on a whim and traveled to Morocco because I heard that they have amazing couscous, but if you have the lifestyle flexibility to do that, God bless you.  But when I see something that piques my interest or when a new opportunity comes my way, I give it a chance.  I explore, I test, then I decide whether I like it.  I don't look at something and say, "That's not the kind of thing that people like me do," or "I'm a [fill in the label], I'm not interested in that."  Because until I try, how do I know?

So, your mom was right when she forced you to try steamed artichokes even though you insisted that you hated them: "How do you know unless you've tasted it?"  Who cares if you're no good at sports?  If you watch a game, you might see the parallels between Tom Brady and  the Patriots' march down the field and Hannibal's march across the Alps.  So what if you haven't touched a book since you graduated from college?  Maybe joining that book club will show you how your struggles at work align the hero's journey and give you hope for a happy ending.  Or maybe you'll just meet someone cute while you're there.  The point is to try, to be open to learning, to be dissatisfied with what you know.  This is how we grow and make the world richer. 

Come, taste, and see.  You just might love it.

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