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December 19th, 2020
Around the world, there are so-called ‘science-museums’ or exploratoriums that are designed in such a way to evoke an excellent amalgam of wonder and problem solving. The most famous of these is likely the San-Fransisco Exploratorium. All such places are consciously designed to arouse curiosity. This the underrated superpower, often hibernating in each and every person. Curiosity is simultaneously the super fuel and the machine that can dig into subjects with great depth, speed and revelation. The likely reason why it’s underrated is because it’s a bit unpredictable, but what’s strange is how little discussion exists around optimizing for curiosity considering the tremendous ROI curiosity can create.
Human society has a very nervous relationship with the future: we are always trying to predict it, in order to gain advantage, but for a sense of comfort. Few things are better at producing anxiety than uncertainty - and for good reason: our brains are prediction machines. We are constantly trying to predict what will happen. The only reason we think the coffee mug will shatter when we let go of it and it falls to the ground is because we can form this prediction based on countless previous experience and testing with similar circumstances. There is the likelihood it may just stay where it is when released: we might find ourselves in a dream, or on the international space station.
This drive to predict has a double-edged byproduct: we seek to make things predictable. And much of society’s function is based on this. We form schedules not just to get things done, but also to create a predictable future. We need only wonder what percentage of the total scheduled tasks we have on deck as a species are actually productive. Chances are the percentage is depressingly low. But, it would certainly be understandable considering our anxious relationship with the future. As is often said: the best way to predict the future is to create it: problem is, many of us aren’t creating a very interesting future, individually, in groups large and small, - but hopefully as a species we’ve got the scale tipped in the direction of something lively.
Curiosity doesn’t fit into a schedule very well. Once we commit to the rabbit hole of some errant interest, there’s just no telling how long we’ll be gone. In this sense, a trip on a psychedelic drug is a bit more predictable than curiosity at full power.
This may be the root of our problem: many people have their greatest power in sleep mode because to power it up puts a person at odds with society. At least, this is the case for many people who have to adhere to a schedule in order to pay the bills, amongst other obligations. So many pursuits of curiosity are subdued or put off until a time like ‘retirement’. Frankly, the best reason to try and amass a great deal of wealth may simply be so that a person can finally be free to follow their curiosity.
Some people get a bit lucky: the timing, composition and direction of their curiosity is happily in sync with their culture and society, resulting in a career around their interest. Such people really are quite lucky, because to consciously pull this off is very difficult by dint of the fact that so few people make it happen.
In modern conversation, curiosity is forced to take a bit of a back seat. It’s a bit of a fluffy word, or at least it’s treated as such, but this is because it’s impossible to predict and more importantly: it’s requirements are enormous. Curiosity requires a lot of time, on it’s own schedule, and depending on which way curiosity veers, the raw materials can be expensive. And this is all without any guarantee of a return on investment. No wonder society treats it like an ignored mis-fit. Curiosity quite literally doesn’t fit into society’s structure.
Society is still quite fragile from the perspective of nurturing and benefiting from curiosity. If society was more robust and didn’t need to rely on the vast mechanical cooperation of so many people, then it would be possible for more people to follow their curiosity, and society would naturally benefit from the unexpected fruits of such exploration. That being said, many of the truly wondrous inventions that we use everyday and take for granted are evidence of a more robust society which can support such curiosity. Civilization has achieved a variety of upgrades through the millennia that have variously allowed for more time to explore. Indeed it seems Mother Nature herself has been doing this. Most animals spend the overwhelming majority of their time dealing with the topic of food: herbivores spend most of their waking hours eating and digesting and avoiding becoming food, and the rest are hunting and also avoiding the possibility of becoming food. The gravity cost relationship regarding energy as it’s transferred between species via consumption results, ultimately, in the fact that humans have a lot of time to watch Netflix, and maybe, follow some curious pursuit.
Returning to those exploratoriums that can be so fun to visit, notice how they revive our curiosity: the factor of time is already some what handled, considering we’ve taken the time to actually go to the place and spend some money to get in, and then the place is often as random and open ended as a forest, it seems there’s a puzzle and portal scattered everywhere, it is, simply: unpredictable where you might go and what you might find. Could there be a simpler description of curiosity than that Dr. Seussy sentence?
Perhaps the best way to optimize for a good life is to simply try and optimize for curiosity. But I have bills to pay, responsibilities, I have a job. All valid, and things that shouldn’t be ignored, but why not incorporate those things into the optimization of curiosity. Such pursuits are often siloed in the limp category of ‘hobbies’, but why can’t it simply be another avenue of curiosity to wonder: how can the hobby help solve for those constraints of money and responsibility? If a curious pursuit can replace the job, then that solves for the money problem and suddenly there’s enough time for the curiosity given the absence of the job. Aw, but there’s the rub. How is that sly switch accomplished?
One factor is trying to explore curious avenues before life piles on too many responsibilities and obligations. It’s likely society would be a happier, more fulfilled and more productive version if kids were encouraged to combine hard work and curiosity, and then naturally devote those freer years before the onslaught of obligation piles on to get a curiosity-optimized life up and running. For those already saddled with a structure of obligation, then it’s simply got to be a conscious effort to try and get curiosity to thrive in the small spaces that exist. With enough consistency and love, who knows what might grow out of that little daily block of time when we take the opportunity to nurture our greatest asset.