How to Be Curious for Yourself
Curiosity is the key to mindfulness and optimal experience
I am Kenta. I share my learnings on improving the quality of experience through this newsletter.
How one gets into a flow state? What kind of person does great work? Cultivating and following curiosity is the key to enrich the quality of experience and to overcome any challenges.
Curiosity and Doing Great Work
“If I had to put the recipe for genius into one sentence, that might be it: to have a disinterested obsession with something that matters.”
He talks about how some people are obsessed with old bus tickets, and there are others like the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan who "sitting by the hour working out on his slate what happens to series."
But he also argues that the difference between Ramanujan and those bus ticker collectors is that series matter while collecting bus tickets doesn’t.
Ramanujan was so curious about mathematics that any challenges couldn't stop his endeavor. He experienced various adversities like poverty, illness, and approaching death, but not only didn't they take his mind away from mathematics, they just made his creativity stronger. Even on his deathbed, the beauty of the equations never stopped feeding his curiosity.
In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi illustrates why even those difficulties make people with a disinterested obsession stronger.
“Why are some people weakened by stress, while others gain strength from it? Basically the answer is simple: those who know how to transform a hopeless situation into a new flow activity that can be controlled will be able to enjoy themselves, and emerge stronger from the ordeal.”
Curiosity, which is an internal force, transcends those adversities.
Side Note: When Even Bus Tickets Matter
I would argue that the bus ticket collectors would also be able to overcome those types of difficulties if equipped with the same level of curiosity that Ramanujan had.
The formula for success so far in human history has been if you happen to be interested in things that produce tangible benefits.
However, the word 'matter' is subjective. Because math or science happen to have been (and will be) what matters for humanity as a whole, society compensated many scientists with money or fame.
But, the internet and passion economy are turning things that don't matter into things that matter (at least to some people).
The recent technologies remove intermediaries between people and enable 'ordinary' people to monetize their interests through various platforms like YouTube, Instagram, or Substack.
There are probably many individuals who are obsessed with bus tickets in different parts of the world. And it's possible for any of them to be a 'creator' and generate values for the community.
How Curiosity Gives Birth to Flow Experience
Back to the topic of curiosity.
Curiosity, a strong desire to know or learn something, channels attention outwards rather than inwards.
"People who know how to transform stress into enjoyable challenge spend very little time thinking about themselves. They are not expending all their energy trying to satisfy what they believe to be their needs, or worrying about socially conditioned desires. Instead their attention is alert, constantly processing information from their surroundings.
Achieving this unity with one's surroundings is not only an important component of enjoyable flow experiences but is also a central mechanism by which adversity is conquered.
In the first place, when attention is focused away from the self, frustrations of one's desires have less of a chance to disrupt consciousness. To experience psychic entropy one must concentrate on the internal disorder; but by paying attention to what is happening around oneself instead, the destructive effects of stress are lessened.
Second, the person whose attention is immersed in the environment becomes part of it—she participates in the system by linking herself to it through psychic energy. This, in turn, makes it possible for her to understand the properties of the system, so that she can find a better way to adapt to a problematic situation."
That's how artists do original work - by being curious and observant of their surroundings. A curious mind creates curious ideas.
This ability to observe and think about the system with curiosity that originates from within the self also helps one develop what Graham calls independent-mindedness in his latest essay, How to Think for Yourself.
You need it to do original work. And it has three components: fastidiousness about truth, resistance to being told what to think, and curiosity. And he says they work together, interchangeably.
“The three components of independent-mindedness work in concert: fastidiousness about truth and resistance to being told what to think leave space in your brain, and curiosity finds new ideas to fill it.”
He also argues that the components can substitute for one another.
For example, sufficiently being fastidious about truth means creating space in your brain for new knowledge to be easily acquired by curiosity.
The opposite can happen as well:
"[I]f you're sufficiently curious, you don't need to clear space in your brain, because the new ideas you discover will push out the conventional ones you acquired by default."
By devoting all attention to its environment, one succeeds in developing fastidiousness about truth - the ability to see reality as it is.
Curiosity, because it comes from within, also cultivates the ability to think for yourself rather than adapting thoughts from outside.
Because of this relationship between curiosity and independent-mindedness, the independent-minded are in flow more often.
And it might be easier to start with exploring curiosity rather than developing fastidiousness about truth or resistance to being told what to think in order to be more independent-minded.
"Curiosity seems to be more individual than fastidiousness about truth or resistance to being told what to think. To the degree people have the latter two, they're usually pretty general, whereas different people can be curious about very different things. So perhaps curiosity is the compass here."
While it seems harder to suddenly change the general qualities as a person, the discovery of new interests (sometimes unexpectedly) happens throughout our lives.
So there seem to be more opportunities to cultivate curiosity than to nurture the general qualities as a person.
Graham mentions two ways to foster curiosity: go wider or go deeper.
One way is to find different things that interest you. Try and experiment with various things, maybe even the things that don't initially capture your attention. To some extent, you can tell if you like the topic or not once you have a taste of something.
And another way is to "indulge it, by investigating things you're interested in... Indulging it tends to increase rather than to sate it. Questions lead to more questions."
You can cultivate curiosity by exploring what you could be curious about, but you can also start by taking in one of the general features of a curious person: always paying attention to your environment. This way, you're more likely to notice the subtle things that might intrigue you in your daily life.
I have been consciously trying to be more mindful on any occasion, and It's surprising how much of my attention tends to go inwards automatically when the whole world is in front of me.
Thanks for being curious.
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