Curiosity and Asking Questions

I keep coming across people who encourage curiosity. The message is that if you want to do meaningful work, to end up in an interesting place, and to have an impact on the world, you should always be curious. Searching for answers, looking around to recognize what you don’t know, and constantly learning about more and more seems to be something that the most successful people do. Questions, the advice suggests, don’t lead to answers and ends, but rather to journeys and new pathways.

 

The idea of curiosity, questions, and learning as the path rather than the destination is echoed in Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit. He quotes Sam Keen by writing, “To be on a quest is nothing more or less than to become an asker of questions.” Questions drive our actions as we search for new answers and lessons. Questions take us to new places, both physically and mentally, and broaden our understanding of the complexity of the world.

 

This quote is comforting to me as someone who enjoys esoteric knowledge and learning. My family members frequently roll their eyes when I start a sentence with, “So I was listening to a podcast…” I love learning new things and connecting dots that are not obvious and that I had not previously considered. I have seen this journey in myself lead to a greater appreciation for people who see and think differently from myself. I have ventured into areas I thought I understood, only to be shown the nuances of decision-making and the challenges of truly understanding an area. Diving into topics that we all experience but don’t all know the background of has revealed biases and forces at work that are virtually imperceptible. Living a journey fueled by curiosity feels incredibly valuable, and is something I wish people would seek out more than we seek to win arguments.

Writing, Physics, Inspiration, and Life

One of Amanda Gefter’s favorite physicists was John Wheeler, and in her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Gefter quotes him numerous times and describes the impact that Wheeler had on her life. What made Wheeler different from other physicists, what entranced Gefter with his work, was his often poetic way of describing the universe and interpreting what the mathematics of the universe told us. In a world of complex physics, daunting mathematics, and mind bending conclusions, Wheeler’s voice cut through with simplicity and his poetic style was elegant yet clear and inviting.

 

One part of Gefter’s book describes a trip she took with her father to Philadelphia to look over Wheeler’s old notebooks after he passed away in 2008. At the American Philosophical Society, Gefter and her father poured over his old notebooks, studying his thoughts, the progression of his studies, and analyzing the conclusions he reached along the way. One of his annotations in a notebook was included in Gefter’s book, and I think it does an excellent job illuminating Wheeler’s poetic style and what it was that drew Gefter to his writing, speaking, and way of describing science.

 

“Still,” Gefter writes, “Wheeler was lost. ‘Not seeing a dramatic clear path ahead,’ he wrote. ‘Now have concluded just have to push in through the undergrowth. ‘Traveler, there are no paths. Paths are made by walking.’”

 

In his personal notebook, describing what appeared to be a dead end in his research, Wheeler turned to a phrase we have probably heard before, but probably not in our science classes. Wheeler was pushing the edge of scientific thought, and he had come to a point where he could no longer rely on the research of others to show him the path forward. The quote was used to describe propositions, yes/no or true/false statements about some reality. Wheeler, like Gefter years later, was searching for some truth to the universe that was not observer dependent, that did not need to change or adjust based on a observer’s position, speed, or quantum composition. Propositions seemed to be a place to start, but even there, the dreaded sentence, “this sentence is false” seemed to break even propositions and seemed to pull apart any basic form of reality.

 

Altogether this short section from Gefter, the lessons she shared about Wheeler, and the scientific challenge which served as the genesis for Wheeler’s note teach us a few things. Often times we want a dramatically clear choice in our life, but for each of us, the path has not been made. We must push through the undergrowth of life, creating our own  path as we go. We must abandon expectations of how things should be and how things ought to turn out for us, because there is no solid truth that we march toward. We are not pushing forward in the universe and in our lives to an inherently perfect and true destiny. The reality we find as we cut through the undergrowth is as observer dependent as gravity and time. How we choose to see it depends on our reference frame, and our reference frame is something we have some choice in. And while we are using that choice, we can be boring, stuffy, and self pitying, or we can be inventive, flourishing, and excited for the new discoveries that know will lie ahead of us.

Redirection

Author Colin Wright reflects a lot of stoic principles in his writings, and in his book, Come Back Frayed, he echoes thoughts about the importance of self-awareness and self-reflection. He writes,

 

“Some people who take the time to explore who they are and what they want — not the stories they’ve been telling about themselves, to themselves, because it’s convenient socially and suits the image they’re trying to portray, but who  they actually are and what they truly want — find that they return to their lives with a re-magnetized compass. The direction in which they’d long walked wasn’t their North after all. Perhaps they’ll need to do some backtracking, explore new territory, eschew the familiar path they’d become comfortable walking in favor of something unfamiliar. Something that takes them through sparsely lit, maybe even completely uncharted and uncarved wilderness.”

 

Self-reflection can be much deeper and much more involved than what we often imagine. Constant evaluation of our actions, thoughts, and desires is challenging, but ultimately more rewarding than simply moving from moment to moment reacting to the world around us. Wright’s quote shows that the type of reflection needed to truly understand our path and ourselves goes beyond simply stopping every now and then to briefly think about where we are and why we are doing something. The reflection he writes about is a deep and continual practice, baked into each moment of our life in a practiced awareness.

 

I recently listened to an episode of the Rationally Speaking Podcast where host Julia Galef interviewed Tim Urban about rational decision making. Urban described the problems we face focusing for the long term, and described the easily distractible part of our brain as our “instant gratification monkey”, to represent the idea that we constantly lose track of our focus by taking the easy rout and indulging our impulses. When Wright describes the importance of self reflection, he is in part explaining the importance of building a system of reflection that is not driven by our instant gratification monkey, but is instead driven by controlled mental processes. A practice of self reflection as described by Wright will help us learn more about who we are, and will also help us overcome the impulsive nature of our instant gratification monkey.

 

Ultimately, by continually focusing on who we are, who we are becoming, and what stories we tell ourselves and others, we can begin to ensure that our path and actions are in true alignment with the person we want to be. Focusing beyond ourselves and striving to become more aware of ourselves and how we interact with the world will help us find ways to better use our time, wrenching control back from our instant gratification monkey, and will help us navigate new waters on our journey.

Perfection

When we think about what we want, the solution to a problem, how the world should be organized, or what we expect for many other things, we often think in the world of perfection. I don’t really know whether striving for absolute perfection is a net positive or not, but there are definitely some negatives that we should consider about striving for perfection.  Author Ryan Holiday explores this idea in his book, The Obstacle is The Way. Specifically, Holiday looks at the path our lives take and asks whether we should be expect a perfect path to our version of success, or whether we should be happy with a path that turns and changes as we get from point A to point B. In regards to pragmatism and realism, Holiday writes, “you’re never going to find that kind of perfection. Instead, do the best with what you’ve got.”

 

Holiday’s quote reminds us that we must not always compare our lives to the imaginary perfect version of our lives that we see reflected in tv shows or other people’s Facebook feeds. We won’t always have all the answers, and we can never predict how our life will turn out, so rather than hold ourselves to some sort of ideal perfection, we should do our best to move forward, aware of the world around us and the opportunities we have to improve not just ourselves, but everyone. The key to accepting the reality of our lives and our journey is flexibility. Being able to adjust to changes and accept that some goals are going to be more realistic than others, or at least to accept that some pathways will be more realistic than others, will help us find more content and be more engaged on our journey.

 

I spend a lot of time thinking about politics, I have returned to school for a masters in public policy, and I think this idea is one that we need to put toward our politics. We all envision a world were politics are simple and the country works in a smooth and straight forward manner. The perfect idealism in our head however, is not exactly possible. In the United States we have 330+ million people, and assuming that our narrow and limited political idealism is going to fit for all 330 million is a naive mistake. I recently read John Rauch’s book, Political Realism, and he discusses the ways in which our perfect ideology stunts the action of the government, because it puts our elected officials in a place where they cannot act to compromise, because perfection is the only approved outcome in politics. Beginning to see that perfection is unrealistic, and that striving for it can be cataclysmic, will help us begin to advance and make changes in our politics, and in our lives.

Creating Value Along an Unpredictable Path

Colin Wright in his book Considerations shares a bit of excellent advice for those of us who are not 100% clear on our goals.  He states,

 

“Focusing on producing value in everything you do serves as consistency when all other options in the entire world are open to you. You can head in any direction, and pursue any future you want, and though you may pivot many times between ‘here’ and ‘there’, maintaining a focus on value will ensure that no wrong turn is wasted time, and no goal is so nebulous that it’s completely untethered.”

 

This quote really speaks to me because it highlights our unclear paths, gears us toward success with the understanding that we may not have immediate success or always make decisions which helps us reach the success we desire.  What Write focuses on is changing our mindset by focusing on ways in which we can produce value for the world and ourselves.

 

Often times I find myself frustrated because I am not sure exactly what path I want to take in life. Sometimes it seems as though I do not have a clear direction and goal in my career, and it is hard for me to envision success and a landing point for success.  What Wright’s quote shows is that we do not have to have a tangible goal if we are 100% focused on our own growth and providing value to the world. If we focus on value then our efforts will be meaningful and we will develop new connections, learn more about ourselves, and begin to see opportunities for us to develop our own spot in the universe.

 

The quote also shows that success does not have to be immediate for us. It has often been written and repeated that millennials are too entitled and that my generation does not expect to work for their goals, but rather that they expect to be handed a trophy and applauded without putting in years of effort and work. Wright’s quote is a bit of advice that can help combat the pressures and thoughts  that millennials have harbored to create the attitudes of entitlement and the expectations of quick success. Wright shows that we do not have to be successful immediately and he explains that our successes will truly only arise once we have created a habit of focusing on providing value to others. This value production will lead to real, tangible growth for the individuals, and it will prepare us for opportunities to become truly successful. It will not be overnight, but overtime all of our small victories and all of the value we send into the world will build up to create a platform of success for us.

Purpose

Colin Wright in his book Act Accordingly wrote a passage about the meaning of life and our purpose. What I liked about his approach to the question is that he brings purpose down to an almost day to day level to examine the goals we set and drive toward.  “There’s much ado about the ‘meaning of life’ which is silly, because that purpose — the pursuit of which is your meaning — changes day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute.” Wright continues on to acknowledge the biological meaning of life to pass our genes on to subsequent generations, but he stays focused on the goals we maintain for ourselves, and what we do each day that brings us closer to those goals.

 

In a very real sense our spirituality can be nicely defined by Wright’s ideas.  Many religions have goals associated with the end of life, and include steps for reaching those goals. The goals become a purpose for people to constantly move forward in a positive light, and can be a permanent fixture as life changes course.

 

Wright acknowledges is that our biological purpose for living does not seem to be strong enough to settle the intellectual question of what the meaning of life is, and that is why he focuses on identifying what is consequential to you at an individual level and worth pursing.  Building our self awareness can help us understand what it is that is important for us, and by maintaining that inner understanding we can focus on a destination and  purpose that guide us.  I would recommend that once we set out on this journey we read as much as possible to understand the best path to take toward our journey, but also so that we become more considerate and understand the value and importance of the goals of others.