Use curiosity

Re­lated to: Ra­tion­al­iza­tion, Med­i­ta­tion on cu­ri­os­ity, Origi­nal See­ing.

Why aren’t you learn­ing faster?

For me, one an­swer is: be­cause I’m not ask­ing ques­tions. I blun­der through con­ver­sa­tions try­ing to “do my job”, or to look good, or elab­o­rat­ing my own the­o­ries, or al­low­ing cached replies to come out of my mouth on au­topi­lot. I blun­der through read­ings, scan­ning my eyes over the words and let­ting thoughts strike me as they may. Rarely am I pul­led by a spe­cific de­sire to know.

And most of my learn­ing hap­pens at those rare times.

How about you? When you read, how of­ten do you chase some­thing? When you chat with your friends—are you cu­ri­ous about how they’re do­ing, why their mouth twitched as they said that, or why ex­actly they dis­agree with you about X? When you sit down to write, or to do re­search—are you ask­ing your­self spe­cific ques­tions, and then an­swer­ing them?

Are there cer­tain situ­a­tions in which you get most of your use­ful ideas—situ­a­tions you could put your­self in more of­ten?

Lately, when I no­tice that I’m not cu­ri­ous about any­thing, I’ve been try­ing to in­ter­rupt what­ever I’m do­ing. If I’m in a con­ver­sa­tion, and nei­ther I nor my in­ter­locu­tor is try­ing to figure some­thing out, I call a mini “halt, melt, and catch fire” (in­side my head, at least), and ask my­self what I want. Surely not stale con­ver­sa­tions. If I’m writ­ing, and I don’t like the sen­tence I just wrote—in­stead of reshuffling the words in the hopes that the new ver­sion will just hap­pen to be bet­ter, I ask my­self what I don’t like about it.

Thus, for the past six months, sev­eral times a day, I’ve in­ter­rupted my thoughts and put them back on an “ask ques­tions” track. (“Grrr, he said my ar­gu­ment was dishon­est… Wait, is he right? What should it look like if he is?”; “I no­tice I feel hope­less about this pa­per writ­ing. Maybe there’s some­thing I should do differ­ently?”) It’s helping. I’m build­ing the habit of in­ter­rupt­ing my­self when I’m “think­ing” with­out try­ing to find some­thing out, or tak­ing ac­tions that I ex­pect won’t ac­com­plish any­thing. As a hu­man, I’m prob­a­bly stuck run­ning on habits—but I can at least change *which* habits I run on.

When are you in the habit of ask­ing ques­tions? Would you learn more if you ha­bit­u­ally asked other ques­tions, too? Which ones?