Dealing with Curiosity-Stoppers

Introduction

Cu­ri­os­ity is a virtue. It pro­motes epistemic hon­esty, ig­nites cre­ativity, and im­proves both com­pe­tence and well-be­ing. Mul­ti­ple posts already dis­cussed differ­ent types of cu­ri­os­ity the con­trast be­tween sig­nal­ling cu­ri­os­ity and be­ing cu­ri­ous, the sci­en­tific ev­i­dence be­hind cu­ri­os­ity, why cu­ri­os­ity seemed to leave chil­dren, even the limits of cu­ri­os­ity.

Yet my own is­sues with cu­ri­os­ity come not with gen­er­at­ing it but with keep­ing it. Every­day, a myr­iad of sub­jects and pieces of con­tent spark the flame of cu­ri­os­ity in me; also ev­ery­day, re­cur­ring thoughts dampen, or some­times blow out this flame. I thus need ways to ad­dress these thoughts more than tech­niques to be­come cu­ri­ous.

What I call cu­ri­os­ity-stop­pers—in­spired from but slightly differ­ent of this post from the Se­quences—brings a lot of nega­tive to my life. My difficul­ties to fo­cus on a spe­cific topic of study stems in part from cu­ri­os­ity-stop­pers in the way, which then make al­most any other topic seems more in­ter­est­ing by con­trast. When cu­ri­os­ity-stop­pers pro­lifer­ate, I can­not find any­thing I’m happy or in­ter­ested to do, and I feel com­pletely empty and drained. Even when these thoughts don’t over­power me, they con­sis­tently push me to post­pone read­ing, listen­ing, watch­ing or writ­ing con­tent I’m gen­uinely cu­ri­ous about and which might im­prove my life and my re­search.

I in­tend this post as an ex­plo­ra­tion of my own cu­ri­os­ity-stop­pers, as well as my per­sonal counter-mea­sures to each of them. In con­trast with this post, mine isn’t a sci­en­tific ex­am­i­na­tion of the ques­tion based on an ex­ten­sive liter­a­ture. I merely cat­a­log what I found grap­pling with my own is­sues with cu­ri­os­ity-stop­pers. Since I find it difficult to be­lieve I’m a one-of-a-kind spe­cial snowflake, I be­lieve oth­ers will share part of my ex­pe­rience. I hope nam­ing and ad­dress­ing this is­sue di­rectly will help them deal with it too.

Definitions

Let’s get down to ba­sics and define the main terms. First is “a dis­cov­ery”: a mo­ment where I dis­cover some new idea about the world —ev­ery time I un­der­stand some­thing new. This in­cludes learn­ing a new math­e­mat­i­cal defi­ni­tion or the­o­rem, un­der­stand­ing how a sys­tem works, or figur­ing out the mean­ing be­hind a text. But also dis­cov­er­ing what hap­pens next in the novel I’m read­ing, find­ing the right way to write a spe­cific scene in a short story, or learn­ing a small trick about how to prove math­e­mat­i­cal in­equal­ities. Note that con­trary to the usual mean­ing of dis­cov­ery, I don’t need to be the first in the world to find it. As the in­tro­duc­tion ex­plained, ev­ery­thing pos­i­tive and ex­cit­ing and pro­duc­tive in my life is fueled by dis­cov­er­ies (ex­cept maybe so­cial in­ter­ac­tions). When I dis­cover some­thing cool, an ir­re­press­ible wave of ex­cite­ment flushes over my body, mak­ing me grin and jump up and down, or even roll like a ma­niac on my bed some­times. Dis­cov­er­ies make me happy, and al­most all my ac­com­plish­ments in­cluded and re­sulted in such dis­cov­er­ies.

Cu­ri­os­ity is then the gut feel­ing that a spe­cific ac­tivity will yield one or more dis­cov­er­ies. The gut feel­ing part mat­ters, be­cause the mean­ing I’m grasp­ing for re­quires be­ing con­vinced emo­tion­ally that dis­cov­er­ies lie ahead. This cor­re­sponds to the ac­tive cu­ri­os­ity of this post Why is it that im­por­tant? When I’m cu­ri­ous, ex­tract­ing the dis­cov­er­ies push me to spend en­ergy and effort. Such trade­offs always feel worth it, if only be­cause dis­cov­er­ies en­er­gize me.

You now have all the pieces to get the mean­ing of cu­ri­os­ity-stop­per: a re­ac­tion pre­vent­ing cu­ri­os­ity for a spe­cific thing, be it a whole field or a con­crete ob­ject like an ar­ti­cle, a book, a video. Cu­ri­os­ity-stop­per don’t nec­es­sar­ily hin­der the purely in­tel­lec­tual cu­ri­os­ity—“Oh, this looks cool” -- but the gut feel­ing cu­ri­os­ity. If I find some­thing ab­stractly in­ter­est­ing but can­not con­vince my­self that it will ac­tu­ally yield dis­cov­er­ies, then I’m in the throw of a cu­ri­os­ity-stop­per. This dis­con­nect be­tween my gut feel­ing and what I want is why cu­ri­os­ity-stop­pers are my bane, and why the rest of this post ad­dress how I deal with them.

But just be­fore that, I can now ex­plain the link be­tween my defi­ni­tion and Yud­kowsky’s in Science as Cu­ri­os­ity-Stop­per In this post, Yud­kowsky ex­plains how the word “Science” act as a cu­ri­os­ity-stop­per for some peo­ple: when some­one in­vokes it as an ex­pla­na­tion, no need is left to un­der­stand how the thing works—some­one else already knows. What Yud­kowsky ar­gues against is the feel­ing that some­one already know­ing some­thing de­val­u­ates it. This is not what I’m talk­ing about. I might have used “Science” as a cu­ri­os­ity-stop­per in this sense, but only to ex­cuse my lack of in­ter­est. Whereas my own use of cu­ri­os­ity-stop­per as­sumes that I care about the sub­ject, but for some rea­son (the cu­ri­os­ity-stop­per), I fail to con­vince my­self that dis­cov­er­ies lie ahead.

Cu­ri­os­ity-Stoppers

The fol­low­ing cu­ri­os­ity-stop­pers plague me reg­u­larly. I at­tempt to de­scribe them as ex­plic­itly as pos­si­ble, so you can spot them in your own ex­pe­rience. When I can, I give a con­crete ex­am­ple. I also pro­pose my counter-mea­sure for this spe­cific cu­ri­os­ity-stop­per.

A note be­fore we start: In real-life situ­a­tions, mul­ti­ple cu­ri­os­ity-stop­pers usu­ally band to­gether. Which means that one needs to dis­en­tan­gle them be­fore ap­ply­ing the anal­y­sis and the counter-mea­sures.

Fatigue

My most com­mon cu­ri­os­ity-stop­pers is the ex­cuse of tired­ness. Again and again, when I want to read a blog post, study a topic, write, I feel in re­sponse this sense of ex­haus­tion. Rephras­ing it through dis­cov­er­ies, I feel that I’m not in the right state to find the dis­cov­er­ies in the topic, and thus my cu­ri­os­ity falters. Yet most of the times the ac­tivity it­self usu­ally en­er­gize my­self, if I ac­tu­ally do it. I even tend to finish feel­ing more al­ive than when I started, thanks to all the dis­cov­er­ies along the way.

As a con­crete ex­am­ple, con­sider read­ing a blog post. It might be LW or AF posts, SSC or gw­ern, or any other cool post on the in­ter­net I’ve found. Read­ing such post doesn’t fall un­der my manda­tory daily habits (read 1 page of fic­tion, 1 page of non-fic­tion and 1 page of po­etry) and rarely crop up in my re­search work; it’s thus a thing I do on the side, when I have some time. But when I do find the time, I feel too tired to read some­thing com­plex. I push back to an­other time, when I’ll be less tired. Yet I’m rarely not tired in this sense, as this tired­ness of­ten comes more from a lack of dis­cov­er­ies than from my phys­i­cal state.

Here the strat­egy is ob­vi­ous: force my­self. More con­cretely, I have a TAP such that when I feel the ex­cuse of tired­ness, I need to push my­self to do the thing for at least 5 min­utes. By that point, I’ll usu­ally have en­coun­tered at least one small dis­cov­ery, and sure of my abil­ity to find more, my cu­ri­os­ity will be back. In the rare case where I can­not stand even 5 min­utes, I’m ei­ther ex­hausted or read­ing a very bor­ing thing. Both cases im­ply that I should stop.

Not Enough Time

Reg­u­larly, I’ll find my­self with a slot of 10, 15, 30 min­utes maybe, with­out obli­ga­tions. Th­ese in­ter­vals lend them­selves perfectly to read­ing a bit about a cool topic, toy­ing with a re­search ques­tion, or writ­ing a cou­ple para­graphs of fic­tion or non-fic­tion.

Ex­cept that more of­ten than not, I find my­self scrol­ling on my phone or roam­ing aim­lessly in my apart­ment. Tired­ness plays a role, as do other cu­ri­os­ity-stop­pers I’ll get into later; but the main offen­der seems to be an­other cu­ri­os­ity-stop­per: the thought that I don’t have enough time to ex­tract dis­cov­er­ies from the ac­tivity. I might tell my­self that the ac­tivity re­quires more than my in­ter­val to gen­er­ate dis­cov­ery. Or I might tell my­self that start­ing the ac­tivity with­out finish­ing it or with­out in­vest­ing a de­cent chunk of time will be detri­men­tal to ei­ther the quan­tity or qual­ity of dis­cov­er­ies.

Both of which don’t hold to scrutiny.

Writ­ing falls into the first kind of ra­tio­nal­iza­tion. For what­ever rea­son, I be­lieve I need a mas­sive chunk of time to get my brain into writ­ing gear. Which is definitely false, be­cause I’m writ­ing this spe­cific sec­tion in a 20 min­utes in­ter­val and I’m do­ing fine. This be­lief might stem from ad­vice against switch­ing tasks and con­texts too of­ten. But in this case, I’m not switch­ing con­text away from what I need to do, I’m just us­ing a chunk of un­claimed time as best as I can.

For the sec­ond kind of ra­tio­nal­iza­tion, my best ex­am­ple is read­ing. When read­ing some­thing, part of me think I should ei­ther read it all in one sit­ting (if it’s short enough), or at least reach the end of a nat­u­ral unit (like a chap­ter). Failing to do so would… lower the val­ues of the dis­cov­er­ies? As if most of this value came from the ex­pe­rience it­self, and thus this ex­pe­rience should hap­pen un­der the best cir­cum­stances. Yet the al­ter­na­tive to read­ing in short burst isn’t tak­ing hours to read, but read­ing rarely, if not at all. So even if there is a de­val­u­a­tion of dis­cov­er­ies (of which I’m un­con­vinced), read­ing that is still worth it.

The pre­scrip­tion for this cu­ri­os­ity-stop­per is the same one than for Fa­tigue: forc­ing my­self. When I push my­self and do it any­way, the fear of not hav­ing enough time morphs into an effort to ex­tract the best of what lit­tle time I have. That’s a bet­ter mind­set.

Already Know

When­ever I look into some topic I know even slightly, a lit­tle voice in­side my head tells me: “You already know what’s in there: no dis­cov­er­ies”. In my defense, I am good at ex­tract­ing the main ideas from a blog post, a story, a book. But deep un­der­stand­ing of a re­search pa­per re­quires more than get­ting the gist; deep un­der­stand­ing of a piece of writ­ing re­quires more than get­ting the emo­tions and ideas. And the worst part is that dis­cov­er­ies do lie in these de­tails. It’s just that my cu­ri­os­ity-stop­per gets in the way.

Maths is a perfect ex­am­ple. I’ve been try­ing to study Real Anal­y­sis for some time. Now, I already stud­ied Real Anal­y­sis quite deeply in what we call Classes Pré­para­toires in France, a two-year in­ten­sive sci­ence pro­gram with 12-hours of maths a week. But that was 6 years ago; and even at that time, I preferred Alge­bra to Anal­y­sis. So when I look into more ad­vanced stuff like Mea­sure The­ory, I end up hav­ing some trou­ble, even if a lot of the pre­req­ui­sites feel fa­mil­iar. I just need to brush up my Real Anal­y­sis, right? But ev­ery time I go grab my text­book (which I en­joy read­ing, by the way), I feel that it’s pointless. After all, I already know anal­y­sis, don’t I?

I do. Enough to feel that I know it, but not enough to ac­com­plish my ob­jec­tives. A dan­ger­ous spot. Danger­ous enough to war­rant a warn­ing in the twelve virtues of ra­tio­nal­ity:

If in your heart you be­lieve you already know, or if in your heart you do not wish to know, then your ques­tion­ing will be pur­pose­less and your skills with­out di­rec­tion.

My solu­tion re­quires slightly more work than the pre­vi­ous ones: ex­plain the topic to my­self. If I already know it, then I should be able to ex­plain it clearly and in de­tails. Try­ing to do this usu­ally re­veals ques­tions I don’t know, holes in my un­der­stand­ing and things I be­come cu­ri­ous about. Most of the times, I don’t be­rate my­self for my failings; in­stead I want to find out the miss­ing piece of my knowl­edge. I want to fill the holes I just re­vealed.

This idea comes from the Feyn­man method, which makes you ex­plain a topic to your­self to re­veal what you’re miss­ing to to re­ally mas­ter it. It works great for the origi­nal pur­pose, but I also find it use­ful to rekin­dle the flame of my cu­ri­os­ity.

Not Interesting

Some­times, ev­ery­thing in my life feels drab. Not only what I do and my prospects, but even what I read and watch. When that hap­pens, I’m usu­ally fal­ling for the cu­ri­os­ity stop­per “Not In­ter­est­ing”. It’s a mind­set thing, be­cause given the right spin, any topic can be re­ally in­ter­est­ing—i.e. gen­er­ate dis­cov­er­ies. But when this cu­ri­os­ity-stop­per rears its head, noth­ing looks worth­while.

Be­cause this one doesn’t need ex­am­ples, let’s get right to the solu­tion: re­mem­ber why I con­sid­ered it in­ter­est­ing in the first place. I main­tain a col­lec­tion of pieces that I want to read, videos I want to watch, and other kind of things I’m cu­ri­ous about. When I add some­thing to this col­lec­tion, it’s be­cause it ex­cited my cu­ri­os­ity in one way or the other; I sensed some cool dis­cov­ery along the way. So push­ing my­self to re­mem­ber this feel­ing, to re­call why I was ex­cited, usu­ally gives enough of a twist to my per­spec­tive to ac­tu­ally do the thing and en­joy it.

Not Useful

The nat­u­ral dual to “Not In­ter­est­ing” is “Not Use­ful”. I want to change the world for the bet­ter, and make some­thing out of my life; so I care deeply about how use­ful my ac­tions are. That’s usu­ally a good thing. But in some con­texts, this at­ti­tude be­comes a cu­ri­os­ity-stop­per. The is­sue and solu­tion differs de­pend­ing on whether I’m in a “use­ful phase” or in a “re­lax­ing phase”.

  • In a “use­ful phase”, I’m ac­tu­ally try­ing to do the most good with my time. Yet most of the times, ques­tion­ing the use­ful­ness of an ac­tion I chose be­fore­hand (like study­ing Real Anal­y­sis) usu­ally only serves to de­lay over and over this ac­tion, re­plac­ing it by the ex­cru­ci­at­ing re­flec­tion of whether it is re­ally use­ful or the most use­ful or high-pri­or­ity. Th­ese ques­tions have their pur­pose, but they must be asked when new in­for­ma­tion ap­pears, not at ev­ery task switch.

  • In a “re­lax­ing phase”, I just want to en­joy my time. Thus use­ful­ness is ir­rele­vant. If I’m look­ing for some­thing to read while I eat, read­ing any­thing that makes me cu­ri­ous should be enough.

Fol­low­ing this split, I have two dis­tinct strate­gies to deal with this spe­cific cu­ri­os­ity-stop­per: re­mem­ber why I found it use­ful and re­mem­ber I’m not try­ing to do some­thing use­ful at the mo­ment. Th­ese are pretty self-ex­plana­tory.

Fear of Pain

Lastly, some­times my cu­ri­os­ity-stop­per comes from the na­ture of what I’m about to ex­pe­rience. I don’t like fel­ling bad, or dis­tressed, or in pain. So when I see a post about dis­tress­ful things from the real world, or when I con­sider read­ing a sad or grim or plain hor­ror novel, or even when I’m try­ing to grap­ple with com­plex and difficult is­sues, I might back away. My cu­ri­os­ity, my need to un­der­stand, to dis­cover what it means, to ex­pe­rience it, is sub­dued by this fear of the nega­tive emo­tion.

Flee­ing from pub­lic de­bates which de­press me is a good ex­am­ple: I so rarely try to learn more about cli­mate change or racism, even when I am cu­ri­ous and rec­og­nize the im­por­tance to deal with it. But this loom­ing dis­tress, this risk of pain, makes me feel in my guts that there’s noth­ing in­ter­est­ing here, even though I dis­agree in­tel­lec­tu­ally. This is also a big cu­ri­os­ity-stop­per against epistemic hon­esty: not want­ing to learn that you’re wrong, be­cause it hurts.

My “solu­tions” to this feel less than satis­fac­tory: re­mem­ber that you don’t have to act on what you read, and re­mem­ber that nega­tive emo­tions un­der­lie many of the most im­por­tant part of hu­man ex­is­tence. The sec­ond one might be cliche, but it rings true to me, and that’s what it’s here for. The first one feels… cow­ardly. Of course I should act. Of course I should do what­ever I can to help those in need and fight in­jus­tices. But the truth is, with this mind set, I ei­ther don’t read any­thing on the sub­ject, or spend all of my time “fight­ing in­jus­tices di­rectly” by scream­ing on so­cial me­dia. I be­lieve (and it might be my cow­ardly ra­tio­nal­iza­tion) that I can bring more to the world by do­ing the work I’m do­ing right now. But I also be­lieve that I should not stay deaf to the Dark World. That’s my com­pro­mise.

Conclusion

In this post, I listed and ex­plained the cu­ri­os­ity-stop­pers in my life, and pro­posed my counter-mea­sures for each. Here is a sum­mary of this.

  • Fa­tigue

    • Cu­ri­os­ity-Stop­per: “I am too tired to do this.”

    • Solu­tion: Force my­self for 5 min­utes.

  • Not Enough Time

    • Cu­ri­os­ity-Stop­per: “I don’t have enough time to do this prop­erly.”

    • Solu­tion: Force my­self.

  • Already Know

    • Cu­ri­os­ity-Stop­per: “I already know the im­por­tant parts of this.”

    • Solu­tion: Ex­plain the topic to my­self.

  • Not In­ter­est­ing

    • Cu­ri­os­ity-Stop­per: “This is bor­ing.”

    • Solu­tion: Re­mem­ber why it ex­cited me.

  • Not Use­ful

    • Cu­ri­os­ity-Stop­per: “This is use­less”.

    • Solu­tion: Re­mem­ber why I found it use­ful or Re­mem­ber I’m not try­ing to do some­thing use­ful right now.

  • Fear of Pain

    • Cu­ri­os­ity-Stop­per: “This will hurt me.”

    • Solu­tion: Tell my­self I don’t have to act on it and Re­mem­ber that nega­tive emo­tions un­der­lie much of value.

Among the cu­ri­os­ity-stop­pers de­scribed above, not all im­pact me at the same scale. I would say that Fa­tigue, Not Enough Time and Not In­ter­est­ing are the most fre­quent. Already Know is definitely rarer, but it causes more prob­lems for my more se­ri­ous en­deav­ors like learn­ing maths.

I want to con­clude by tel­ling a lit­tle story. All my life, peo­ple have called me lazy. I tended to agree grudg­ingly, be­cause I cre­ated nei­ther in quan­tity nor in qual­ity. But that tag, “lazy”, never fit­ted with my con­stant efforts to find my pas­sion, to try new things and build stuff, to use each of my holi­days as free time to launch pro­jects. I know think cu­ri­os­ity-stop­pers are partly to blame for that dis­crep­ancy. Be­cause when my cu­ri­os­ity stops for a sub­ject, an­other takes its place. This re­sults in field hop­ping like a rab­bit on crack, and noth­ing to show at the end of the road.

Maybe your own frus­tra­tion with your learn­ing, your pro­duc­tivity, your failings to fol­low-up on what ex­cited you, maybe they also stem from cu­ri­os­ity-stop­pers. And maybe now you know The Enemy, and have a chance to fight back.

Thanks to Alexis Car­lier and Jérémy Per­ret for feed­back on this post.