On Curiosity

I tend to have a breadth of interests from which my hobbies spawn:  computer science, finance/economics, welding, construction, electronics, coins, cooking.  The common theme that ties them all together is that they rely on an understanding of how things are built or created.  I have a thirst for knowledge about how things work in the world around me — I love learning new stuff about how a product operates.  This curiosity is probably the biggest driver in the personal projects I take on, from repairing my own plumbing after a burst pipe, to building an ugly Christmas sweater that lights up and plays music.

The reason I feel these things are important, besides being interesting to me, is that it allows an individual to be much more self-reliant in a number of areas. Frequently, too, there is overlap or transferable skills between two subjects interest.  Sometimes this overlap leads to really great “mashups” where concepts from one subject area flow into or are applicable to another.  These sort of mashups are from where innovation often spawns.

What amazes me is how few people share that genuine curiosity about the world, or at least the drive to learn and discover more about it.  It is just amazing to me that, with the wealth of information we have at our finger tips, that there isn’t a concerted, individual effort towards expanding upon one’s base of knowledge.   Instead, I frequently encounter people who are actively committed to ignorance, when I either start talking about how something works or suggest they look it up.  Even when it comes to something as trivial as cooking (that thing we do to take raw food to a processed state for consumption, which originally expanded our food offerings in ancient man by allowing humans to eat previous unsafe foods, which then allowed our brains to grow due to a better diet), I know many people who are paralysed even with a recipe, because “I don’t know how to cook!”.  Well, have you ever tried looking up any of the techniques in a recipe?  Watched a YouTube video on knife skills?   Done anything at all to remedy that hole in one’s personal skill set?  The answer is usually no.

We focus very much on educational outcomes in this country, typically based off math and reading test scores.  Such a focus on metrics seems to have purged the educational system of a lot of that curiosity and drive for knowledge.  I don’t know what the solution is that will make people want to learn more — it is a matter of “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink.”, except we are now all horses surrounding an ever-expanding trough that is capable of intellectually hydrating every one of us.  Scarcity has effectively been removed from knowledge — we no longer rely on purely academics, or on physical books.  We can copy and send a wealth of information around the world in a number of keystrokes.

Yet, so many Americans are content watching sports, the next episode of “Married at First Sight”, the Kardashians or binge-watching House of Cards.  The irony being that a very large number of these same Americans aren’t content with their economic circumstance, yet with this wealth of information available to anyone with a smart phone or connection to the Internet, so few even attempt to engage in ad hoc learning on their own.  I imagine some of it is a fear of failure, but failure is requisite to success.  Without it, success cannot be defined.

With each failure (perhaps a meal that is edible, but you wouldn’t serve to guests) comes knowledge gained and lessons learned for the next time one engages in the activity at hand.  Over time, aggregate successes and failures are what makes up knowledge and expertise.  Mix two things with clashing flavors?  You just discovered a new way not to make a meal.  The next time you won’t repeat that combination.  Implement some piece of software inefficiently and performance ends up suffering?  You’ll be more performance-cognizant on the next app.

Comparatively, what does consuming huge amounts of purposeless TV get you?  Pop culture trivia facts, and small-talk points with other people who spend their time that way.  There is little innovation that can spawn from this sort of thing since it basically is regurgitation of content.

I guess it’s time I end this rant before I become an old man and start yelling at kids to get off my lawn.  In all seriousness though, I wish there were a better way to convey that personal success often hinges on personal hobbies and interests.  If you’re not pursuing something worthwhile that increases your wealth of applicable knowledge, then you’re stagnating;  it may not even be apparent that it is helping you towards some future goal, but in the aggregate it may assist you.   I’m not saying turn off the TV and pick up a book (it’s rare that I read actual books any more); I’m suggesting folks contemplate how spending their time and whether it has value.   I understand sometimes there is a need to relax and do mindless activities, but it shouldn’t be an everyday occurrence.

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