I’m realizing more and more that my curiosity has gotten me interested in lots of things, and gotten me lots of places that few people go, but that I need something extra to get to the next level.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great I’ve got this drive to constantly learn new things, and I think I’m pretty efficient at it too. The way it works is, I go through learning phases where I’m very interested by something. It might last anywhere between 2 weeks and a few months, and during that time I usually consume large quantities of information on that thing (thank you, Internet!).
For example, during this winter I went through a photography phase. Over about a month, I went from almost no knowledge to a decent understanding of f/stops, focal lengths, bokeh, the technical specifications of various lenses and cameras, various techniques to take portraits, landscapes, indoor low-light photography, composition, telephoto, high-speed, and some software post-processing. I’ve read dozens of in-depth reviews and specification sheets. I don’t even own a camera yet, but I think I know as much, or more, than many people who own fancy DSLRs.
Another example: A couple of years ago I went through a classical music phase. I went from knowing absolutely nothing except for a few pieces used in Hollywood movies to owning a few hundreds of classical CDs, within about 6 months. I now am familiar with almost all major composers from the Baroque period up to the beginning of the modern post-romantic era. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovitch, Bruckner, Mahler, Berlioz, Liszt, Grieg, Mendelssohn, Stravinsky, Sibelius, Tveitt, Saint-Saens, Bartok, Holst, etc. Got various symphonies, chamber music, piano sonatas, operas, lieders, etc. Even have more than one interpretations of many pieces, because, for example, I like both the grandeur of Gardiner’s St-Matthew’s Passion (Bach) and McCreesh’s smaller choir and period instruments. During that phase, ArkivMusic.com was almost my home page and I devoured Hector Berlioz’s autobiography to learn more about the musical scene of that time. So in a few months, I learned more (on certain levels) about classical music than some baby-boomers I know who’ve been into it for 35+ years.
Since that phase has ended, I’ve been digesting all that music (it’s not something I could have done fully at the time) and acquiring more albums, though at a much slower pace. But still, nothing compares to the incredible productivity of that initial burst.
That’s just two learning phases I went through. Off the top of my head, I can think of many others that happened at various times in my life: Computer hardware, software, other musical genres (jazz, metal, klezmer, etc), literature (science fiction, etc), environment-related fields (climate science, energy infrastructure, transportation, food production, etc), biology (still slowly getting through a few textbooks), transhumanism-related fields (nanotech, biotech, A.I., longevity science, neuroscience, etc), economics, audio equipment, 20th century history, entrepreneurship/startups, astronomy, fighter planes (as a young boy), etc.
Each of these phases has enriched me, and I often get the feeling that if I could sit down and chat with who I was two years ago, I’d find that person relatively clueless. That’s good!
But – and that’s the whole point of this post – there are downsides to having curiosity as a master.
The first and most obvious one is lack of discipline. I’m currently reading 6 to 9 books at the same time (depends how you count) plus some periodicals. That’s not good. What often happens is a phase ends and I get a bit restless about the books I’m reading, so I start a few others on different topics (looking for a new phase?). That’s when things can bog down, because I’m still reading the same number of pages per day, but spread over more sources.
At these turning points, it can be very hard to stick to what I’ve already started. I start looking longingly at my piles of unread books or at my Amazon wishlist, and curiosity just leads me somewhere else.
Another aspect of the discipline problem is that it can be very hard to study things that I’m not directly curious about, or that are hard and don’t give pleasure as easily. An example of that would be that I want to learn about physics and cosmology, but to get there I need to go through mathematics. In high-school I took all of the advanced math classes, but I haven’t done any since.
So to get to physics, I would probably need to re-teach myself Algebra, and then move on to calculus (differential and integral), which I’ve never seen before. That’s a much bigger commitment than what I’m used to (my molecular biology textbook is already a big deal), and though I don’t doubt I would get pleasure out of that learning, it would also be harder than something that can be digested without much effort.
Another downside of having curiosity as a master is that it can easily lead you to spend time on things that aren’t that important. Reading The Economist and learning about what’s going on in South-America, South-East Asia and on the financial markets can be lots of fun, but if you don’t watch it, it’ll take away precious hours that could be better used learning more timeless things (I’m sure my biology textbook gets a bit teary every time I read news-y material).
So that’s my take on curiosity. Why you should cultivate it, but also be careful about it.
I don’t think my experience is universal. I’m sure there are many people out there who are driven in the same way but have developed iron discipline (I blame high-school – I could get decent grades without any efforts, so I never made any). I envy these people, but envy is pointless unless you create realistic goals and act. So I will work on my discipline. I’ve already started looking for Algebra textbooks….