Curiosity: Good Friend, Bad Master

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….

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24 Responses to “Curiosity: Good Friend, Bad Master”

  1. Stephen Says:

    I cannot express how odd I feel right now knowing that there is an individual that goes through the same curious stages that I do. Awesome post. I am in my DLSR curious phase now. I actually bought a Sony DSLR A200K. My curiosities are usually expensive. I try to stay away from having many at one time.

    I was led here from reddit.com

    S

  2. Michael Graham Richard Says:

    Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for leaving a comment! I sent you a email using the address you left with the comment. Hope that’s okay.

  3. T Says:

    Sounds familiar (also here from reddit). I’ve always suffered from an insatiable pursuit of knowledge of all stripes, and the advent of the internet did not improve my attention span. Amusingly enough, I also went through the photography stage – had a classic 35mm Vivitar, then bought a Canon 350D. After a couple months it was lent, more or less permanently, to my sister; by then I’d moved on to oil painting, Alan Moore, and disco punk.

    That was some time ago, though. I still let my curiosity lead me places, but not so many as before, and not so often. I’ve got a handle on my distractions now, and when I want it, my focus is razor sharp. Don’t think discipline comes without a price tag, though. The most effective way to focus on something is to eliminate all of your other choices, good or bad.

  4. Michael Graham Richard Says:

    Thank for sharing your thoughts, T.

    “Don’t think discipline comes without a price tag, though. The most effective way to focus on something is to eliminate all of your other choices, good or bad.”

    That’s what I’m afraid of. I know what I have to do, but the price scares me…

  5. Daniel E. Friedman Says:

    It sounds like your personality is such that you go ‘hot and cold’ when it comes to new adventures. I was thrilled to see how involved you got with classical music (my favorite genre). Hopefully, one day, your enthusiasm will return. Good luck.

  6. Michael Graham Richard Says:

    Thanks for commenting, Daniel.

    “I was thrilled to see how involved you got with classical music (my favorite genre). Hopefully, one day, your enthusiasm will return. Good luck.”

    It’s not really gone (I’m listening to some Schubert lieders sung by Fritz Wunderlich right now), it’s just not as obsessive as it can be during a phase.

    All the phases are cumulative, I rarely completely abandon something afterwards.

  7. Nutmeg Says:

    Sounds like the “obsessions” that people with Asperger Syndrome go through. Ever since I had kids, I haven’t been able to indulge my curiosity, or develop my discipline, for that matter. They take all my extra (and some non-extra) energy. I still manage to have 2 or 3 books in progress at any one time, though.

  8. Joseph Aguirre Says:

    I am the exact same way, great to see others learning like this as well. I definitely encounter problems with effectively using all of this information. Towards the beginning of the year I was learning everything I could about the structure of our government and economy. I began writing a blog, posting essays and news almost everyday. And then… something else caught my eye.

    I know that if I could stick to one of my many interests that I have the capacity to do something great or helpful with it. Yet, I don’t normally hang around long enough on an idea to do so. Wonder if you’ve found any good strategies for this? It’s difficult being at the whim of your interest, it’s either a magnetic attraction or total avoidance.

    Great piece.

  9. Joseph Aguirre Says:

    Ha, I just read this post and then stumbled upon this quote.

    “Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before. He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.”
    —Cat’s Cradle, 1963

  10. Michael Graham Richard Says:

    Vonnegut is always good for a quote.

    Though in my case, I’m not sure I would say it applies. I do think that I am getting wiser as I learn more, and I am using what I learn (I particularly enjoy making connections between different fields).

    The problem is, there seems to be limitations to how far curiosity alone can get you without discipline.

  11. Matt Haworth Says:

    Creepy, I have exactly 9 books stacked on my bedside table.

    I know exactly what you mean, it’s both a blessing and a curse.

    I too have a great interest in physics, but not maths, so have never broken the barrier between popular explanatory physics, and the more deep and useful mathematical physics.

    Being a self learner, and struggling to keep on with things you aren’t enthusiastic about is no bad thing. It keeps you involved in the things you love and stops you from falling into a career or project that you won’t draw anything from.

    I do sometimes envy those that have a lifetime interest in one narrow thing, like playing a specific instrument for example, and achieve astronomical success thanks to that dedication.

    That said, I suppose maintaining a wide array of interests is kind of a talent in it’s own right as well – it’s just not going to achieve you any fame. I think I can live with that.

  12. gx6wxwb Says:

    So its not just me then. I also go through these phases where I’m completely obsessed with everything I possibly can about a particular subject, then a few weeks to a couple of months later I burn out on it and move on to something else. Usually with nothing much to show at the end of it all except a bunch of books, notes, new knowledge and subscriptions to.. err.. The Economist, New Scientist and Sound on Sound (music production).

    I will generally keep cycling around the same kinds of subjects though (pretty similar to your list in fact), so I might burn out on economics for example, and then a year or two later come back to it via some other route (such as stock markets).

    Hmm.

    *picks up algebra book*

  13. Joseph Aguirre Says:

    Do you ever let that cross over into your personal relationships? I’ve done well not to but I feel I have to watch out for it.

    Michael, I agree that the Vonnegut thing doesn’t necessarily apply to us. I see it more as a warning against aimless research. Luckily for us if it got to that point we’d probably just move on. Maybe that’s the problem with people who are so singularly focused. They become so wrapped up in that one thing (i play guitar, i study science) that it becomes their identity. I feel much more free flowing than I imagine those types to be, but like someone said earlier, I do envy the consistent dedication to one topic.

    Being a musician I find that I have to switch how I approach it. Guitar for a week, then piano, lyrics, voice, composition. Music and writing are maybe two out of 4 things in my life I’ve always been interested in.

    Now that I read your title again I like it more, curiosity is a good friend to listen to and take suggestions from but we can’t let it control us, like your reading on south east asian markets. Which also highlights our ability to not only become interested in a topic, but motivated to learn and understand the subject. Many people only see their interests on a surface level, like the rest of their life.

    Great article again, I think it’s incredibly important for people to analyze how and why they learn, not just what. When you discover the underlying organizational structure of your learning patterns you can develop effective strategies nurture them.

  14. A Comment On Isolation « My Little Piece of the Internet Says:

    […] we simply do not give our minds the opportunity to wander — and as professional blogger Michael Graham points out, even when given scant moments of free time, we instead seek out rapidly-passing […]

  15. Thomas Kang Says:

    Hi Michael,

    Great post. I should have known that there are many others in the world like me, though I rarely come across such people in the “real world.” I’m tying hard to make curiosity a friend rather than a master, but it’s not easy.

    BTW, do you have a Twitter account? It would be nice to follow your tweets.

  16. Ancient Wisdom is Actually Early Draft « Michael Graham Richard Says:

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  17. Stephanie Says:

    I was so glad to read your post! I have also (but more recently) found that anything and everything intrigues me – and I find myself spending countless hours tracking down more information on it. I’ve started a list of everything I want to learn more about…judging by the size of it, I need to live to be several hundred years old!

    It’s great to know other people have fleeting obsessions that leave them somewhat the wiser!

  18. Hal Ade Says:

    Hello Michael:

    I also live in Gatineau – the Aylmer sector.

    Right now, I’ve got 3 big things on my plate:

    1) attempting to organize an Eastern Canada branch of the New Energy Movement Canada, nows Headquartered in Vancouver BC

    2) participating in the organization of a Hull-Aylmer Electoral District Association (Riding Association) of the Canadian Action Party

    3) working with other Ottawa-Outaouais pipe organ enthusiasts to ensure the salvation or protection of Erskine Presbyterian Church’s Casavant organ. It’s a great-sounding instrument.

    Best regards,

    Hal Ade.

  19. Jepsert Says:

    I have exactly the same thing! But I’m not such an efficient learner: I’ve been obsessed by computer programming for some time now, but I can barely make a tuple in Python right now. 😛 Ah well, I’ll keep learning.
    Keep blogging, I love it!

  20. crazyasuka Says:

    The first and most obvious one is lack of discipline. I’m currently reading 6 to 9 books at the same time

    I know! I am currently reading 5 books at the same time. I’m a fast reader, but I have branched out so much that I’m going slow on the books and crazy over the internet. Right now I’m into evolutionary biology. I had a computer programming phase a few years ago. I had a photography phase last year… some people asked me “why the hell are you learning about that?”. Now YOU understand. 🙂

    I’ve wanted to learn a lot about physics but like you say, you need other kinds of knowledge first… I haven’t gotten around that yet.

    I also blame high school. No effort at all. No discipline. Jeez.

  21. physicsgirl Says:

    I definitely feel pulled in so many directions by my curiosity that it’s difficult to really fully satisfy myself with any of my (many) pursuits. Plus, I’m currently a physics major, so all the mathematics and mechanics involved does eat up a lot of time which otherwise would be spent exploring a variety of different fields.

    I also find that my intellectual curiosity spills over into my relationships; I get to know people very well rather quickly, because in many ways I approach their personal experiences and various perspectives/ideas the same way that I approach any other subject: with profound enthusiasm and curiosity. Unfortunately, this does cause a lot of problems, as does my more academically oriented curiosity. It’s definitely a challenge to balance all of those varied commitments.

  22. jocey Says:

    With all your intellectual adventures, have you come across information about various forms of ADD, particularly the kind that produces the type of creativity, passion for learning and serial hyper-focusing that you describe?

    If not, you may want to look up emerging journal research on ADD and learning differences (particularly studies using functional neuroimaging) and see if any of it rings true for you.

    There is a lot of quackery in this field and exaggerated claims, but also some excellent research at NIH, Stanford, etc. (Check out John Ratey.)

    Some of the following may be relevant (although I am just presenting simplistic and shallow descriptions of complex issues):

    • ADD should probably not stand for “Attention Deficit Disorder”. “Attention Consistency Difference” may be a better description, because almost all ADDers can pay attention at times, especially when they are interested in something, but have trouble with consistency, stability and trusting their minds to get into gear under pressure.

    • Someone with an ADD brain pattern has trouble prioritizing among all the available options due to neurotransmitter differences. They can over-signify many things at once and tag them as equally salient. An intense curiosity and hunger for knowledge on many topics can be the result.

    • When an ADDer becomes excited and highly interested in something, they can go into a state of deep focus and intense absorption. The blood flow to the frontal lobes is enhanced (one reason stimulants are helpful.) Without this intensity, some ADDers tend to remain in daydreamy (temporal-lobe) states and get used to learning by “osmosis”.

    • It is hard for an ADDer to force themselves to study something (or in fact, do any task) if they have no interest in it. If they hate cooking, for example, slicing bread can be as hard as writing a paper for some ADDers.

    • They often feel undisciplined and incompetent because they watch “regular” people around them being more consistent, efficient, and able to do normal daily tasks without being bored silly.

    • The creative ADDer can be interdisciplinary— they see endless connections and branches across topics and subtopics. Narrowing one’s interests down may be difficult, but they may be natural synthesizers and can flourish by creating thoughtful contextual models and conceptual frameworks. Critical thinking skills are key, because they can have great imaginations and need to avoid being seen as “flakey.”

    • For those with novelty-seeking ADHD, a genetically-based dopamine imbalance in the reward centers of the brain can drive them to risk-taking, gambling, speeding, etc.

    • ADDers who cannot get by in school with “little effort”, can have their self-direction and intrinsic motivation to learn seriously impaired by the deadening teaching methods used in high school. This happens to a lot of young ADDers who just can’t get their assignments done under pressure. They may grow up to see themselves as undisciplined slackers and irredeemably lazy.

    Note1: Asperger’s are usually intently focused on a more narrow range of interests (although people can have both ADD and Asperger’s, etc.)

    Note 2: I am writing this after working all night on a project, so it may be a bit incoherent. If you are interested, I can give you a list of resources and references for further exploration.

  23. herman Says:

    Interesting thoughts regarding ADD, which is what I suspect that I have (capable of intense focus but otherwise with head in the clouds, wide-ranging curiosity, difficulty performing mundane tasks).

    I find that when a new period of intense curiosity has developed, I have about 6 months before interest tails off. However, during this half-year stretch, I know that I will be able to focus on my new interest to the exclusion of almost everything else. For me, the key is realising this, not questioning it (ie. dismissing it as an unhealthy obsession) and exploiting it – huge amounts of progress can be made if working on something for 14 hrs a day.

  24. C Says:

    Reading this article and the “see also” articles were very refreshing. I find myself aimlessly switching between my books, websites, blogs and scientific/scholarly journals with no real purpose or direction. I try to save and catalog everything because I can’t handle not being able to remember a essay or website or paper. Lately I realized I’m becoming obsessive and a little schizo without a goal. I have bought so many new books that I will never have time to read and I usually am half way through a book when I’ve already found a new interest/subject. There is never enough time. It would be nice to have an assitant like the wealthy to take care of day to day mundane personal responsibilities.

    It’s very challenging to allocate my time wisely and strategically. I often catch myself on political blogs, current events websites or popular general science instead of the more meaty specific subjects I need. I need a plan or system in place.

    I love the line “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.” And I thought I was an educated person after college. The last few years have been exciting for me finding new areas of study, however I don’t think there will be much more novelty for me academic wise. I think I have saturated the information/knowledge market at least in terms of my interests. I cannot see myself falling in love with some new subject I have never been exposed to. I miss the novelty–at least I have found my main broad 4 or five subjects I love. I guess I will just need to dig a little deeper in each of them. Perhaps its specialization time. It’s just not as exciting as when I first started diving into, but still enjoyable.

    Also, I thought I would let you all know I recently read our personality style is about 11-15% of the population. The four color personality test through the PACE organization. I did it through my employer.

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