Category Archives: an example to us all

Day 210 – Learning to enjoy being stuck

Andrew Wiles is the Cambridge mathematician who gained international recognition for solving Fermat’s Last Theorem, a proof that took him seven years but which, until he solved it, had remained unsolved for 356. Years ago I saw an interview with him, which I sadly have never found again, in which he described what it was like to see the light after devoting every free moment to the proof for those seven years. He started to cry and then, being a very proper English academic, apologized for crying.

Here is what he said about doing mathematics at a high level: “What you have to handle is … accepting the state of being stuck … it’s part of the process, and you have to accept, you have to learn to enjoy that process. Yes, you don’t understand, but you have faith that you will understand and that you have to go through this. It’s like anything. It’s like training in sport. You want to run fast, you have to train.”

That willingness to stay with something even when you are stuck takes an awful lot of curiosity, if you ask me!

That quotation is from a presentation he made at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum:




Day 176 – The five senses exercise revisited

It seems a good time to revisit this exercise, perhaps because I’m going through one of those phases where I’m eating almost entirely tried and true food. Also, I’ve simply always been fond of this memory.

When I was 10, my family bought some land in Vermont from a couple whose family had farmed it for generations. They became good friends and treated us wonderfully as the years went by, but even at the age of 10 I sensed some initial uneasiness on their part.

Early on, on one of the walks around the property, before the deal was done, the farmer pulled out a root for us to taste. My brother tasted it, spat it out, and yelled, “Yuck!” (Curiosity test failed.) Forewarned, I tasted it, ready to be very cool, but the unimaginably bitter taste made me, too, spit it out and yell, “Yuck!” (Curiosity test failed.) My mother, who at the end of WWII was living largely on berries, mushrooms and other things they could find in the woods, tasted it, chewed it, did actually swallow it, although I wouldn’t consider this essential, and said with great calm, “Yes, we ate something like this during the war.” (A+ on the curiosity test.)

If you’re not sure what this has to do with curiosity, you might like to take a look at Day 003.

Day 172 – Curiosity and gratitude (2)

I have found it, the exercise (actually a poem) that traces an everyday thing back to its roots in order to give gratitude for each element. It is from that wonderful site I have mentioned several times already–

Seemed like a good post for a Sunday …

Day 119 – Wikipedia rabbit holes

I have just heard the expression “Wikipedia rabbit hole” for the first time, listening to a TED talk on the value of curiosity (more about the talk itself tomorrow). It described perfectly the conversation I had on Christmas Day with a friend’s partner, one of my most faithful readers and a very curious person who often—now I know the technical term—goes down a Wikipedia rabbit hole. He had just read my post about the CD I was given and immediately shared what he had learned about bassoons and their forerunners. He started by looking up what “bassoon” is in German, his native language. It went from there and ended up with some very funny looking, almost bulky forerunners like the rackett.

One benefit? Even if you never need the information it can be incredibly refreshing to go on just such a trip (when you have time to do so). And, with luck, you may be able to amaze your friends and relatives with what you know (and discover a new Scrabble word ;-)).


Day 113 – Not my success

I’ve mentioned before that my dog is an excellent example of curiosity lived. We are no longer in the country where he can plunge into every bush, but here in the city he examines every shop doorway with great curiosity. I understand when it is a shop we go to regularly, like the newsagent’s (where he also gets treats), but in the meantime it is almost every shop. An example to us all … 😉

Day 096 – Curiosity and work (2)

To start the work week I’d like to remind myself of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (apparently pronounced something like MEhile ChickSENTmehigh) dubbed “flow”. This is a state we can recognize by our complete absorption in an activity, where we are neither sunk in boredom nor ripped out of our concentration by anxiety. Flow is what we experience at those wonderful times when we lose track of time because we are so focused on and engaged in what we are doing, when we “come to” later with a sense of accomplishment and pleasure. (Just an aside–I often feel a sense of flow when I work on this blog. Otherwise, my posts would be much shorter, if they existed at all. ;-))

Csikszentmihalyi started his research decades ago by studying “experts” (the quotation marks are his) like artists, athletes, musicians, chess masters and surgeons and then got interested in how universal the experience of flow is. When I think about curiosity and how it can make work ultimately more pleasurable and satisfying, I think of Joe Kramer as described in Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow. Joe was a welder in a plant that assembled railroad cars. His work conditions were really hard–sometimes overwhelmingly hot, sometimes overwhelmingly cold, and always very, very loud. One interesting thing about Joe is that he chose to be a welder and go on being a welder. He was offered promotions but never wanted to move up. What he had done, instead of moving up, was to broaden his experience. Csikszentmihalyi tells us “He had apparently mastered every phase of the plant’s operation, and he was now able to take anyone’s place if the necessity arose. Moreover, he could fix any broken down piece of machinery, ranging from huge industrial cranes to tiny electronic monitors.” It’s easy to believe Csikszentmihalyi when he writes that “The manager stated that if he had five more people like Joe, his plant would be the most efficient in the business.”

How and why did Joe become this most valuable worker? When asked, he explained that he had always been fascinated by machinery. It was this fascination that motivated him to explore and discover. The side effect–and this is a crucial part about flow, it is always a side effect of devoting oneself to an enterprise–was that he enjoyed his work. By the way, Csikszentmihalyi makes a point of saying that Joe was not a workaholic. He had (perhaps still has) interests outside of work, particularly an intricate rock garden he built in his initially modest back yard.

Csikszentmihalyi tells us that Joe has an autotelic personality. That means Joe can “create flow experiences even in the most barren environment”. Lucky Joe! Most of the rest of us have to work at it. But as I go into my work week, I want to remember that work offers me many opportunities for flow and I hope to make the most of some of those.

In case you’re interested in more, I have already touched on some of these themes herehere, and here.

Day 095 – A (fictional) example of interpersonal curiosity

My favorite Jane Austen novel, if, indeed, it is possible to have a favorite, is Persuasion. There are a number of passages that speak to me. Here is one, where Anne Elliott visits her home, which is rented out to an Admiral Croft and his wife. Admiral Croft says to Anne:

“‘Well, [come] whenever it suits you. You can slip in from the shrubbery at any time. And there you will find we keep our umbrellas, hanging up by that door. A good place, is it not? But’ (checking himself) ‘you will not think it a good place, for yours were always kept in the butler’s room. Ay, so it always is, I believe. One man’s ways may be as good as another’s, but we all like our own best.'”

Perhaps this isn’t interpersonal curiosity exactly. The Admiral doesn’t ask Anne or try to understand why the Elliotts kept the umbrellas in the butler’s room, but I love his good-hearted openness–and his perspicacity that we do all indeed like our own ways best, which can make being curious difficult sometimes.