As we approach the wire I am, to my surprise, still discovering new aspects of practicing curiosity. Today it was the realization that social norms can act as a powerful hindrance. I was walking past a house this afternoon and could hear the family talking and laughing in the garden behind the trees that protected their privacy. It sounded lively and like a great deal of fun. I would have loved to observe for a bit–my natural curiosity was piqued–but I realized that would make me something of a Peeping Tom and moved on with a bit of regret.
I saw this puzzle (link below) on Facebook and was curious 😉 enough the check it out. It is an image that looks as if it is nothing but rectangles and the viewer is asked to count the circles. I didn’t see how there could be circles but I decided to try. I focused my concentration on circles and all of a sudden, quite briefly, I saw them. It made me think about how we can see something if we really try, but we have to be open enough to trying to see beyond the obvious to succeed at that. It was fun.
Warning–a long and fairly theory-rich post!
I found myself thinking about my tendency to see things in black and white terms–good/bad, desirable/undesirable, right/wrong. The funny thing is that I have always been able to see many sides to an issue, but I have also always known which side I came down on. And ultimately I reject the other side.
At the same time, I encourage my students and workshop participants to try to see actions or cultural dimensions in terms of advantages and disadvantages and preferences and priorities rather than good and bad, right and wrong.
AN INTERCULTURAL EXAMPLE
Individualism (a cultural dimension)
A few advantages of individualism: personal freedom with all the associated advantages to that like living where you want to, studying what you want to, dressing the way you want to, and less responsibility to other people (like personally taking care of your aging parents).
A few disadvantages of individualism: a negative attitude to people who need support which can make it impossible for some people to reach a level where they can take care of themselves and their closest family members as well as an emphasis on doing everything yourself and taking care of yourself without help, which can lead to exhaustion, burnout, and failure.
Collectivism (another cultural dimension, the counterpart to individualism)
A few advantages of collectivism: community support for the individuals in the group–a belief in helping people up, a belief that you don’t have to be everything and do everything by yourself, and an acknowledgement of a person’s place in the group that does not end because the person’s usefulness is gone.
A few disadvantages of collectivism: a lack of freedom to determine your own life’s path, which means you may be expected to take over the family business whether or not you are interested in it, or to marry based on what fits with your family, or to contribute to community charities not necessarily based on your own personal interests.
When I talk about preferences and priorities I mean that groups (culture is always a group phenomenon) over the generations jointly build up a system of beliefs and values based on what works for the group. This system has at its core certain preferences and priorities. These preferences and priorities are handed on to new members through the process of socialization. Culture clash happens when these underlying preferences and priorities are not in agreement, like when my Austrian students–working from a collectivist standpoint in this situation–look at the fight against universal healthcare in the U.S.A.–in most things a strongly individualist culture–and simply cannot comprehend why anyone would not want to have something that in their eyes is so obviously humane and beneficial to everyone.
On a less theoretical, more fun note: I’ve been re-reading Alexander McCall Smith’s wonderful series set in Botswana, The Nr. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. The “traditional Botswana values” his heroine, Mma Ramotswe, keeps referring to are a beautiful example of collectivism, and the culture changes she sees–and disapproves of–are almost invariably individualistic.
THE POINT 😉
This morning it struck me that practicing this simple shift of seeing advantages and disadvantages rather than right and wrong is an exercise in curiosity and may open up a more constructive way of interacting with other people and with situations (part of my hypothesis, if you remember).
Although I’ve been doing this kind of analysis in the classroom for a number of years, I don’t do it very often in “real life”. In the context of writing this blog, I can imagine using it more often as a form of curiosity practice.
One final note: I’m not sure I would have reached this point if I hadn’t been writing this blog. This is the kind of progress that I hoped the daily commitment to writing about living curiously would help me make and I am very happy about this today.
If I had called this blog “A Year of Living Mindfully” I would have found it a lot easier to describe my progress and successes, but that isn’t the kind of curiosity I wanted to practice especially.
Similarly, my life would be easier if I had undertaken to practice just desire-to-learn curiosity. That one more or less takes care of itself.
But, no. When I think back I realize that what I most wanted to practice in this Year of Living Curiously was interpersonal curiosity and existential curiosity, the two I have the hardest time with.
First of all, interpersonal curiosity. I want to practice interpersonal curiosity, especially in the form of Inquiry–genuinely trying to understand how other people see the world. Partly this has simply become a challenge to me. I have tried so long to achieve this and have made so little progress. It is bringing out my cussedness. I also happen to see this kind of communication and interaction as essential to the future of the planet. The way I see it if we can’t learn to engage with openness and a desire to understand other ways and worldviews we will at some point simply self-destruct (not to put too fine a point on it).
Second of all, River or existential curiosity. This is for my own personal well-being. I’m aware that I create a great deal of stress for myself by trying to control things (like whether I am curious or not ;-)) rather than meeting life with anticipation and an openness to what comes.
At this point, I guess I have to say that thanks to the last 285 days at least I have worked out for myself that I see different kinds of curiosity. Now I can spend the the remaining 79 days concentrating on making at least a bit of progress on the two kinds of curiosity that I feel need work.
… to existential curiosity.
Originally I entitled this post “Giving up on … existential curiosity”. I had a moment where I didn’t see how I could build a business and live like a river flows at the same time. Then I remembered what someone else wrote and I re-posted about marketing effectively. If that isn’t a form of existential curiosity, what is?
Something good came out of my initial post, though. I have found a new kind of curiosity. (This will save the world for sure. ;-)) It’s a kind of existential curiosity lite–enjoy-the-journey curiosity–and I have already written about it several times, for example, here, here, and here. I wouldn’t mind improving that skill either.
I did learn something, even if I don’t feel I improved my live Inquiry skills.
Most importantly: Although focusing more specifically on Inquiry did not help me use the formal structure in conversations, it did help me recognize sooner when I was judging someone and shutting down, which enabled me to open up again to practice at least the mindset of Inquiry and curiosity. That is a better outcome, I think, than if I had perfected the structure of formal Inquiry but left out the mindset!
As almost an aside: I’ve started to think that although I love the Ladder of Inference it may not be the best teaching tool for the kinds of questions I’d like my students to ask when they disagree with others. On Day 231 I upended the structure and put the Data Selection step at the top. Seen as a Ladder that is perhaps not the image Chris Argyris, author of the model, wanted to convey. However, I might find it easier to work with and to teach the concepts if I represented it as an onion, where the speaker’s conclusion is the heart of the onion and the questions are designed to help us get through the layers to the core of someone’s worldview.
I need to think about this a bit.
I have to confess I was a little stuck today. I wasn’t sure what to write about so I went to YouTube and searched for “curiosity”. The first couple of pages were full of stuff about NASA and Mars. I didn’t really want to get into that today, so then I searched for “curiosity lecture” and came to “The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity” by Susan Engel, a psychology professor at Williams College. Since part of my work is teaching in the classroom (groups a bit older, though, than the kindergarteners and 5th graders she studied), I thought that would be useful and could be interesting.
Some points I took away from her 20-minute talk:
- Before they go to school, children ask between 25 and 50 questions per hour about how things work. Once they get to school, that number drops to about two per hour.
- In studying why this is, Engel and her assistants came to the conclusion that teachers feel so much pressure (presumably from the education system) to solve certain kinds of problems that they don’t feel they can allow children to deviate from the given task.
- In situations in the lab where teachers and pupils being studied were told to “Have fun learning about science” they were much more likely to go off track and explore, exhibiting more curiosity (and creating more chances for real discovery) than groups told to “Have fun filling out the worksheet”.
- Clearly, teachers’ behaviors matter to how much curiosity is lived in a classroom.
I believe that not only children, as Engel says, “… learn best when they’re trying to get the answer to their own question ….” I also learn better that way. In fact, as I have gotten older I have become far more resistant to learning what other people think I should, when they think I should. I want to follow my own topics in my own way. Sometimes, like schoolchildren, however, I do need to read up on something assigned. Recently, for example, I was expected to read up on a company, their history, organizational structure, and product lines, before running a workshop for them. Of course it makes perfect sense that I should know something about that if I’m working for them, but it was a real slog–slow and requiring a lot of discipline.
Question to be answered (maybe) later: Is there a way to develop curiosity intentionally about things we need to learn to make learning them more interesting (a balance of exploring and ending up where we should)? If there is, how could we develop or foster that?