This morning, with my to-do list more or less done, I took a closer look at the signs I’ve been seeing all week. They’re for The 5th Annual Conference of Nitrification and Related Processes (link below). My natural curiosity, freed from the tyranny of my to-do list, inspired me to look into that a bit.
I found out that nitrification is “the biological oxidation of ammonia or ammonium to nitrite followed by the oxidation of the nitrite to nitrate” and that it is not to be confused with nitration (thank you, Wikipedia).
Upon checking the conference website, I was amused to see an improbably beautiful photo of the Belvedere (the Belvedere is beautiful but not THAT beautiful) with the disclaimer “Not the conference venue.” I was further interested to see that the program listed names and university affiliations, but I couldn’t find the titles of the presentations.
It’s nice to know that my curiosity can recover so quickly.
It’s a small thing, but as I was looking up into the tree to see what kind of bird was singing I thought, “This, too, is curiosity” and it’s a form I practice quite often.
This evening I went to a panel discussion on the EU called something like “What if Europe succeeded”. It was a fairly cerebral event, and if anyone in the audience felt the EU is a bad thing, they didn’t feel free to say it. So we were all in our bubbles with people who thought the same as we do. Plenty of opportunity to practice desire-to-learn curiosity. Less opportunity to practice interpersonal curiosity, trying genuinely to understand different points of view.
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.
I couldn’t resist telling that anti-curiosity joke yesterday, but then I started wondering why I connected it with curiosity, or rather an absence of curiosity. Quite quickly I realized that learning a new language, while perhaps not requiring curiosity, is greatly helped by curiosity, partly because when you learn a new language you are opening yourself up to a new world.
I may have underestimated the opportunities to practice curiosity at the wine-tasting last night. Of course, one can–and should–practice mindful curiosity in the tasting process, but I also had the opportunity to practice desire-to-learn curiosity very actively.
I and two colleagues were at a table for four and were joined by a someone we didn’t know. She turned out to be fascinating–a graphic designer who tries to work according to the 26 principles of biomimicry, in which people designing solutions turn to nature to be inspired. (She gave me an amazing example of a German company that has created glass that birds do not fly into and therefore do not break their necks on. It emulates spider webs which, it turns out, have an ultraviolet color that humans cannot see but birds can. After all, birds don’t fly through spider webs.) From there we got into a discussion of how cultural groups relate to nature (by dominating, living in harmony, or giving in to) and learned a lot from each other.
The wine was good, too. 😉
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?