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In a world where uncertainty is the norm, “being curious” is one of the ways to hedge volatility in our professional and personal life. By developing and maintaining a state of curiosity in whatever we do, we have a good chance of leading a productive life. The author of this book, Ian Leslie, is a journalist and it should not come as a surprise that this book’s content is essentially “annotating a set of articles and books on curiosity”. The book is a little longer than a blog post / newspaper article and falls short of a well researched book.

We all kind of intuitively know that real learning comes from being curious. Does one need to read a book to know about it? Not really, if you understand that curiosity is vulnerable to benign neglect, if you truly understand what feeds curiosity and what starves it. Unless we are consciously aware of it, our mind might take us in a direction where we are comfortable with the status quo. The more we can identify the factors that keep us in a “curious state”, the better we are, at being in one, or at least in making an effort to get in to that state. This book give visuals/metaphors/examples that gives us some idea of what “others” have talked / written / experienced about curiosity.

Firstly a few terms about curiosity itself. Broadly there are two kinds of curiosities, First is the diversive curiosity , a restless desire for new and next. The other kind is epistemic curiosity, a more disciplined and effortful inquiry, “keep traveling even when the road is bumpy” kind of curiosity. The Googles/wikis/MOOCs of the world whet our diversive curiosity. But that alone is not enough. From time to time, we need to get down and immerse ourselves to get a deeper understanding of stuff around us. If we are forever in the state of diversive curiosity, our capacity for the slow, difficult and frustrating process of gathering knowledge i.e. epistemic curiosity, may be deteriorating.

The author uses Isaiah Berlin’s metaphor of Hedgehog vs. Fox and says that we must be “Foxhogs”. Foxhogs combine the traits of a hedgehog (who has a substantial expertise in something) and a fox ( who is aware of things happening in a ton of other areas). Curious learners go deep and they go wide. Here is a nice visual that captures the traits of a “Foxhog”

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Typically they say a startup with 2 or three founders is ideal. I guess the reason might be that atleast the team as a whole, satisfies “foxhog” criterion. Wozniak was a hedgehox and Steve Jobs was a fox, their combination catapulted Apple from a garage startup to what it is today. Alexander Arguelles (I can speak 50 languages) is another foxhog. Charles Darwin, Charlie Munger, Nate Silver are all “foxhogs” who have developed T shaped skillsets.

Tracing the history of curiosity, the author says that, irrespective of the time period you analyze, there has always been a debate between Diversive vs. Epistemic curiosity. In today’s digital world too, with the onslaught of social media and ever increasing attention seeking tools, how does one draw a line between Diversive and Epistemic curiosity appetites? One of the consequences of “knowledge available at a mouse click” is that it robs you of the “desirable difficulty” that is essential for learning. “Slow to learn and slow to forget” is becoming difficult as Internet provides you instant solutions making our learning in to, “easy to learn and easy to forget” activity. Google gives answers to anything that  you question but it won’t tell you what questions to ask. Widening information access does not mean curiosity levels have increased. Ratchet effect is an example of this phenomenon.

Via Omniscience bias:

James Evans, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, assembled a database of 34 million scholarly articles published between 1945 and 2005. He analysed the citations included in the articles to see if patterns of research have changed as journals shifted from print to online. His working assumption was that he would find a more diverse set of citations, as scholars used the web to broaden the scope of their research. Instead, he found that as journals moved online, scholars actually cited fewer articles than they had before. A broadening of available information had led to “a narrowing of science and scholarship”. Explaining his finding, Evans noted that Google has a ratchet effect, making popular articles even more popular, thus quickly establishing and reinforcing a consensus about what’s important and what isn’t. Furthermore, the efficiency of hyperlinks means researchers bypass many of the “marginally related articles” print researchers would routinely stumble upon as they flipped the pages of a printed journal or book. Online research is faster and more predictable than library research, but precisely because of this it can have the effect of shrinking the scope of investigation.

The book makes a strong argument against the ideas propagated by people like Ken Robinson, Sugata Mitra, who claim that knowledge is obsolete, self-directed learning is the only way to educate a child, banishing memorizing stuff from syllabus is important etc. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a series of thinkers and educators founded “progressive” schools, the core principle of which was the teachers must not get in the way of the child’s innate love of discovery. Are these observations based on evidence? The author cites a lot of empirical research findings and dispels each of the following myths:

  • Myth 1 : Children don’t need teachers to instruct them
  • Myth2 : Fact kills creativity
  • Myth3 : Schools should teach thinking skills instead of knowledge

The last past of the chapter gives a few suggestions to the readers that enable them to be in a “curious state”. Most of them are very obvious but I guess the anecdotes and stories that go along with the suggestions helps one to be more cognizant about them. Here are two of the examples from one of the sections :

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International Boring Conference

The Boring Conference is a one-day celebration of the mundane, the ordinary, the obvious and the overlooked – subjects often considered trivial and pointless, but when examined more closely reveal themselves to be deeply fascinating. How often do we pause and look at mundane stuff ?

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Georges Perec(Question your tea-spoons)

Perec urges the reader to pay attention not only to the extraordinary but to — as he terms it— the infraordinary, or what happens when nothing happens. We must learn to pay attention to “the daily,” “the habitual”: What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us. We live, true, we breathe, true; we walk, we open doors, we go down staircases, we sit at a table in order to eat, we lie down on a bed to go to sleep. How? Where? When? Why? Describe your street. Describe another street. Compare.Make an inventory of your pockets, of your bag. Ask yourself about the provenance, the use, what will become of each of the objects you take out. Question your tea-spoons.

The book ends with a quote by T.H.White

“The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

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