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February 2011

Nurturing curiosity & inspiring the pursuit of discovery

Discovery_slide The courage to make mistakes is related in some measure to curiosity, exploration, and the ability to speak honestly about a topic and about ourselves. For it is fear of mistakes, of being wrong, and the possibility of ridicule that stops us from showing our natural curiosity. The openness to show your natural curiosity in front of others requires one to be vulnerable. In her book The Gift of Imperfection, Dr. Brené Brown says "Ordinary courage is about putting vulnerability on the line. In today's world that's pretty extraordinary." Passionate curiosity demonstrates many things to others, including that we don't know all the answers or even that we are uncertain about various things. In today's world of cable news sound bites, entrenched positions, and unyielding opinions, revealing our uncertainty or changing our point of view as we discover more and delve more deeply in the material is often seen as weakness. Certainty is seen as strength. Yet admitting you don't know our that you're not yet sure, or that you need more information or more time and so on takes more courage than faking certainty or going along with conventional wisdom because it is safe.

We are born curious—so what happened?
Einstein_slideEarlier I wrote a piece entitled "The need for connection & engagement in education" -- but I should have used the word school in place of education. Education is not the problem. For where there is education — and the best education is usually self-education — there is necessarily participation and engagement with the material, and our curiosity thrives. The problem for a lot of us — teacher and student — is school, especially large institutional schools. Our methods of instruction — or perhaps it is just the system itself — do a poor job of nurturing students' natural curiosity. This is nothing new. Einstein said many years ago that "it is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry....” In this short video clip below Dr. Michio Kaku says that we are born scientists. Children go through much of their childhood driven by a natural and insatiable curiosity about life, but somewhere along the line we all but extinguish that flame of curiosity. Dr. Kaku says that school often results in "crushing curiosity right out of the next generation." Watch the clip below (or on YouTube).

Dr. Michio Kaku: "We [all] are born scientists."

Rewarding curiosity vs. rewarding certainty
We are obsessed with giving prizes to students who memorize the most facts and bits of information (and in the shortest amount of time). Why don't we give prizes for the students who demonstrate their unabashed curiosity and demonstrable pursuit of discovery? A driving child-like curiosity and sense of wonder is an undeniable sign of intelligence. The curious can eventually overcome their ignorance, but the chronically incurious—and yet self-assured—are stuck with their ignorance for a lifetime.

Coercion_slide I don't know all the components of a good teacher (or a good presenter), but certainly a necessary element of good teaching is curiosity. That is, demonstrating our own curiosity and inspiring and cultivating the natural curiosity in others. The ineffective teachers are the ones who have lost their curiosity and sense of wonder for their subject or even for their job. You can't fake curiosity and wonder. The best teachers are the ones who show their own desire to learn more about their subject and who are not afraid to show mistakes or admit that they don't know it all. The best teachers guide, coach, inspire, and feed that natural flame of curiosity that lives within every child. The courage to teach, then, is the courage to expose yourself as you demonstrate your curiosity and wonder for your subject. This kind of passion is infectious (and memorable).

Curiosity has its own rewards
If I were hiring employees I would look for the insanely curious and hungry applicants not necessarily the ones who ticked off all the correct boxes and jumped through all the right hoops in school. I would look for the highly educated and talented but not necessarily the highly schooled. School for a student is ephemeral and short, but learning, self-education, and inquiry last a life time so long as a student's unabashed curiosity remains alive. The best teachers (or trainers, coaches, etc.) are those who light the sparks and inspire students to pursue a lifetime of exploration and discovery. "School" says the rewards are cash, status, and security. But wouldn't it be great if our lessons instilled the notion in students something which they already knew when younger but may have forgotten: "Curiosity has its own reason for existing," as Einstein said. Curiosity has its own rewards.



Michio Kaku refers to Richard Feynman at the end of the video clip above. This video here features Richard Feynman talking about his father's influence.

Note: Click on slides for a larger size.

Before success comes the courage to fail

Bambooi2 The natural world around us provides many lessons. Late last year I discussed how the humble bamboo plant has a lot to teach us about succeeding in this world. I love bamboo for many reasons, and as I said here before (and included in the Naked book in a callout section), bamboo itself offers us lessons in flexibility, strength, perseverance, simplicity, and openness. Today, while jogging up past some small farms in the mountains near our home in Nara, I passed through a familiar bamboo forest. But today something was different. I noticed one of the bamboo trees had given way and snapped during a strong wind we had recently. This caused me to take notice and slow down. We notice what is different, and if we slow down long enough a lesson may be revealed; this is a kind of "listening with the eyes." It seems that in a strong and unyielding wind, even the bend-but-don't-break adaptability of the humble bamboo will be tested to the point of failure. A subtle reminder from nature that even the strong and the courageous and the flexible fail sometimes. An old Japanese proverb says "Even monkeys fall from trees." (Saru mo ki kara ochiru — 猿も木から落ちる.) Somehow knowing this allows us to push past fear and to participate more fully as we embrace or own imperfections, even as we work to improve.

For years I lived in the center of a massive city in Japan, and there were lessons there. Now I live here, and the lessons are still to be found. Today I ran up the mountain and past many farm houses with rice fields in their winter state. Our house is in the distant hills across the valley below.

Higher up the mountain I came across an area of bamboo. I often pass by here on longer runs, but what caught my eye was the bamboo which had succumbed to the wind. Even the bending bamboo breaks just as monkeys sometimes fall from trees.

Slide featuring the monkey quote.

The biggest mistake is not taking action
We fear mistakes and failure more than just about anything. We fear mistakes to the point where we don't even begin to make the changes we know we need to make, or give up when we meet resistance long before the goal has been achieved. And yet, if you'll allow me to stretch a quote from Buddha just a bit, there are only two mistakes we should fear: not starting and not finishing. Failure and mistakes are not the problem, of course, it is the fear of them which may keep us from starting a difficult journey or force us to give up even after we mustered up enough courage to at least start. Quitting in itself is not a bad thing—often it is the wisest choice which also takes courage in its own right. But giving up out of an overpowering fear of failure is the kind of quitting that leads to regret, the kind of regret that eats away at you for a very long time. To paraphrase an old adage, hurt feelings, disappointments, and even embarrassments about past mistakes heal with time, but the regrets about the things we did not do are inconsolable (see Sydney Smith quotes).

Mistakes_slide.001-001  Mistakes_slide.002-001
Mistakes_black.008-001  Mistakes_black.009-001
Four different treatments of the same quotation in slides. Here running is used as a familiar metaphor for a journey or exploration, etc. Whether we're talking about the search for truth or knowledge, or finding a job, or making a change in our lives, it's often hard to start and difficult to stick with it. And the fear of failing is a barrier we must overcome.

Failure is always an option
One of my favorite TV shows is MythBusters (available here in Japan on Discovery as well). The MythBusters website says they mix "scientific method with gleeful curiosity and plain old-fashioned ingenuity to create their own signature style of explosive experimentation." (I wish my classes in school when I was a kid had had a similar formula.) Early on in the shows development, co-host Adam Savage came up with the phrase "Failure is always an option" as a way of encapsulating their approach to exploration, testing, and the process discovery and uncovering answers and solutions. In the video below Adam Savage is in the middle of telling a personal story of failure which took place long before he was the famous MythBuster on TV. To hear much more see the entire presentation here.

This MythBusters clip below highlights the necessity—or at least the common occurrence—of failure on the journey to success.