Sunday, August 03, 2008

It's Not How Much You Know, It's What You Do: Reflections on the Habit of Continuous Curiosity

This post is about a topic I've been thinking about a lot recently, and have throughout my life, especially in a professional context. It's about continuous curiosity and the dangers of expertise and thinking that how much you know about a topic is what's most important.

One of the things I love to do is go to a bookstore, like a Barnes & Noble or Borders, and just browse books in various sections. I typically go to books on communication and other social sciences, followed by business books, then on to history, and then wherever else my interest takes me. 

But I'm often confronted with two sets of strong feelings when I do this.

On the one hand is a rush of wonder, interest, and curiosity. You realize there's so much you can learn and you get to take a lot of it in in a short amount of time.

On the other hand is a feeling of anxiety, being overwhelmed, and inundated. You realize there's so much to learn and you feel like you have to take it all in in a short amount of time.

Generally I experience the first set of positive feelings when I go on these visits. But there are times when I feel the second set and I get anxious. The worst is when you come across something new in an area that you thought you knew a lot about. Where did that come from? Who is this person writing about this? How could I have missed it all this time? (Well, probably what's even worse is that you thought you had a truly original idea that was "yours" and then you find somebody else who has just written a whole book on it). 

I think these sets of feelings are especially prevalent in academics, researchers, analysts or any category where a person is seen as an "expert" of some kind in an area. You are judged on how much you know and how well you can articulate that to others. When you come across something you don't know it's easy to see it as a threat to an identity others have constructed and that you perform.

Thinking that to be an expert you have to know everything about a topic is dangerous. Why? Because it leads people to get myopic in their thinking. In order to sustain the belief that they know everything they focus on a smaller, more narrow set of topics. It works to the extent that at some point you do end up knowing everything about the area. It's just that the area is so small that much of the meaning and relevance to the rest of the world is lost.

What's the antidote to all of this? How do you maintain the more pleasurable set of feelings -- the wonder, the interest, the curiosity (but still thrive in a professional context that requires you to be on top of it all)?

First, recognize that nobody knows it all and that if they do, it's probably about a pretty narrow set of topics (and take comfort in the fact that they're probably boring at parties). 

Second,  recognize that the anxiety doesn't have to be perceived as negative. Redirect and channel that energy into something more productive, such as...

Third, what's more important than how much you know are your habits towards new information and ideas. Develop a habit of inquiry that leads you to always look for new ideas and discuss them with others (talking with others forces you to stay relevant and meaningful). You know you can never know everything but what you can do is take actions in the present that keep you knowledgeable and informed.

By following these three steps you can liberate yourself from feeling like you have to know everything and you can embrace the practice of continuous curiosity. It still keeps you at the top of your game and you can have fun playing it!

(By the way, all of this applies to reading blogs just as much to visiting bookstores).