Saturday, August 26, 2017

Truth and Curiosity

I love truth. I crave it obsessively, even when it works against with me; even when it conflicts with my deepest assumptions. I live for counter-intuitive and surprising information. Please, please, show me how I've been dumb. Over and over and over. Don't stop!

As I once wrote:
I like to be told that I'm being an idiot. This helps me be less of an idiot.

By contrast, most people recoil quite strongly from acknowledging to themselves any idiocy in their thought or behavior . They'd much rather be idiots than feel like idiots.
My obsession with truth makes me insatiably curious, and uncommonly persistent about satisfying my curiosity. I may appear to be studying, learning, and pondering, but what I'm really doing is scratching a perpetual itch. And it's reaped an unexpected reward. A few decades in, I'm amused to see that some people are fooled into thinking I'm smart.

I'm not, really. I read slowly, I memorize poorly, I have trouble following instructions and following novel and movie plot points. I don't digest data points quickly or easily. I was a B+ student, and am shockingly poorly-read. My cognitive horsepower is, at best, mildly above average. But, after half a lifetime of insatiable curiosity, I know some stuff, and can easily shift my perspective, even under duress (a cool party trick which churns out interesting insights and creativity - which have little to do with intelligence). All because I love truth.

Interestingly, most people sharing my genetic material - who work with similar raw material - take comfort in dodgy, unexamined assumptions, push back tenaciously at conflicting information, and choose "denial" as a go-to reaction mechanism. They're almost entirely incurious, and it all stems from their inveterate fear of truth. The difference is in that one little flick of the switch.

Curiosity is fueled by a deep-seated conviction that you're wrong, misguided, and incomplete. Curiosity is thwarted by the conviction that you're smart, on-track, and complete.

The Dunning-Kruger effect ensures that those most needful of curiosity remain steadfastly incurious. The Dunning-Kruger corollary ensures the converse. This is the same underlying mechanism behind the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.


Val in Seattle said...

>> Curiosity is fueled by a deep-seated conviction that you're wrong, misguided, and incomplete. Curiosity is thwarted by the conviction that you're smart, on-track, and complete.

I like this statement. But it's different for me. I use curiosity as a tool to draw myself out of self-imposed isolation, and to stoke my appetite for engagement with other humans. So for me, curiosity is fueled by desire for connection with other people.

I learned this technique from my gregarious Texan in-laws -- they were a car dealer and a bank loan officer. Wherever we went, they would greet nearby strangers and ask polite questions. "I wonder if those rain clouds are headed this way." "Look at that boy. I wonder what he's carrying in that big box." Most of the time, there would be a conversation. And we might learn something about the town, or an event, or anything under the sun.

Whenever I attend an author reading, or business lecture, I'll ask this question during Q&A: What books or blogs do you enjoy lately? Oddly, most presenters are surprised by my question. Some will say: What an unusual question! (Why unusual?) This question has lead me to some fascinating reading and high quality blogs. And a reason to contact the person who recommended the material.

Jim Leff said...

Yup, for sure, social curiosity is a Thing (and one of many qualities I admire in Texans). Of course, I'm talking more about intellectual curiosity, and that is indeed an incomplete slice of the pie!

But doesn't this fit, as well? Even social curiosity stems from an openness, which acknowledges that you're missing some chunks. The people who lack this quality tend to be the type who privately assumes "they're all idiots out there."

I guess the short version (here and in lots of other Slog postings) is that closedeness stems from a self-image of completion. And open people acknowldege deficiency.

Deficiency is the best vacuum.

Val in Seattle said...

Exercising social curiosity will often lead to intellectual bounty. In chance interactions this month, I've learned about social systems in India, California water regulations, first-hand account of the commercial side of the Village Voice, how food banks have changed over decades. I don't need to know any of this stuff, but it feels like wealth.

>> closedeness stems from a self-image of completion.
Yes. And those folks miss out on the fullness of life.

Jim Leff said...

Most people would rather be an idiot than feel like an idiot.

My gaps make me feel like an idiot. And, like a vacuum, it sucks interestingness out of the world.

How awful it must be to feel smart and complete and whole....and perpetually unaware of your idiocy. .

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