Curiosity, Being Yourself and Being Bad at Things

Recently my friend Nathan sent out a letter, asking a bunch of different people how they stay curious amidst the swarm of obligations and distractions that are life in general (and graduate school in particular).  This question stuck with me, as it’s something I’ve been struggling with since moving from Cambridge to Montreal, and from my masters program at MIT to my doctoral program at McGill.

For me, the question of curiosity comes down to: how do you reject the temptation to just do the thing you’re good at all the time, because you’re good at it and (theoretically) because you like it? I’ve stumbled into a specialty (that I love!) fairly early in the typical grad-career timeline, and I’m pretty good at it. I know I can talk/write intelligently about online activism for hours, and because I’m a smart kid who’s always been a smart kid, I want to spend time doing the thing that I’m good at. But, and here’s the problematic part, I picked my doctoral program in part because it has strengths in areas I’m bad or underprepared in, like theory and things that aren’t the internet.  In fact, the majority of my classes this term were super theory-heavy.

And oh boy, was I bad at them in the beginning. Bad and not happy about it.

Rather than engage directly with the material in front of me, I instead played a game of All Paths Lead to the Internet, using each text as a jumping off point to ramble on about digital culture and social movements and not, you know, Derrida.  Because Derrida was hard, and not only was Derrida hard, but moving to another country had left me tired and homesick most of the time, and all I really wanted to do was retreat into comfortable things, be that writing about the internet or knitting and watching Adventure Time under a pile of blankets.  Halfway through the semester I had some talks with my professors where they called me out on doing this very thing.  One told me I needed to spend more time “thinking about thinking” in graduate school while I had the chance.  Another encouraged me to “dwell in the intellectually uncomfortable places” instead of shying away from them.

So I started consciously trying to access that intellectual space where answers and utility aren’t necessarily important, where being public with your work isn’t the obvious next step. This is different than the intellectual environment of my masters program (which I loved), which emphasized working-in-public and real-world-impact for student projects.  But here, I had to turn off (or at least turn down) that working-in-public drive and allow myself to intellectually nest for a while.

I think a lot of my skill of curiosity, or giving myself permission to be curious, is about turning off the drive to be public or polished. I espouse the “It’s ok to make mistakes!” philosophy of working-in-public, but I also, perhaps paradoxically, never let anything out of my hands unless I’ve worked damn hard at it and it reflects what I want it to reflect about myself.  Curiosity, at least as I’ve been exploring it, is often about pushing into things that aren’t ourselves, or don’t reflect those bits of ourselves that we like best.  I’m working on a paper right now that is a very uncomfortable paper to write, trying to flesh out my concept of “civic fiction” by working through an extremely problematic case study. I doubt I’ll ever publish it. But I do want to eventually publish on “civic fiction,” and I need to do this uncomfortable work first before I can do that public-facing work. If I were still at an institution that placed a high value on working-in-public, I don’t think I could do this uncomfortable work.

This type of intellectual curiosity involves giving yourself permission to not be yourself, and that requires privacy and nesting and closing the door for a little while. This can be in conflict with the type of personal academic branding I and a lot of my peers are involved with.  But to my best work, and to maintain the kind of intellectual curiosity that brought me to academia in the first place, it’s also necessary.

  • marco

    On a smaller and impersonal scale, your post makes me think to a research project I’m doing with some master students about an agent-based model of a social network. The model is doing all the good stuff of a social network, a lot of triangles, a giant component, they nicely exchange messages and so forth. They “evolve” as a community. Nice, it’s what it’s supposed to do. But, you know, nobody is curious in that world. They follow the rules, and yes, the outcome could be unexpected, its an intrinsic network property, but still, they are never curious or weird. Ultimately, it’s the network to decide for them, they just loops though some easy steps. Instead, I’m curious to know what happens if the agents became curious, rather than caged in a social mesh, call it curiosity or serendipity or just randomness, it doesn’t matter here, but Hey, I said to the students, do you really want to design a network that always decides for this bunch of agents without letting at least some of them to escape from its dynamics? But, still I was thinking to a better and, let’s say, more intellectual real case and, here it comes your post that is a perfect intellectual description of an agent that is escaping from the overall network dynamics and is reclaiming its curiosity to go where it knows less or even just through a random exploration. I’m pretty sure we will see some interesting behavior with our curious agents.nYours is a great post.nmarco

  • Jon Penney

    Great post, Molly. I encountered some of the same challenges in the first year of my doctorate at the OII, where people often tackle social / political / legal / and policy related questions from much different empirical/theoretical orientations; and certainly often different from my own (or those approaches I had become accustomed to). This was, in fact, what I was looking for at OII and I’ve learned a tonne, but embracing that difference is always a work in progress.nnnPS: For Derrida, don’t start with Of Grammatology or The Post Card. Go find “Limited Inc”, which, IMHO, is essential reading to understand Derrida and his approach to language/writing. The piece “Afterwards” is worth the price itself, where Derrida (in an interview years later) reflects upon his dispute with John Searle over Speech Act Theory. In it, he really clarifies some of his key concepts and ideas and responds to critics who, sometimes intentionally, have misread him.

  • NovySan

    Try taking a neuroengineering course when you were a Theater Major and did nothing but make very expensive pretty pictures for the last 16 years of your life. Actually, the math involved in Fourier Analysis I did 2 semesters ago was worse. Balls. Balls the size of Cleveland. Balls the size of Cleveland and whiskey. This is your only hope. Run. Here, let me introduce you to Spider Jerusalem. He is your Spirit Animal. Unfortunately he’s a terrible liar. So don’t believe a word he says.

  • Kat Friedrich

    I’ve heard other people I meet – primarily on the East Coast – describe this as an issue in their lives. I also see it in some dance classes in Massachusetts, where many people are physically afraid to make mistakes or express themselves freely.nnWhen I lived in the Midwest, the dominant metaphor for work was not “being a star.” Instead, the main Midwestern work metaphor was football. In football (and some other team sports), if you fall, you get up again and give it another try. Similarly, in the Midwestern business settings where I worked, there was very little perfectionism. People were focused on learning from their mistakes, trying again, and reaching team goals. nnnSince, before becoming a science journalist/blogger, I spent eight years of my life doing physical work at least part-time, I learned that making mistakes is also an essential part of learning to fix things. nnnSo my advice to people who are concerned about this would be to say that they should try participating in physical work, team sports, and/or improvisational activities like dance, drumming and other art forms where one is expected to make mistakes. Get out of the academic structure once in a while and try doing improv dance or fixing your plumbing.

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  • dmf