On Being Nosey

This is a guest post by Michael Dariano

For this it would be great if you were a dog. You’re not. Instead, we’ll need a shovel. A serious shovel. If you have a garden spade don’t even think of bringing it, it won’t be enough. You’ll need a good back too, curiosity’s treasures are a bitch to extract.

Richard Feynman knew this. He recalled being in the woods one summer and all the other dads knew the names of every bird, branch, and bend of the creek. He asked his dad, someone he considered a pretty smart guy, why he didn’t know the names of those things. Feynman’s dad said, names, we don’t need no stinking names. He went on explain that the name of thing tells you nothing about the thing. What younger Feynman learned was that animals share some things in common: how to eat, sleep, and make babies. That’s what mattered, not the names.

To learn the name of something is superficial curiosity. That’s garden spade territory. The names of things are searchable, starting with algorithms. Google can identify cat videos. Treasures need big shovels.

The bestest curiosities are like journeys. “What happens if I destroy the ring?” “What happens if I take the red pill?” “What happens if I follow this man through a tunnel in Chateau d’If?”

Adventurers have curiosity but adventure stories can be poor models. Movies end in two hours. Books are edited for clarity. The curiosity we need doesn’t fit a movie script. It doesn’t get edited so we can squeeze in commercials before the happy ending.

No, our curiosity is slow and sputtering. It will come and go. But it’s worth it. No, it’s necessary for big things. Superficial, linear, question-and-answer curiosity extracts light ideas and mostly resides in the land of fiction.

We’re talking about something more. “What is the Middle Kingdom?” Meh, fine. Let’s get deeper. Why is China called the Middle Kingdom? Better. But we can dig further.

In the book Prisoners of Geography, Tim Marshall writes about ‘damn European line drawers.”  Those Line Drawers were aces of geographical curiosity. How to trade Indian opium for Chinese tea to bring back to the British Isles was a problem that required a lot of curiosity. Then even more to shorten that chain. But those Line Drawers were only superficially culturally curious.

Whereas rivers and mountains had formed great borders Line Drawers cut across them. Tribal epochs created unwritten rules, like blank pages of a coloring book. In creating new countries Line Drawers scribbled all over them.

Feynman’s friends were curious about the names of things. Google brings curiosity to the tips of our fingers. European explorers knew some things, the locals knew others. But in each case there’s more under the surface. Like an iceberg bobbing in the water, superficial curiosity makes us notice it, deep curiosity makes us turn the ship.

***

Dogs are the best diggers. They’ve evolved for it. Their musculoskeletal structure and four paws made them perfect earth movers. But what really makes them excellent is their curiosity. This is the difference between dogs and cats, dogs want to know.

A dog has fifty times the number of olfactory sensors of people. This makes dogs very interested smellers. Is that a dead smell? That’s interesting! Is that food? That’s interesting. Is that something delightful to roll in? That’s interesting. Dogs have an enthusiasm for interestingness. They seek it out and are built for exploring it when they find it.

We don’t have this same system.

Dogs that don’t get a chance to roll around in the world — dogs that live uninteresting lives — don’t seem to smell in quite the same way. They don’t wag their tails. They don’t perk up their ears. Dogs don’t need to carry a worn shovel on a strong back, it’s built in if it gets the chance to come out.

How do we use our shovel and back more like a dog? It starts by getting out in the world. When Elizabeth Gilbert wanted to be a writer she considered an MFA program. But the money and time commitments were too much. I’d heard to write what I knew, said Gilbert, but I didn’t know anything. Instead she headed out to roll around in the world.

Gilbert flipped burgers and served tuna melts. Talking to customers gave her another view of the world. This is how a long-haul trucker speaks, orders, and eats. This is what a family out for dinner looks like. This is a date. This is a break-up. Each person that came into the diner was a vignette, but Gilbert had to curiously peer inside.

And she didn’t stop at work. Once she saved up some money she moved on. Gilbert rode trails, explored, and wrote. Gilbert was like the dog that get’s off its leash and tears around the yard. This is amazing!  But not easy. MFA programs are to Gilbert’s approach as meal kits are to home cooking. Ease and convenience hamper curiosity.

Curiosity starts with the name of the thing. That’s an interest and a Google search away. Deep curiosity requires good digging. We’re going to need a good shovel and a strong back.

Our shovel can be anything. Conversations, internet connections, and blog posts. If things become unwieldy, like a big shovel, we won’t be able to dig with any precision. Google is a fine place to start, but if you want to learn anything you quickly have to get out of the search bar. Books are another good tool. Tried and true, mostly free of #fakenews, but infrequently updated.

Whatever our tool, it should be familiar and effective. The shovel’s shaft will be worn smooth. The metal end dinged and the finish stripped away. We can rest it on our shoulder. We know it by touch. Good tools imbue intimacy.

More important than the shovel is the back. The muscles behind extracting ideas must be sinuous. Before intense curiosity the body won’t be ready. Digging deeper to find bigger and better ideas will feel foreign. It will induce soreness. You’ll wonder, is this worthwhile? Am I going to find something? If you keep doing it though, you’ll get stronger. You’ll find interesting things. You’ll enjoy the digging.

Just not at first.

Before the rewards come the toils. At first all there will be is a pile of debris. In the detritus there might be something, but not the thing. It would be nice to have an X on the map, but all we have is a shovel and a back.

As the hole and pile grow you’ll question whether this is even the right spot. What if I’m in the wrong spot? Maybe I should move? This could be the case. The trouble is you don’t know until you get deep enough. The pile has to be a certain height, the hole a certain depth, before you can be sure that this isn’t the place.

As you dig there will be shiny rocks that come out along with the dirt. Some of these will be even better than what you were looking for in the first place. For those things you’ll get a new direction to dig. Other times you’ll keep on going.

If we’re going to be digging we’ll need a good shovel and a strong back.

Eventually you’ll enjoy the digging. The shovel feels smooth. Your hands are callused. Your back is so strong you don’t even notice. That’s when you know, when it’s normal. When that happens you’ll start to see places that might be interesting to dig. That’s another advantage to curiosity, seeing things in a new way.

In his book A Burglar’s Guide to the City, Geoff Manaugh wrote about how architecture influences behavior. An example of this is desire paths. Before adding sidewalks, the architect may let a year go by to see how people move. Worn grass and snow tracks are evidence. Choosing to put a doors in one part of the building and not another leads to certain walking behaviors.

All parts of design have this feature and some are more influential than others. Manaugh points out that burglary getaways in New York City and Los Angeles are different because of the environment. In L.A. movement is free, in NYC it’s not. In looking at the world this way, as a burglar, Manaugh found himself wondering how he would rob a building — if he had to.

His curiosity started with a study of architecture — at the BLDGBLOG — and then moved on to a book about burglars. Being curious is like donning new lenses to see the world through.

When Bill Gates recounted his friendship with Warren Buffett, he said that Buffett had a big influence on how he thought. Previous to meeting Warren, Bill used only a technology mindset. We’ll build an application for that. After learning from Warren — being curious — Bill adopted a business mindset too. Curiosity is having a list of professions with which to solve a problem. How would a banker, dentist, mother, or burglar… solve this?

***

My puppy likes poop. It’s one of her favorite things. Old is better than new. Another animal’s is better than hers. She likes to eat it, roll in it, and bring it back to us. She shows up with a turd in her mouth and a bounce in her step. She’s curious. We would prefer her to be less curious, especially about this. Puppy curiosity is great for internet memes and Twitter moments and dog shaming is more fun to consume than assume. So when she bounds back after rolling in poop we do our best to hold back our scolds.

Sometime curiosity is messy. People will get a whiff of what you’re rolling in and walk away. They’ll look at your curiosity and wonder what the hell you are doing. These people don’t know there are secrets to find. And if they do, they might wrongly believe that they are hidden just under the surface. Stories have tricked them. Like our poopy puppy, you’ll have people that don’t understand your pursuits, that’s okay.

***

Eventually a treasure will turn up. It won’t be complete (for that you’ll need finer tools, a sterile lab and so on) but it’ll be something. Sometimes you can even use an early discovery as a tool for the next dig. Slowly you stock up the toolbox. Like an expert excavator with years of experience, you can survey the landscape and say ‘let’s start digging over there.’

This is what happened to Louis CK. Louis started out as a comedian (I wonder if I can be funny in front of other people?) and he started to tour around the New York area (I wonder if I can repeat it?). Then tried to make a show. It didn’t go well. He tried to write too, same results. Even though he was digging and didn’t get a reward, he got better at using the shovel and a stronger back.

If we’re going to be digging we’ll need a good shovel and a strong back.

After that he started his FX show. On that show he wrote, directed, and acted (I wonder if I can do all these jobs?). One summer while watching a play (I wonder why people think this is good?) he decided to make the show Horace and Pete. This show would stream through his website (I wonder if it can sell it like this?). He wanted to use multiple camera and cameramen. He wanted to cast it. He wanted to – be curious.

Louis prodigious skills caught Charlie Rose’s attention and he asked about it. Louis said it’s kind of like the Matrix movie:

“You know, like what’s the movie, ‘Matrix.’ When there is a helicopter and he says to her, you know how to play helicopter. And she goes wait a minute and she loads the program. Now I do. Well, anyone can do that. It just takes longer. You can just load a program. So, now I know how to create a multi-camera drama and mount it the same week that I shot it. And how to direct many great actors which I had never done before.”

That this is novel is proof of the point. Curiosity isn’t easy. It takes enough work just to be funny much less to also write, shoot and direct. But a seed of curiosity can grow into a rambling vine.

Up to here we’ve only thought about one person digging — you. What if there were multiple people being curious? What if they were digging in the same place? We might have something. A single dog digs a hole. A pack of dogs destroys a yard.

But group curiosity isn’t easy either. Sam Hinkie tried to be an NBA General Manager and be curious. It worked, for a while. When long-term results didn’t become short-term results with the flip of a switch, he was fired. Hinkie filtered curiosity down the org chart, but not up.

A culture of curiosity starts at the top. Ben Horowitz points out that yoga is not culture, “culture is what people do when you don’t tell them what to do.” Managers can’t reward curiosity’s outcomes, just the process. Sometimes after a day of digging you come up empty handed. Not every dog finds a bone.

Finding oil wells is precise. It’s top-down. Bosses who like to give orders can show progress, direction, and quarterly results. This sort of exploration looks good on LinkedIn. Curiosity does not.

When do you become curious? When there’s a “that’s interesting” moment. For Feynman it was when he realized the name of the bird didn’t matter. For my puppy it’s any new smell. For Louis CK it was, ‘I want to try this.’

“Huh?” is another sign for where to start digging. Before Richard Thaler started studying — and leading — the field of behavioral economics, he kept a list of “dumb things people do” in his office. These weren’t actual dumb things, only dumb in the land of Economica. Rather than say how stupid the rules were, Thaler continued to live in Economica but observe how people broke those rules. Why did people value something they had only just acquired? Why did people like IKEA furniture more when they assembled it?

Asking these questions was Thaler’s version of digging. He had the tool – surveys, statistics, graduate assistants – to help and the curiosity to keep going. Despite training in the court of EMH at the University of Chicago he refused to genuflect to a cracked theory. The idea he could unearth might be a better tool for predicting how people would behave.

***

Curiosity is too cute a word. If we’re going to be digging we’ll need a good shovel and a strong back. We need a better word. A better word is nosiness. That’s a dogged word. Nosiness implies action, getting into something you weren’t previously in.

Feynman was nosey about physics. Gilbert was nosey about writing. You can be nosey too.

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Comments

  1. I think that Feynman’s Dad was wrong. You do need names in the sense that you need to know what something is. If you have to survive, you have to know that one plant will kill, whereas another will be good to eat. You need to be able to communicate this information and one way of doing this is by giving something a name. Science is about names. I studied chemistry and when a chemical is referred to, I know something about it. Actually, I think Feynman’s Dad was misguided. Those people who knew the names the animals and plants, almost certainly knew a lot more than just the names, what the behavior and uses of those things were. They were immensely curious about this part of the world about them, because they had bothered to learn about the names. They would have had a much greater understanding of it than Feynman’s Dad. And one last point, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is one of the worst pieces of nonsense I have ever read. She comes across as a complete narcissist in the book, with only a superficial and extremely patronizing understanding of the places she visits and the people she meets.

    • Italymich says:

      The disagreement between Feynman’s father and his acquaintances is the variance between Ne and Ni types in Jungian psychology terms.

      There is a nice psychological assonance between learning to fly by missing the ground, Rao’s agreeable ideas on arrested development, and the ideal of nosiness presented here.

      Or in other words… you hardly smell a lot… if not in the aftermath of a crash.

      Not that intellectual appetite is more trainable and teachable than intelligence, or sensitivity are, though.

  2. Image credits?

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