I’ve been getting questions privately from folks about how I journal, why I journal, where I get my ideas, and other questions about this whole Modern Diarist challenge.
I’d like to answer those questions eventually in other blogs, but I think there’s an initial question I need to answer first: what makes me want to read or write anything at all? Why learn? Why read 30 books in a year (or 10 or any)?
It’s, frankly, a lot of effort. For example, last night I spent nearly two hours editing and rewriting 1,500 words about servitude. Two hours at my computer when I could have been in bed or watching The West Wing with my wife. At work, I spend nearly every lunch break reading—even when there are a million other things on my mind.
What drives that sort of behavior? What makes anyone want to stay up reading about a parks commissioner, slog through a book about trucking regulations, or read a paper about Constitutional interpretation?
Curiosity does. Curiosity is what pushes the world forward.
The Gap Between Questions & Answers
Researchers who study the process of learning spend their days identifying what makes us hold onto information. What allows us to master the violin or understand French economic policy? In the vast majority of cases, memorization isn’t enough—it’s not even close. Memorizing a fact isn’t the key to learning—although I imagine those of you who slogged through high school math already know that.
One of the best ways to learn something quickly is to build a knowledge scaffold (which I covered in a previous blog). Once you’ve done that, what’s the next step? The next step is to identify your knowledge gaps.
Your knowledge gaps are the areas of knowledge you don’t know.
Identifying knowledge gaps is sort of like starting a puzzle—once you’ve put the border pieces together, it’s easier to see what’s missing (which is why developing an initial scaffold is important). To bring it back to Genghis Khan, I didn’t know what I didn’t know until I started reading about it. After only 10 minutes, I could tell you so much about what I didn’t know about Genghis Khan. What was his childhood like? How did he transform from a tribal leader into a global ruler? Why were so many of his sons alcoholics? What does fermented yak’s milk taste like?
Knowledge gaps are vital to being a well-rounded, knowledgeable, and humble human being. Knowing what you don’t know is sort of like the tension that keeps you moving forward. It gives you an mile marker on your way to mastery, a “You Are Here” for people charting their way into understanding something unfamiliar.
What does that have to do with curiosity?
Because I believe curiosity is simply the desire to ask good questions—and asking good questions reveals our best knowledge gaps.
The Best Questions Lead to the Best Answers
Sir Francis Bacon once said,
A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.
Explorers, scientists, storytellers, innovators, and everyone who ever learned anything knew started with one phrase: “I wonder.”
“I wonder what’s over that mountain.”
“I wonder why meat goes rancid when it’s left out.”
“I wonder why soccer teams from corrupt countries are more likely to win against better teams from other countries.”
That alone isn’t curiosity. Curiosity is asking that question…and being humble enough to know that you don’t actually know the answer. Anyone who has ever asked “I wonder what happens if…” has never been met with silence. Instead, some know-it-all walks along and speculates. And they don’t speculate in that wonderful way that adventurers do when they ask “what if…?”
No, they speculate in the way that withered, numbed souls always seem to—with an unverified answer that’s Good Enough for Them.
The ability to wonder, to figure out exactly what we don’t know, and to hatch a plot to figure out how we can know, is what has pushed us forward. It’s allowed us to change our understanding of the universe, to change our understanding of each other—to change the face of the planet (for better or worse).
The problem is, people are afraid to wonder out loud because it sometimes makes us look, well, stupid.
For example, “Why does New York have such terrible traffic?”
“Well, because it’s overpopulated, you idiot.”
Is it though? Is it a natural phenomenon of a large city, or were there decisions that made New York the artery-clogged, urban giant that it is? Were there specific issues that made our world this way?
How did we get here?
How Curiosity Can Make Our World Better
That last question is one of my favorite questions.
When you go backpacking and you get lost, the simplest solution is to retrace your steps (on a map, anyway—I don’t recommend moving too far). Where was the last place that you knew where you were? Where did you go from there? What led us to This Moment, This Place?
When we find our world in a place that is dark and broken and clearly dysfunctional, it’s hard to believe that anyone has solutions. Some folks actually do have good solutions—solutions that don’t pretend we live in the 1950s—but they’re easy to ignore in favor of the people who have a solution that is packaged nicely and comes with the approval of a person you trust.
Asking how we got here is a good question because it answers the question all of us are asking deep down: “where are we going from here?”
How do we fix housing inequality?
How do we fix the opioid crisis?
How do we fix a healthcare system that makes people go bankrupt more than any other cause?
We need people to ask these questions. Not experts—everyone. Everyone needs to ask these questions. People need to ask other questions too, like “how do we fix industrial waste,” “how do we travel to another solar system,” “how do we,” “how do we…?”
And when you’re asking “how do we fix X,” the natural response question is this: “how did we break it?”
How did we get here?
The Skill We’ve Forgotten Is a Skill
As a people, we’ve forgotten how to ask questions. We certainly know how to interrogate people—I’ve made evidentiary demands on Facebook more than a few times—but few of us ask ourselves the questions we’re trying to answer. The more people who are asking questions—the big ones, the little ones, and yes, even the obvious-sounding ones—the more we’re creating a world of people humbly looking for good answers.
And the better we get at asking questions, the better our answers will be.