A Year For Curiosity: How To Explore When You’re All Locked Down

MikeachimThe EverydayLeave a Comment

(Yes, I know what’s happening today. But in case you need a distraction – try this out.)

I’m guessing you’ve already noticed that this hasn’t exactly been the greatest of years.

If I had to pick a single image to sum it up, I’d go with this one:

Or maybe this:

As for our ability to plan ahead, this cartoon by LittleHikerBird is on point:

As I write this, the whole of the UK is returning to some form of lockdown – and there is a very real sense of “oh no, here we go again” hanging in the air.

It is absolutely understandable why this has to happen – no arguments there – but after spending so much of this year staring out the window wishing we were anywhere except at home…

…we’re now going into round 2 of it. And that is just hard.

Oxford’s vaccine trials are looking promising:

But I guess the weirdness isn’t over yet.

We’re limiting our movements, keeping our distance, and spending a lot more time at home.

So, about “home”. 

(And for the sake of argument, and in case, like me, you don’t currently have a permanent address, let’s define “home” as “the place you’re going to be locked down in”.) 

I have a few questions for you, if you don’t mind me asking. 

1. Exactly how many chairs are in your house?

(If you don’t know, then please quickly go and count them.) 

2. Where are the five nearest trees to your house

And what species are they

And also hey, have you ever climbed one

3. How many people live within half a mile of your home?

Okay. So how many on your street?

4. What colour and pattern are all the curtains in all the rooms in the house – from memory?

Can you remember? Did you even notice in the first place?

(I’m asking because I’m a chronic curtains non-noticer, and I hope I’m not the only one. It’s like a hole in my mind.)

5. How many pockets do you own? 

Yes, I know this is getting silly. But I’m asking anyway. Across all your clothing – and indeed anything else in your house that has pockets (can you think of anything else?), just how many pockets are you the proud but unwitting owner of?

Fascinating things, pockets. They’re like the backs of sofas – places that don’t really exist in your life, not really, but which frequently contain something nostalgic that’ll totally make your day – or something of more obvious value, like a few quid when you desperately need change for the bus to avoid that crushing self-hatred of giving the poor driver a banknote first thing in the morning.

Yep – you never know with pockets.

They’re tiny adventures filled with mystery and joy, made from the gaps between things.

Now, I fully agree these are all fairly ridiculous questions to ask – and you may feel a proper idiot if you try to answer them.

But as you willingly accept this idiocy, along the way you will discover other things that are far, far more interesting… 

And you will become much more curious about everything

I’ve spent a lot of this weird, weird year of weirdness with my head buried in books and science papers about curiosity. I’ve talked (remotely) to people far, far smarter and wiser about this stuff that I’ll ever be, picked through science papers galore, and – in the pursuit of curiosity, of course – stood in a floodlit Scottish garden in my underpants with my neighbours staring down at me in horror.

(Some days were definitely better than others.)

After a year of soul-searching and reading and rewiring my thinking on the importance of applied curiosity, I now know what I want to write about. And it’s a lot.

Coming up first is a newsletter I’m starting next month. Then a bit later, a podcast. Then after that, a few other things that should be…considerably weirder.

And in the meantime, you can find me most active on Instagram, finding out what’s within a mile of wherever I’m living (which is currently in an apartment in the northwestern corner of Orkney).

But for now, here are a few spoilers – because I reckon this stuff can’t wait.

1. Curiosity Kills Boredom

Usually by making you aware of all the things you never knew you didn’t know.

Boredom is a depressing certainty that for whatever reason (other people suck, you suck, everything sucks), you currently have a pretty good overview of everything that’s possible right now – and none of it is really worth doing.

In contrast, curiosity takes inspiration from Socrates, and says: “You, my dear friend, know jack shit about the world. If you really had any idea of what’s out there, you wouldn’t be here, moping around like a character from Dawson’s Creek & inviting us to feel sorry for you. You’re way too shortsighted and narrowminded about everything. Go climb a hill and report back.”

2. Curiosity Fights Anxiety

Well, “fights” is maybe the wrong sentiment. Curiosity is almost entirely carrot and almost no stick, and it works by attracting your attention elsewhere using fun and wonder – instead of using self-bullying, self-shaming and superhuman (ie. impossible) feats of conscious willpower as your chosen tools of behavioral change.

We live in anxious times. I’m well aware that I’m publishing this on the very day that the United States goes to the polls to decide its next President. To that end, I submit this article as a brief distraction from all that, under the category of “self-care” – but also as something with a hugely important pay-off for combatting anxiety. 

Becoming more curious and more easily fascinated will take you out of your head, away from the dread-fuelled churn of your thoughts, and switch your brain from WTF to WOW mode. 

3. Curiosity Pushes Back Depression

That’s why I got into this stuff.

After a rough half-decade of dealing with family health issues and the loss of my Ma in 2018, I sold a house last year and went travelling to get my head in order.

It took . . . a lot longer than expected. The hole was deeper than I thought it would be, and the sides were a lot steeper, too. I felt exhausted, cynical and jaded, and lacking the kind of hope, optimism and wonder that I needed to write the things I want my work to be about.

But then I learned what a more curious approach to life could teach me, and started putting it into practice – and it really helped. The more I tried to find new things (new-to-me things) about the world around me, the more I charted the mindboggling expanse of my own ignorance. Me, a man of 49, perhaps a little stupider than some, but in other ways absolutely unexceptional.

And yet I clearly knew nothing.

That was really exciting.

It was like the feeling of walking into a huge, ancient-smelling library, knowing that every book on every shelf was an adventure in itself – and there were also shelves out there in complete darkness, and who knows how far they went and where you’d end up? And then someone tells me that I can stay and explore for as long as I like.

All this meant the real fun was ahead of me, not behind me.

So – crack on, Mike. There’s all this unknown stuff to discover, matey.

But what if all the libraries are closed because of lockdown?

Well, I was using a metaphor there, but fair dues – that’s actually a good question. What can you learn when you’re stuck at home?

The answer is “a hell of a lot” – but since I wouldn’t expect you to take my word for it, listen to these folk instead.

18th-Century aristocrat Xavier de Maistre was stuck at home for 6 weeks (recovering from a duel, no less), and decided to turn the whole experience into a semi-fictionalised book.

It’s quite wonderful, thoroughly ridiculous, filled with all sorts of ludicrous digressions – and never runs out of interesting things to say.

More recently, this immensely popular travel writer decided to stop moving and look closer at the humble family home.

The result is one of his best books – and a timely read for 2020.

And this is one writer’s attempt to see her home anew, by going on walks around her city block with different experts, learning to see her own overfamiliar world in a fresh and exciting new way.

(This is a really gorgeous book. Be warned: it might leave you changed, in all the best ways.)

Yes yes, books, theories, blahdy-blah. I can see you stifling a yawn. But – HOW? How do you become more curious, Longwinded Blog-Post Writing Person?

OK then. Here are three curiosity hacks (as the young folk say) that you can use during “boring” everyday life – including pandemic lockdowns.

Learn Just A Little

Here is a short list of fairly everyday things that I formerly or currently have no knowledge of:

  • Car or motorcycle maintenance
  • The Offside Rule
  • Beer (I’m mildly allergic to it, as my dad was)
  • Cryptocurrency
  • Scandinavian immersion heater cover manufacturing techniques (basic and advanced)
  • Hair-care (since it all fell out in 1994)

If curiosity was entirely logical, I’d be obsessed with these things. If rationality was the game, we’d all be most curious about the things we have the least knowledge of – so we’d always be striving to wise up our deepest ignorances.

That would make sense, right?

Unfortunately, that’s not how it works at all.

In fact, we are MOST curious about the things we already know a little bit about.

Whenever an “information gap” develops between what we already know and what we don’t yet know, we’re hooked.

But if we know nothing to start with, there’s no gap for curiosity to bridge – and we’re like DON’T CARE, NEXT PLS.

So try this out:

(a) Find something you basically know nothing about, where that lack of knowledge bugs you once in a while…

(b) Go to Wikipedia, find the entry about it, and read until you see a somewhat interesting fact (in comparison to everything you find snoozeworthy about it). Write that fact down.

(c) Do this another 4 times.

You now know five facts about that thing – and there’s an excellent chance that at least one of them will stick in your mind, forming one end of an information gap that curiosity can bridge.

Next time you encounter that thing, you won’t be able to stop yourself. Your thoughts will yell, “HEY, I KNOW SOMETHING ABOUT THAT” – and you’ll lean in closer, eager to add something new to your own internal “all the boring bits removed” Wikipedia page on the subject.

Job done.

(via the always-fantastic xkcd: https://xkcd.com/162/)

Slow The Hell Down

The most widely-used variety of the human spirit of inquiry is called diversive curiosity.

It’s our love of novelty, the attraction of something fresh and surprising – aka. “shiny new thing syndrome”.

apps blur button close up

Diversive curiosity is exciting and fun.

It’s also what sells the latest versions of our favourite gadgets to us for 5x the price of the previous, almost-functionally-identical model.

And it’s what keeps us glued to social media: Liking, Clicking, Refreshing, Upvoting, Bookmarking and Pocketing and Instapapering (in the vain hope we some day ‘run out of new things’ and circle back to check them out properly), Clicking To See More, trusting we’ll Never Believe What Happens Next…

And suffering mental exhaustion like never before.

Diversive curiosity is terrifically exciting – but it’s also easy gamed and weaponised, so it’s used to wrestle time and attention away from our conscious minds and convert it into revenue for big tech companies.

Resistance may not be futile, but it’s really damn hard. It means reclaiming our hijacked online time, and avoiding the self-disgust that comes from looking at the clock and realising we’ve frittered away hours looking at bullshit. It means an act of rebellion against the most stupid and infuriating parts of the Internet status quo. It’s learning autonomy and self-control in the face of oppression.

It’s piracy, in fact, in the very best sense of the word.

By fighting back, using one of the great currencies of the 21st Century, we can empower ourselves more and more.

(Yes, power. Think about it: why do these massive platforms like Facebook and Twitter spend billions making things that they give away to us for free? Answer: because attention, like data, can be more valuable than money.)

Here’s a remarkable book about all this.

But there’s another technique of curious inquiry we can use. It’s called epistemic curiosity – and you probably know it better as “nerding out”.

It’s the tool of professional writers and photographers and filmmakers, of journalists and academics and industry experts, and of anyone who is smart enough to do what they do with maximum enthusiasm.

It’s what you learn when you stop and look, and then look harder – and then look even harder.

It turns out that everything, including the most seemingly boring things around us, contain whole worlds of fascinating stuff to learn…

But we never see them, because we’re moving too fast.

Here’s one way to catch a glimpse of those hidden worlds.

(a) When you find yourself mildly interested by a thing, pull out your phone and find its stopwatch function.

(b) Set it to at least 60 seconds – or even a few minutes. (Bonus points awarded if you can manage more than 5 minutes.)

(c) Start the clock – and focus all your attention on that thing, looking for something you’ve never seen before. Keep focusing.

(This is like meditation – your thoughts will go elsewhere, chasing after worries or trivial nonsense. Every time, gently bring them back without distracting yourself further with “I really suck at this” thinking.)

(d) At the end, sum up aloud what you’ve learned. Say it. Yes, you’re speaking to yourself, which is always the first sign of madness – but maybe this lunatic is worth listening to.

(That said, if there are people nearby, you’re allowed to whisper.)

So what did you just learn about the world, just by watching it for a bit longer than usual?

3. Ask Stupid Questions

We all love a good challenge – as proven on social media earlier this year.

Sourdough bread, anyone?

(This isn’t my photo. When I attempted to make my own bread in the summer, it came out looking like a freshly-removed facehugger from Alien. So, no.)

Or how about all the folk running every street in their own neighbourhoods, perhaps using Strava linked with Heatflask? (h/t Al Humphreys for this.)

Somewhat pointless; difficult to explain to someone else without feeling a bit daft; really great fun.

But also something else that’s even harder to out into words. Enlightening? Mind-expanding? Making you aware of all the things you had no idea even existed?

Hell yes.

Serendipity (the joy of an unplanned fortunate discovery) is usually what happens to you when you’re off doing something entirely unrelated, the more adventurous the better…

And by ‘adventurous”, well, maybe I mean “stupid”.

In these lockdowny times, our ability to be stupid outdoors is curtailed somewhat – and we have to think responsibly, to keep other people safe. No arguments there.

But there are still plenty of stupid things we can do at home.

And every good, stupid adventure is formed of a good, stupid question – which you can easily turn into the kind of stupid challenge that helps you discover serendipity along the way.

Like “hey, so how many chairs are in your house right now?”

Stupid challenge are never pointless.

Well, okay, maybe a few of them truly are. But you don’t know that until afterwards.

Most times, the point to a stupid challenge is something to see when you look backwards – a 20/20 hindsight kind of thing.

In other words, they are retrospectively pointful.

(And yes, that’s a deeply stupid way of phrasing it.)

So what’s the stupidest actually-doable challenge that you could set yourself today?

Have you ever wondered if it’s possible to wear every single item of clothing you own (barring the shoes, maybe), all at once? Is it possible? Why not find out?

Or – how accurately can you slam your kitchen cupboard doors in time to your favourite song?

(You may want to warn the neighbours first – in which case, I wish you the best of luck explaining it to them.)

The point is not the foolishness (although that’s definitely fun). The point is what you will discover along the way.

(Where ARE those chairs? What’s IN this cupboard? Would your neighbours REALLY report you to the police in the middle of a pandemic?)


Learn a tiny bit about everything.

Slow the hell down.

Challenge yourself to absurd bouts of creative idiocy…

…and maybe become a much happier person along the way.

Worth a punt, right?

Okay. Over to you. (Because, you know, I’m curious.)

What’s first on your list?

Images: Pixabay, Unsplash.com, xkcd, LittleHikerBird, Mike Sowden. (My thanks to the individual Pixabay and Unsplash photographers who generously released their work onto these platforms – I’m coming back later to add all specific credits.)

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