Years ago I published a weekly Curiosity Journal. An autodidact’s journal. A lifelong learner’s exploration. A commonplace book. This time around, the Curiosity Journal will come out monthly, documenting six areas that ignite a curious mind: learn, read, write, play, try, listen.
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Curious people inevitably become lifelong learners. I love learning new things, whether knowledge, trivia, insight, or skills.
“Why People Who Take Notes All the Time Are More Likely To Be Successful” reminded me to pull out a pen and paper and take notes while listening to podcasts, watching TED talks, attending lectures, and reading. Especially when listening, the mere act of writing down the main points or thoughtful quotes helps preserve them in my mind as well as on paper. Depending on the type of information and how I might use it, my notes might live physically on note paper tucked into file folders, digitally on my computer or in Google Drive, scribbled into my bullet journal or commonplace book, or typed up right here in my curiosity journal.
Speaking of journals, Slate article “Surprise!” claims the most important skill in science or self-improvement is noticing the unexpected and keeping a journal to document our moments of surprise. That one habit can help us overcome our tendency to make assumptions and look for anecdotes and data to support our assumptions:
We’re all captives of one of the most well-established errors in human reasoning, called confirmation bias: our tendency to focus on evidence that confirms our prior expectations. Once our minds alight on a theory, our impulse is to reassure ourselves it’s true, not set out to disprove it…. In other words, we need to actively look for signs that our assumptions are wrong, because we won’t do so unprompted. One such sign, scientists have suggested, is the feeling of surprise.
The author quotes from psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness: “Brains are continuously making predictions…. Surprise tells us that we were expecting something other than what we got, even when we didn’t know we were expecting anything at all.”
Simply paying more attention to something that grabbed our attention can help us learn something about ourselves or the world around us. They recommend a three-step process for journaling our surprise, using student examples. I’m particularly impressed with this one:
Moment of surprise: I was making french fries, and had forgotten to listen to my mom about lowering the heat, so I burned them.
Why it was surprising: That same day I had been very confident with my cooking, and told my brother I didn’t make cooking mistakes.
What this tells me: I should probably start listening to my mom, when it comes to cooking.
The article ends with a quote from Isaac Asimov:
The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” but “That’s funny…”
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I’ve recently switched to Feedly to collect and organize RSS feeds. I spend a few minutes every day or every other day skimming titles and summaries, saving the most promising articles to Pocket, to read more slowly later. My goal is to enjoy and curate good content to share on such places my Facebook page or the On Being a Writer Facebook page, which my coauthor Charity Singleton Craig contributes to, as well. But if you really want to know what I’m reading, my Twitter feed is the best place to start.
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“Write it out. Tell the truth. Stack up the pages. Learn to write by writing.” This advice comes from Ann Patchett’s essay “The Getaway Car,” found in her book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. “Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration?”
If we want to write, she says, we have to write. This is not news, but it is reality that bears repeating because for some reason, many of us still hope for that “magic of inspiration” instead of dedicating ourselves to the hard work of practice.
“If you want to write,” Patchett says, “practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story.”
Are you facing internal resistance to doing the work of writing? Are you wondering if you have it in you? Or, as Patchett asks, “Do you want to do this thing?” If the answer is yes, here’s Patchett’s advice:
Sit down and do it. Are you not writing? Keep sitting there. Does it not feel right? Keep sitting there. Think of yourself as a monk walking the path to enlightenment. Think of yourself as a high school senior wanting to be a neurosurgeon. Is it possible? Yes. Is there some shortcut? Not one I’ve found. Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world.
I want to do this miserable, awful thing, so I’m staying with it.
I hope you do, too.
Patchett, Ann. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. HarperCollins Publishers: New York, 2013. Print. (Library)
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Back when the kids were young and our homeschool approach included many creative elements, I used to keep a nature journal along with the kids. We’d draw leaves and pine cones and trees and flowers. As the kids grew older and their science classes at our co-op relied more on textbooks, we stopped maintaining nature journals.
In my Feedly reading this month, I came across an article exploring the forgotten benefits of drawing as part of learning. It made me wish my kids’ high school science classes had incorporated more drawing:
Biological Illustration courses are not new. They’re taught in art colleges all over the world. My course, though, is a biology class.
Creating a high-quality scientific illustration requires a thorough understanding of biological processes, anatomy, and structural diversity. A major part of learning to identify birds, insects or plants is knowing the key structures to focus on. Comparing limb bones among vertebrates requires an understanding of skeletal anatomy and evolutionary shifts. Biological illustration requires biological knowledge.
In my class, we combine biological knowledge and observational skills each week. After covering a topic in lecture, students then select their own specimens to illustrate during the lab/studio time.
The results are spectacular. Students love it, feel engaged and involved, and take pride in their work – not because it’s worth a grade, but because they struggle, push themselves, and end up with a brilliant payoff.
Though this could easily fit under the “Learn” category, I realized while reading this article on Biological Illustration, maybe I could revive my nature journal as a fun play project for October.
An article on ways to spark your sense of wonder offered advice that also took me back to my earlier homeschooling days. “Seek out displays of mastery and genius,” the author suggests. “Slow down,” and “Change your lenses.” He writes:
We refer to the “sense of wonder” because the senses play such a vital role, and you can greatly extend your senses, and thus your apprehension of wonders, by utilizing new lenses—magnifying glasses, binoculars, microscopes, telescopes, amplifiers, stethoscopes.
A simple magnifying glass can transform a sprinkling of sand on the palm into a field of boulders, and the bark of a tree into a maze of canyons. Through any schoolkid’s microscope, you can marvel at the squirming animalcules in your own spit, or the wigglyworms and flagellates in a drop of water from the birdbath out back.
I used to take the kids out with magnifying lenses to study something up close—in fact, someone sparked my own sense of wonder one summer when I was young by handing me a magnifying glass. I stared down at a patch of lawn, enchanted. I reminisced about it back in 2011.
I do think one of the great outcomes of wonder, curiosity and play is enchantment.
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“It takes only one class of art history to learn the basic tools of art interpretation and appreciation,” says Mark Joseph Stern in Slate article “Take a Good Look.” He continues, “College students should save themselves from a hollow future of art illiteracy by signing up.”
I don’t want to be “art illiterate.” I don’t want to be like the woman Mr. Stern watched “stop in front of Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, scoff, then turn on her heels and walk away.”
Once again, I reflected on our early home education days, when the kids and I looked at art together, especially paintings that I found in books and visits to art museums. My desire was for my kids to be comfortable making observations and engaging with art, so I didn’t feel the need to be an expert. I’d read a book or two on art history geared for young readers, like Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting and The Annotated Mona Lisa, but when it came to modern art, I felt confused and ignorant, afraid I might turn into the woman who turns on her heels and walks away from Broadway Boogie Woogie. Mr. Stern says:
A typical art history survey course spans several eras—often ancient to medieval, or Renaissance to modern—and strives to give students the tools to interpret art. You won’t come away from such a course with an encyclopedic knowledge of the differing styles of Venetian and Roman artists during the Italian Renaissance. You will, however, know how to walk into a museum, locate its Renaissance rooms, and scrutinize the canvases in an engaging and constructive way. You can look at the colors, the themes, the perspective, and find something smart to say about it. You can take pleasure in looking at and thinking about art—a process that’s both intellectually and emotionally gratifying.
I want to find something smart to say about art. I want to take pleasure in looking and thinking about art. I want tools to interpret art, from ancient and medieval all the way through to my weakest era: modern art. I browsed Coursera’s offerings and found a class on modern art. Though geared for teachers, I signed up. It would not provide me with a survey of art history, but it would help me engage with modern art, which is where I’m lacking.
I was delighted to see Broadway Boogie Woogie was one of the first works the Coursera class introduced. With help from experts from The Museum of Modern Art, I am trying to understand and appreciate modern art.
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I’m trying to listen to conversations in the news, in the world, in social media. In this section, I might share some responses to those big topics, but more likely I’ll share music or podcasts I’ve enjoyed, or a conversation that captured my imagination. I’m going to practice listening and share what I hear, because curious people learn to be attentive listeners.
This month, I listened to Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast “Magic Lessons,” which she created as a way to explore ideas she presents in her just-released book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (which I have not read). One of my favorite episodes was the last, a conversation with Brene Brown, who has her own recent book release, Rising Strong (which I also have not read). Elizabeth and Brene are friends, so it’s charming to hear them interact. That episode (#12 Brene Brown on “Big, Strong Magic”) is filled with a range of insights and encouragement. A few naughty words slip out, so be warned and plan accordingly, but I found it a worthwhile investment of time.
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I’ve always valued, even nurtured, a healthy, holy curiosity that tends to stretch me, surprise me, and lead me to a more creative and productive life. Tracking the month’s curiosity discoveries reminds me to stay open, ask questions, try new things, play, and pass along my discoveries to others.
Images with words created by Isabelle Kroeker,