Curiosity is a virtue. It
promotes epistemic honesty, ignites creativity, and improves both competence
and well-being. Multiple posts already discussed
different types of curiosity
the contrast between signalling curiosity and being curious,
the scientific evidence behind curiosity,
why curiosity seemed to leave children,
even the limits of curiosity.
Yet my own issues with curiosity come not with generating it but with
keeping it. Everyday, a myriad of subjects and pieces of content
spark the flame of curiosity in me; also everyday,
recurring thoughts dampen, or sometimes blow out this flame. I thus
need ways to address these thoughts more than techniques to become curious.
What I call curiosity-stoppers -- inspired from but slightly different of this
from the Sequences -- brings a lot of negative to my life.
My difficulties to focus on a specific topic of study stems in part from
curiosity-stoppers in the way, which then make almost any other topic
seems more interesting by contrast. When curiosity-stoppers proliferate,
I cannot find anything I'm happy or interested to do, and I feel completely
empty and drained. Even when these thoughts don't overpower me,
they consistently push me to postpone reading, listening, watching or writing content
I'm genuinely curious about and which might improve my life and my research.
I intend this post as an exploration of my own curiosity-stoppers, as well as
my personal counter-measures to each of them. In contrast with
mine isn't a scientific examination of the question based on an extensive
literature. I merely catalog what I found grappling with my own issues
with curiosity-stoppers. Since I find it difficult to believe I'm a one-of-a-kind
special snowflake, I believe others will share part of my experience. I hope
naming and addressing this issue directly will help them deal with it too.
Let's get down to basics and define the main terms.
First is "a discovery": a moment where I discover some new idea about the world
-- every time I understand something new. This includes learning a new mathematical
definition or theorem, understanding how a system works, or figuring out
the meaning behind a text. But also discovering what happens next
in the novel I'm reading, finding the right way to write a specific scene in
a short story, or learning a small trick about how to prove mathematical inequalities.
Note that contrary to the usual meaning of discovery,
I don't need to be the first in the world to find it.
As the introduction explained, everything positive and exciting
and productive in my life is fueled by discoveries (except maybe
When I discover something cool, an irrepressible wave of excitement
flushes over my body, making me grin and jump up and down, or even
roll like a maniac on my bed sometimes. Discoveries make me happy,
and almost all my accomplishments included and resulted
in such discoveries.
Curiosity is then the gut feeling that a specific activity will yield one
or more discoveries. The gut feeling part matters, because the meaning
I'm grasping for requires being convinced emotionally that discoveries lie ahead.
This corresponds to the active curiosity of this
Why is it that important? When I'm curious, extracting the discoveries
push me to spend energy and effort. Such tradeoffs always feel worth it,
if only because discoveries energize me.
You now have all the pieces to get the meaning of curiosity-stopper: a reaction
preventing curiosity for a specific thing, be it a whole field or a concrete
object like an article, a book, a video. Curiosity-stopper don't necessarily
hinder the purely intellectual curiosity -- "Oh, this looks cool" --
but the gut feeling curiosity. If I find something abstractly interesting but
cannot convince myself that it will actually yield discoveries, then I'm in
the throw of a curiosity-stopper. This disconnect between my gut feeling and
what I want is why curiosity-stoppers are my bane, and why the rest of this
post address how I deal with them.
But just before that, I can now explain the link between my definition
and Yudkowsky's in
Science as Curiosity-Stopper
In this post, Yudkowsky explains how the word "Science" act
as a curiosity-stopper for some people: when someone invokes it as an explanation,
no need is left to understand how the thing works -- someone else already
knows. What Yudkowsky argues against is the feeling that someone already knowing
something devaluates it. This is not what I'm talking about.
I might have used "Science" as a curiosity-stopper in this sense, but only
to excuse my lack of interest. Whereas my own use of curiosity-stopper assumes
that I care about the subject, but for some reason (the curiosity-stopper),
I fail to convince myself that discoveries lie ahead.
The following curiosity-stoppers plague me regularly. I attempt to describe
them as explicitly as possible, so you can spot them in your own experience.
When I can, I give a concrete example. I also propose my counter-measure for
this specific curiosity-stopper.
A note before we start: In real-life situations, multiple curiosity-stoppers
usually band together. Which means that one needs to disentangle them before
applying the analysis and the counter-measures.
My most common curiosity-stoppers is the excuse of tiredness.
Again and again, when I want to read a blog post, study a topic, write,
I feel in response this sense of exhaustion. Rephrasing it through
discoveries, I feel that I'm not in the right state to find the discoveries in the topic,
and thus my curiosity falters. Yet most of the times the activity itself usually
energize myself, if I actually do it. I even tend to finish feeling more alive
than when I started, thanks to all the discoveries along the way.
As a concrete example, consider reading a blog post. It might be LW or AF posts,
SSC or gwern, or any other cool post on the internet I've found. Reading such
post doesn't fall under my mandatory daily habits (read 1 page of fiction,
1 page of non-fiction and 1 page of poetry) and rarely crop up in my research work;
it's thus a thing I do on the side, when I have some time. But when I do find the time,
I feel too tired to read something complex. I push back to another time, when I'll be less
tired. Yet I'm rarely not tired in this sense, as this tiredness often
comes more from a lack of discoveries than from my physical state.
Here the strategy is obvious: force myself. More concretely, I have a
such that when I feel the excuse of tiredness, I need to push myself to do the thing
for at least 5 minutes. By that point, I'll usually have encountered at least one
small discovery, and sure of my ability to find more, my curiosity will be back.
In the rare case where I cannot stand even 5 minutes,
I'm either exhausted or reading a very boring thing. Both
cases imply that I should stop.
Regularly, I'll find myself with a slot of 10, 15, 30 minutes maybe, without
obligations. These intervals lend themselves perfectly to reading a bit about a cool topic,
toying with a research question, or writing a couple paragraphs of fiction or non-fiction.
Except that more often than not, I find myself scrolling on my phone or roaming
aimlessly in my apartment. Tiredness plays a role, as do other curiosity-stoppers
I'll get into later; but the main offender seems to be another
curiosity-stopper: the thought that I don't have enough time to extract
discoveries from the activity. I might tell myself that the activity requires
more than my interval to generate discovery. Or I might tell myself that
starting the activity without finishing it or without investing a decent chunk
of time will be detrimental to either the quantity or quality of discoveries.
Both of which don't hold to scrutiny.
Writing falls into the first kind of rationalization.
For whatever reason, I believe I need a massive chunk of time to get
my brain into writing gear. Which is definitely false, because I'm writing this
specific section in a 20 minutes interval and I'm doing fine. This belief
might stem from advice against switching tasks and contexts too often. But in this
case, I'm not switching context away from what I need to do, I'm just using
a chunk of unclaimed time as best as I can.
For the second kind of rationalization, my best example is reading.
When reading something, part of me think I should either
read it all in one sitting (if it's short enough), or at least
reach the end of a natural unit (like a chapter). Failing to do so
would... lower the values of the discoveries?
As if most of this value came from the experience itself,
and thus this experience should happen under the best circumstances.
Yet the alternative to reading in short burst isn't taking hours
to read, but reading rarely, if not at all. So even if there is a devaluation of
discoveries (of which I'm unconvinced), reading that is still worth it.
The prescription for this curiosity-stopper is the same one than for Fatigue:
forcing myself. When I push myself and do it anyway, the fear of not having
enough time morphs into an effort to extract the best of what little time I have.
That's a better mindset.
Whenever I look into some topic I know even slightly, a little voice
inside my head tells me: "You already know what's in there: no discoveries".
In my defense, I am good at extracting the main ideas from a blog post,
a story, a book. But deep understanding of a research paper requires more than
getting the gist; deep understanding of a piece of writing requires more than getting
the emotions and ideas. And the worst part is that discoveries do lie in these details.
It's just that my curiosity-stopper gets in the way.
Maths is a perfect example. I've been trying to study Real Analysis for some time. Now,
I already studied Real Analysis quite deeply in what we call Classes Préparatoires in France,
a two-year intensive science program with 12-hours of maths a week.
But that was 6 years ago; and even at that time, I preferred Algebra to Analysis.
So when I look into more advanced stuff like Measure Theory, I end
up having some trouble, even if a lot of the prerequisites feel familiar.
I just need to brush up my Real Analysis, right? But every time I go grab my textbook
(which I enjoy reading, by the way), I feel that it's pointless. After all, I already
know analysis, don't I?
I do. Enough to feel that I know it, but not enough to accomplish my objectives.
A dangerous spot. Dangerous enough to warrant a warning in the
twelve virtues of rationality:
If in your heart you believe you already know, or if in your heart you do not wish to know, then your questioning will be purposeless and your skills without direction.
If in your heart you believe you already know, or if in your heart you do not wish to know, then your questioning will be purposeless and your skills without direction.
My solution requires slightly more work than the previous ones: explain the topic to myself.
If I already know it, then I should be able to explain it clearly and in details.
Trying to do this usually reveals questions I don't know, holes in my
understanding and things I become curious about. Most of the times, I don't berate
myself for my failings; instead I want to find out the missing piece of my knowledge.
I want to fill the holes I just revealed.
This idea comes from the
which makes you explain a topic to yourself to reveal what you're missing to
to really master it. It works great for the original purpose, but I
also find it useful to rekindle the flame of my curiosity.
Sometimes, everything in my life feels drab. Not only what I do and my prospects,
but even what I read and watch. When that happens, I'm usually falling for the curiosity
stopper "Not Interesting". It's a mindset thing, because given the right spin,
any topic can be really interesting -- i.e. generate discoveries. But when this
curiosity-stopper rears its head, nothing looks worthwhile.
Because this one doesn't need examples, let's get right to the solution: remember
why I considered it interesting in the first place. I maintain a collection of
pieces that I want to read, videos I want to watch, and other kind of things I'm curious
about. When I add something to this collection, it's because it excited my curiosity
in one way or the other; I sensed some cool discovery along the way. So pushing myself
to remember this feeling, to recall why I was excited, usually gives enough of a
twist to my perspective to actually do the thing and enjoy it.
The natural dual to "Not Interesting" is "Not Useful". I want to
change the world for the better, and make something out of my life;
so I care deeply about how useful my actions are. That's usually a good thing.
But in some contexts, this attitude becomes a curiosity-stopper. The issue and
solution differs depending on whether I'm in a "useful phase" or in a "relaxing phase".
Following this split, I have two distinct strategies to deal with this specific
curiosity-stopper: remember why I found it useful and remember I'm not trying
to do something useful at the moment. These are pretty self-explanatory.
Lastly, sometimes my curiosity-stopper comes from the nature of what I'm about to experience.
I don't like felling bad, or distressed, or in pain. So when I see a post about distressful
things from the real world, or when I consider reading a sad or grim or plain horror novel,
or even when I'm trying to grapple with complex and difficult issues, I might back away. My curiosity,
my need to understand, to discover what it means, to experience it, is subdued by this fear
of the negative emotion.
Fleeing from public debates which depress me is a good example: I so rarely try to learn more
about climate change or racism, even when I am curious and recognize the importance to deal
with it. But this looming distress, this risk of pain, makes me feel in my guts that
there's nothing interesting here, even though I disagree intellectually.
This is also a big curiosity-stopper against epistemic honesty:
not wanting to learn that you're wrong, because it hurts.
My "solutions" to this feel less than satisfactory: remember that you don't have to act on what you
read, and remember that negative emotions underlie many of the most important part of human existence.
The second one might be cliche, but it rings true to me, and that's what it's here for.
The first one feels... cowardly. Of course I should act. Of course I should do whatever I can to help
those in need and fight injustices. But the truth is, with this mind set, I either don't read
anything on the subject, or spend all of my time "fighting injustices directly" by screaming
on social media. I believe (and it might be my cowardly rationalization) that I can bring more
to the world by doing the work I'm doing right now. But I also believe that I should
not stay deaf to the Dark World.
That's my compromise.
In this post, I listed and explained the curiosity-stoppers in my life, and proposed my
counter-measures for each. Here is a summary of this.
Among the curiosity-stoppers described above, not all impact me at the same scale. I would
say that Fatigue, Not Enough Time and Not Interesting are the most frequent. Already Know is
definitely rarer, but it causes more problems for my more serious endeavors like learning maths.
I want to conclude by telling a little story. All my life, people have called me lazy. I tended
to agree grudgingly, because I created neither in quantity nor in quality. But that tag, "lazy", never
fitted with my constant efforts to find my passion, to try new things and build stuff,
to use each of my holidays as free time to launch projects. I know think curiosity-stoppers are partly to blame
for that discrepancy. Because when my curiosity stops for a subject, another takes its place.
This results in field hopping like a rabbit on crack, and nothing to show at the end of the road.
Maybe your own frustration with your learning, your productivity, your failings to follow-up
on what excited you, maybe they also stem from curiosity-stoppers. And maybe now you know The
Enemy, and have a chance to fight back.
Thanks to Alexis Carlier and Jérémy Perret for feedback on this post.
I really like this post. Before, I just knew that sometimes I "didn't feel like studying", and that was that. Silly, but that's the nature of a thoughtless mistake. Now, I have a specific concept and taxonomy for these failure modes, and you suggested good ways of combating them. Thanks for writing this!
Thanks! I'm glad it helped.
What pissed me most about this "I don't want to study" is that I usually choose my topics because I find them exciting. So why wouldn't I want to study them? This frustration then led me to think about curiosity-stoppers.
Perhaps a subclass of "fear of pain", I sometimes find my curiosity is stopped when I think about how much work it would be to get good at something. For example, let's say it's some new programming language or database I might work with, but I start looking and realize I'm going to have to spend what feels like a long time before I'm going to be able to do much with it, and even longer before I'll be as expect at it as the things I'm already expert at.
Much more tempting to learn something more about the things I'm already good at so I can get even better at them than to learn something totally new so I can still not be very good at it, but at least now slightly less bad.
Hum, I would say it depends on why you want to learn it. If it's professional, then you might be right in not following through if it is not that useful. If it's for your own pleasure, then I must admit I rarely feel that specific curiosity-stopper. I tend to be pretty sure that I can do things; my issues are much more about following on that.
Oh, I definitely experience this even with things that are not professional. For example, I'm not very musically talented, and haven't done much other than sing badly in the shower and at karaoke since I left high school. I have little things around I could play with to get better, like a harmonica, but I just don't have fun engaging in the play of exploring the instrument, and I think part of this is because I'm not already good enough to feel like I'm having fun. There's this kind of subtle way curiosity and play get stopped for me when it feels too hard or like my play will only pay off far down the road.
Maybe this is the right choice ultimately, but it's hard to know since curiosity and the related notion of play seem to valuable in their own right much of the time.
I think a common curiosity stopper is 'Opportunity cost': this would be interesting to explore, but I have limited time, and the expected value trade off isn't attractive.