You Are Not Your Current Project. Move on. Stay Curious.

Our poor dog. Penny found a bone out on her morning walk. Perhaps it was in the neighbors yard, perhaps she unearthed it. But now the bone is hers – hers to carry, and own, and jealously protect. There she is. I can see her from the window, walking intently through the backyard with her new bone, looking furtively around. She is clearly stressed about this bone.

She marches into the woods behind our house, buries the bone carefully with earth and leaves, looks around, then digs it up again, and carries it somewhere else. It wasn’t safe there. Surely someone would find it.

She can’t put it down, and I start to think the bone owns her. The bone has finally found a dog and now will not let go of the new owner. Poor Penny is now doomed to carry around her new owner the bone. I think she should chew it, enjoy it, and then leave it for the next dog who comes along. I think she should let go.

We attach ourselves closely to our current efforts. We define ourselves by what we’re working on at the moment, but it’s important to understand you are not your latest project, in the same way you are not the car you drive or the clothes you wear. Hopefully your work will change over time. Hopefully you’ll create a new job. Hopefully, what you are doing at the moment is learning for the next thing you create.

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”
– Albert Einstein

Our level of curiosity has a strong influence on our ability to learn unrelated things, the kinds of things that appear in our peripheral vision, come out of left field, drop in over the transom. Instead of being distracted and annoyed by surprises and uninvited interruptions, are you open to new and unrelated ideas?

Dr. Matthias Gruber and his colleagues performed an interesting study in which they found that curious people have better memories of extraneous information. In their study, first they showed participants a series of questions, and asked participants how curious they are about the answers (Who was president when Uncle Sam first appeared with a beard? What does the word ‘dinosaur’ mean?).

Then, before the participants were shown the answers to the questions, they were briefly shown a photograph of a face, a fairly nondescript face of someone. Then the participant was told the answer (Dinosaur means ‘terrible lizard’).

The interesting part came next. Those who said they were curious about the answers to the questions were almost twice as likely to accurately remember the faces shown, the extraneous information.

“Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it,”
– Dr. Matthias Gruber

We already know we learn better when we are interested in something. But it turns out that we notice, and remember, unrelated things when we are curious. Stay curious my friends.

Related article: Learning goals are stronger than performance goals