Curiosity Exploration — An evolutionary approach to lifelong learning

Image by Luca Baggio
Check Out These Curiosity Enabling Tools
  1. Kindle - an eReader

  2. Readwise - past books highlights and notes organizer app

  3. Text Scanner - OCR app

  4. iCollect Books - book inventory collection app

  5. Boogie Board Sync - Electronic writing pad

  6. College Xoice(r) - College decision app

These pictures portray the universal wonderment of a young person. A picture of a young person completely amazed by their surrounding environment. Also, a picture of a young person completely motivated to explore their surrounding environment. What is the young person’s driving motivation? In a word - CURIOSITY. Some of us, the lucky ones, find curiosity inspiration our entire lives.

This article shares my approach to curiosity fulfillment. This is my admittedly adult-ish approach to staying young and curious. The article starts with my background and personality, to help you understand my motivation. Then, I share the approach and step-by-step method to satisfy my curiosity. This includes helpful tools to improve the speed and quality of curiosity exploration. Along the way, I provide "DIGGING DEEPER" references in the event your curiosity is stirred. I’m sharing a curiosity-enablement method that works for me. I hope my approach will be helpful to you, as you make your own curiosity exploration journey.

 

This article is presented in the following sections:

  1. Introduction

  2. My background, personality, and motivation

  3. Curiosity Exploration Approach

  4. Curiosity Exploration Method & Tools

  5. Conclusion

  6. Notes- Examples and musings for Curiosity Exploration

curious boy woods.jpg

​1. Introduction

 

Like so many of us, I was born curious. My parents told me stories of my natural and intensive curiosity. How I relentlessly asked questions when I was young. My parents were loving people, but even they had limits as to how much of the day they could spend answering my questions. Finally and probably out of desperation, they bought me a set of “Tell Me Why” books. I remember spending hours with these wonderful books, asking and answering my own questions. For me, “Tell Me Why” was my first Google. My initial approach to exploring the world. Also, when I was young, my family lived in a modest suburb of Richmond, Virginia. I was fortunate our neighborhood was surrounded by still undeveloped land, with woods, streams, hills, and wildlife. This was a 10-year-old’s play laboratory for learning by doing.

 

Today, I am an insatiable and broad reader. I genuinely enjoy exploring different topics. Even during the pandemic, when travel is limited, I can travel the universe and across time, on the wings of a good book. Rene Descartes’ saying rings true for me,

“The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.”

2. My background, personality, and motivation

By way of background, I am an academically trained economist. In my career, I have been a practicing data scientist and decision scientist. I have held leadership roles in banks, consulting firms, and software companies. My formal education background includes Mathematics, Finance, and Economics. Not long ago, a friend and fellow economist explained to me the difference between a data scientist and an economist. He said the data scientist wants to understand HOW different data are related and drive some predictive outcome. The economist is similar in the desire to use data, except, the economist’s passion is for WHY certain outcomes occur. That is, an economist passionately explores causality. That was the day I truly understood why I like economics!

 

From a personality standpoint, I am a dot connector. In the language of the Meyers-Briggs personality type, I skew toward the “Intuitive” as opposed to a “Sensor.” This means, among other things, that I am very comfortable with the counterfactual. I easily move between topics and utilize partially complete information to forecast the future. I have a natural ability to “connect the dots.” I see the future as dimensionally available. Clearly, I would not be anyone's first choice to be an accountant!

 

My dot-connecting is fortified by another feature of my personality, I skew toward an "Introvert" as opposed to an "Extrovert." I am naturally curious about the "things" in my environment. Whereas, an extrovert tends to enjoy sharing with the world about those things. My natural introversion encourages me to learn deeply about those things. Think of those things as foundational dots that need connecting. DIGGING DEEPER: Please see the article Creativity - For Both Introverts and Extroverts.

 

By our choices today, I believe we have the ability to influence future outcomes and our place in those outcomes. By connecting the dots, I enjoy learning seemingly disparate topics, bringing them together, and exploring unique “why” insights. The following is an example that “connects the dots” between math, science, economics, and investments.

An example of connecting the dots: I like learning about chaos theory and fractal geometry. This includes the understanding of how fractals relate to nature, like fluid dynamics or the biology of trees. There is a short leap to physics and how fractals relate to inertia, momentum energy, entropy, and the atomic dependence of nature. Atoms “stick together” to create a molecule. Elements “stick together” to create a compound. All this “sticking” creates inertia and momentum. This helps explain why you can siphon gasoline from a car gas tank while seeming to break the law of gravity! From there, the analog to financial markets is powerful, where fractal geometry will help explain the uncertainty associated with quickly changing financial markets. Especially, as the market transitions from a “less sticky” lower volume, low inertia, low entropy state to a “more sticky” higher volume, high inertia, high entropy state. This is especially true in a phase change analog, similar to the physical phase change transition from ice to water. Heat causes ice to transition to water, just like metaphorical heat is applied to slow markets to transition to a fast-moving, tumultuous financial market. Ultimately, securities price volatility is better explained by fractal geometry than the overly simple variation models described by traditional statistics, like standard deviation. Thinkers like Benoit Mandelbrot will be hailed as a genius that figured this out, once the rest of the world catches up in about 50 to 100 years!
Reasoning Spiral.png

 

So, what did I do as a result of these connected dots? It has informed my overall investment approach in terms of risk-taking and time frames, to name just a few investment considerations. Please see my Investment Thoughts For My Children article for a summary. The evolution of my investment approach is based on both theory and practice. The investment approach detailed in Our investment barbell strategy article is an example of a curiosity-enabled outcome. DIGGING DEEPER: For other examples of curiosity-enabled dot connections, please see our idea incubator The Curiosity Vine.

 

A natural, follow-on question is: "What motivates you to connect the dots?" In truth, I'm not entirely sure. My best guess is that the answer is found deep in my brain, deep in my genome, in my community culture, and in my experiences. DIGGING DEEPER: Please see the article Epigenetics and how our piano is played for connection between our genome and our environment.

 

I do know, that ”dot-connecting” is my "Motivation's Desire" and I'm glad I found it. It is entirely possible my Motivation's Desire was always there, I just had to be quiet and observant enough to understand it. It is my curiosity that leads me to my Motivation's Desire. It is my Motivation‘s Desire that fires my curiosity. The best of all reinforcing cycles. I believe we are all naturally curious. Individual differences relate to how we naturally experience and leverage that curiosity. I have shared my “how” story in the hopes it helps you explore how curiosity fires your Motivation’s Desire.

 

Social Media and Curiosity:

Curiosity may be our greatest ally in the potentially dangerous social media world.  Social media has positive attributes, but it also has a scary dark side. Social media platforms and related technology companies have learned to hack our core neural processes. These are the processes that code information in our brain. In particular, social media platform Machine Learning algorithms act upon the information coding ability of common neurotransmitters - like dopamine and oxytocin.

 

Social media’s dark side is characterized by:

  • a narrow-casting,

  • fake news-trumpeting,

  • like-chasing,

  • fleeting pleasure-producing,

  • tribal-reinforcing,

  • censorship-increasing, and a

  • fact-based decision-discouraging environment.

All for the purpose of helping the social media platforms increase their revenue. It is our curiosity discipline that ballasts social media’s ills. DIGGING DEEPER: As a social media countermeasure, please see the 3/15/22 note for how to manage The Information Time Cycle. We also provide resources to improve your information curation.

 

3. Curiosity Exploration Approach

 

As a standard, I regularly experiment with various curiosity exploration approaches. I regularly make small adaptations to existing approaches and try new approaches and technologies. I’m a curiosity tinkerer. For me, my curiosity exploration has evolved based on both theory and experiment. This section describes my general approach to feeding my “always-on” curiosity engine.

 

As background, I am a big fan of the Kindle and eReaders in general. I understand this is controversial for book purists. Many accomplished people prefer paper books. N. N. Taleb comes to mind as a paper book purist, he has many valid reasons….just different than mine. For me, eReaders and supporting technology are a curiosity exploration game changer.

 

The next section describes the stepwise creative method for my curiosity enablement. This is accomplished via reading, thinking, connecting the dots, writing, editing, experimenting, and practicing. It is an evolutionary process that may be described as a heuristic learning spiral. Please see the “Climbing the reasoning spiral” graphic.

 

My approach to learning is facilitated via a biological evolution-like model, including trial, error-correcting, and action-updating processes. The learning spiral uses reasoning associated with both deduction (like theory development) and induction (like theory testing and updating via practice and experience.) I owe thanks to the ancient Greeks, like Aristotle, as well as Rene Descartes for defining and advancing deductive reasoning. Thanks to Leonardo DaVinci and Francis Bacon for their groundbreaking work on inductive reasoning and the scientific method.

I am reminded that understanding “why” (causation) requires doing. It is difficult to understand “why” only through observation (correlation). Randomized control trials (RCT) are the gold standard for “doing” a proper experiment to confirm causality. In recent times, natural “RCT-like” experiments have become accepted in the social sciences. This is important since being “in the wild” is often the only option for gathering social science-related data and insight. DIGGING DEEPER: Please see the 4/26/21 note regarding AI and causality researcher Judea Pearl’s Ladder of Causation and my experience with RCT.

 

My experience suggests curiosity fulfillment is a balance of theorizing and doing. As such, to climb up the learning cycle, we need to do both. I believe Physicist Heinz Pagels said it best:

“The relationship between theory and experiment is like a dance in which sometimes one partner leads and sometimes the other.”

 

4. Curiosity Exploration Method & Tools

The following provides the step-by-step method for my curiosity exploration process. This is my method for climbing the learning spiral. This has been evolving throughout my life, especially as new technologies become available.

  1. Utilize the Kindle to collect and read books and articles of interest. The Kindle is very light and easy to carry if you are a business traveler. (as I was before the pandemic) Books of interest vary, based on my fancy or current interest. Sometimes I cluster reading books around a particular topic, sometimes I jump to a different topic not visited in a while. Also, I will load articles and other PDFs onto my Kindle. In this section “books” are referring to a broader set of information resources, including books, research papers, podcast transcripts, etc. DIGGING DEEPER: Please see the 7/27/22 note for how to load PDFs on the Kindle.

  2. Most important, as a dot connector, is having ready access to my entire library network. The speed at which I cross-reference is very helpful to draw connections between my thoughts and ideas found in different books. Sometimes a “connected thought picture” is ephemeral, so checking references while the connected thought is “front of mind” is helpful. Sometimes a dot connection occurs from a catalyst. A good example of this occurred as a result of the January 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. This article, Your vote does not matter as much as it should! was catalyzed by the attack. The article almost wrote itself, I was more like the vessel. Sometimes a dot connection is made out of the blue. Perhaps, this occurred after my subconscious had been working on a problem. My subconscious does not provide forewarning for when it will provide a solution. So having my thinking tools at hand is very helpful. DIGGING DEEPER: Please see the 8/22/20 and 10/8/20 notes for Alexander Hamilton’s, Charles Darwin’s, and Thomas Hobbes’ curiosity-related approaches.

  3. I manage my thinking at the idea level, not the book level. As such, I view books as nodes in an information web to support ideas, not as a stand-alone entity. The Kindle facilitates accessing this web of ideas.

  4. I am a book curator. I am careful only to read books that meet my broad but picky needs. I am also quick to “fire” a book if I discover it is not what I expected. For example, I am a big fan of Yuval Harari and his books Sapiens and Homo Deus. As such, I expected his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century to be just as good. It wasn’t for me. I found some of his lessons to be simplistic and not researched as deeply as I expected. As such, I stopped reading the book about 20% of the way through. With that said, I appreciate perspectives that may challenge a previously held belief. DIGGING DEEPER: Please see the article Changing our mind.

  5. I find annotation much easier in a Kindle. An annotation is like a dot generated from some previous idea and maybe the starting point for a dot that will ultimately get connected to future ideas. If I am really into a book, I have been known to create 100s of annotations. Some of these annotations will find their way into articles. DIGGING DEEPER: I use a tool that organizes and relates past highlights and annotations. The tool uses an AI to recommend other books based on those annotation groups. This tool is called Readwise.

  6. I use OCR-based automation apps as a way to efficiently capture annotation or related reference “dots” and make them available for the articles. Naturally, I make sure all captured information is properly referenced. DIGGING DEEPER: I use an Apple OCR app called Text Scanner, but there are many available.

  7. I write articles on an ongoing basis. I keep these articles organized in my cloud google drive account or on my idea incubator platform called The Curiosity Vine. I have thousands of entries. Some are a paragraph long, some are 10+ pages. Each article grows organically, as I learn and connect the dots between topics. What is important here is that I do not get too hung up on initial article length or quality, I just put my thoughts down or refer to ideas. Over time, though, I find ideas naturally grow in their own way and at their own pace. I do spend more time editing as my ideas crystalize. However and to emphasize, this is a natural process, nothing that is forced. I can leave topics for years and then find my way back to them. Or, sometimes I will get intensely interested in a topic and I will spend more immediate time thinking, writing, and editing.

  8. I do have a paper book library. I rarely read the paper version and prefer reading the same book on my Kindle. A paper book is more challenging to connect to my broader curiosity network. A good question would be, “well Jeff, then why the heck do you have a paper book library?” Good question! This is because: a) I collect books I haven’t read. This reminds me of topics I want to learn or new dots I want to connect. b) I like books aesthetically. They make me feel good when I’m in my office. They are like good friends I care to be around. They remind me of the great enthusiasms of those that have come before us. c) Books remind me of my great time and space travels. For me, books are to time and space travel as a picture album is to a family vacation. d) I keep extra books as gifts for others. e) As a hobby, I enjoy shopping for books at thrift shops and online used booksellers. Happiness is finding a good hardback at a deeply discounted price! (Yes, admittedly, I’m a practicing Econ geek.)

  9. I do keep an inventory of all my books. This has been made pretty easy by apps, library APIs, and ISBN code scanners. Today, I use an app called iCollect Books. This way, if I’m browsing at a bookseller, I know whether I already own the book. DIGGING DEEPER: See the attached file at the bottom of this article for the latest inventory.

  10. I interact with many capable people to gather feedback, develop, and grow new ideas. In fact, The Curiosity Vine is an idea incubator. My approach to gathering feedback includes thinking tools enabling note taking, writing, hearing, and many other means to gather and implement feedback. DIGGING DEEPER: Please see the article Creativity and managing our thinking tools. One of my thinking tools is an electronic writing pad called Boogie Board Sync. It is no longer being manufactured but I still purchase them from retailers and second-hand. There are certainly other models.

  11. Based on my learning, I will generally develop experiments to confirm an idea. One example is the work several collaborators and I are doing to improve the college decision for high school students. DIGGING DEEPER: Please see my article for more information: The College Decision - Framework and tools for investing in your future. I appreciate climbing the learning spiral with both induction and deduction. As part of our college decision efforts, we have stood up a nonprofit called Definitive Social and have created an app, now in app stores, called College Xoice(r). This is the inductive part of pursuing our Motivation’s Desire!

 

5. Conclusion

Curiosity exploration is one of life's great pleasures, along with faith, family, and friends. Beyond our formal education, curiosity exploration is an expression of lifelong learning. DIGGING DEEPER: Please see the 10/20/20 note for more information on the education process and my wife’s amazing ability to inspire learning confidence.

 

My belief is, that rarely are people born to do some specific grand pursuit. Much more likely, via persistent curiosity exploration, we will receive both great pleasure and personal fulfillment. It is the process, not the product, that provides for our fulfillment. Curiosity enables us to adapt to our environment and to provide for our community. And, just maybe, the grand pursuit will be revealed by our curiosity!

The approach and method described here is one I found organically that works for me; my personality, my comfort with technology, my skills, and my interests. I encourage you to consider your approach to curiosity exploration. It is truly one of life’s greatest gifts! We all started as curious when we were children. If you are newly returning to the adult-ish version of curiosity exploration, start small and grow! If you are already an experienced explorer, hopefully, you took away a few helpful suggestions.

 

Finally, this article, as are most of my writings, is regularly being improved and updated. Please check back periodically for the latest updates. Also, I'm particularly curious about your lived experience with Curiosity Exploration. Please contact me if you are interested in contributing your Curiosity Exploration experiences.

 

6. Notes - Examples and musings for Curiosity Exploration

 

8/22/20

Alexander Hamilton was known to be a brilliant autodidact. One who lived his life in a consistent state of learning.

 

Following is a passage from Chernow’s Hamilton biography. Truly a great example of intelligence and collective learning.

“Hamilton developed ingenious ways to wring words from himself. One method was to walk the floor as he formed sentences in his head. William Sullivan left an excellent vignette of Hamilton’s intense method of composition.
‘One who knew his habits of study said of him that when he had a serious object to accomplish, his practice was to reflect on it previously. And when he had gone through this labor, he retired to sleep, without regard to the hour of the night, and, having slept six or seven hours, he rose and having taken strong coffee, seated himself at his table, where he would remain six, seven, or eight hours. And the product of his rapid pen required little correction for the press.’”

 

- Ron Chernow about Alexander Hamilton

 

Hamilton had an impressive understanding of his own neurobiology. The importance of sleep as a cognitive processing bridge from intensive introversion to intensive extroversion.

 

10/7/20

I am in the process of standing up a website called “The Curiosity Vine.” It will be an "idea incubator" to engage others in curiosity exploration and to share relevant writings. I have some students at JMU helping with this project. This George Dyson quote from his book Darwin Among The Machines seems fitting for the Curiosity Vine project - “Human creativity is the recombination of ideas.” Note: As of January 2021, The Curiosity Vine is live!

 

10/8/20

A passage about Thomas Hobbes was written by John Aubrey. Perhaps our approach to curiosity exploration is very Hobbesian?! Imagine if Hobbes had access to the cloud!

“He walked much and contemplated, and he had in the head of his Staffe a pen and inke-horn, carried always a Note-book in his pocket, and as soon as a notion darted, he presently entered it into his Booke, or els he should perhaps have lost it.”

 

- John Aubrey about Thomas Hobbes

Similarly, David Epstein wrote of Charles Darwin in Range:

“He cut up their letters (from other science people) to paste peices of informaton in his own notebooks, in which ’ideas tumbled over each other in a seemingly chaotic fashion.’”

 

10/20/20

For me, education is a multi-faceted process. I see people sometimes conflating these facets. As a way of explanation, there are 2 major segments for the educational process:

  1. Initial formal education - this provides the base organization process of the brain. This trains the brain how to learn and is usually provided earlier in our life. In fact, the information that is provided via formal education is more exemplary as an aid to the heuristic process.

  2. Ongoing education - this is the process of increasing knowledge and its application. While the brain improves its ability to learn after the first segment, the primary purpose of ongoing education is mental expansion via knowledge acquisition and practice. This is the process of learning throughout one's life.

I find it interesting, that in some societies, much more emphasis is put on initial formal education than ongoing education. As the speed of technology change accelerates, more emphasis on ongoing education seems warranted.

The value of 3rd party teachers varies and depends on a person's learning style. For me and as part of ongoing education, I tend to learn best as an autodidact. As such, my ongoing education comes mostly through self-driven study and practice. Others may benefit from more “instructor-led” continuing education. I do believe 3rd party teachers are most important in the first segment. I see the value of quality teachers related to child motivation during the initial Formal Education step. The confidence to learn, the love of learning, and the discipline to learn are most important. With that motivation, an individual may be a successful learner within both segments.

My wife is a tutor and life coach. While Patti is very smart, her strength is not teaching rote knowledge. She has an amazing ability to inspire learning confidence, love, and discipline in her students.

 
4/26/21

Judea Pearl, in The Book Of Why does a nice job of describing the importance of causation in terms of a ladder. Causality needs to get to at least the second rung of the causation ladder, whereas correlation is only at the first rung. Notice, we have to climb the “see” and “do” rungs before we get to the “imagine” rung on the causality ladder.

Causality Ladder.png

 

For my experience with RCT and related experimentation, please see:

Hulett, Every bank needs a nudge...., The Curiosity Vine, 2021

For an extraordinary example of a natural experiment, please see:

Hulett, Raising a loved child and the effect of abortion, crime, and prisons, The Curiosity Vine, 2022

 

4/28/21

I have come to see Sal Khan and the Khan Academy as a great ally in curiosity enablement. His book, The One World Schoolhouse, Education Reimagined is a nice presentation of his ideas. He and his organization have done a great service to change our outdated education system. His goals for Khan Academy are on point:

“I hoped to help students see the connections, the progression, between one lesson and the next; to hone their intuitions so that mere information, absorbed one concept at a time, could develop into true mastery of a subject.”

 

7/23/21

Johannes Kepler, the great astrophysics of the 14th and 15th centuries, is an archetypical curiosity exploration example. His approach inspires. The following is a quote from David Epstein’s book Range:

His fastidious documentation of every meandering path his brain blazed is one of the great records of a mind undergoing creative transformation. It is a truism to say that Kepler thought outside the box. But what he really did, whenever he was stuck, was to think entirely outside the domain. He left a brightly lit trail of his favorite tools for doing that, the ones that allowed him to cast outside upon wisdom his peers simply accepted.

1/9/22

Freeman Dyson wrote about Birds and Frogs. In his metaphor, Birds are like dot connectors.

Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas of mathematics out to the far horizon. They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time. It is stupid to claim that birds are better than frogs because they see farther, or that frogs are better than birds because they see deeper. We need birds and frogs working together to explore it.

 

Dyson, Birds and Frogs: Selected Papers of Freeman Dyson, 1990–2014, 2015

 

Personally, I am like a “diving bird.” Like the bird, I spend most of my time higher in the air, connecting concepts and exploring the edges of some discipline. However, like the frog, I do not mind periodically diving deep into the mud. Especially when the dive helps build the scaffolding for that discipline.

 

3/15/22

Tim Harford (born 1973), in his 2021 book Data Detective, discusses the importance of the time cycle of curated information.

“Daily news always seems more informative than rolling news; weekly news is typically more informative than daily news. A book is often better still. Even within a daily or a weekly newspaper, I find myself preferring the slower-paced explanation and analysis rather than the breaking news.”

 

Harford’s observation (Harford is an academically trained economist and a media industry participant) is along the lines of how my information curation has evolved over the years.

 

Please see my article for more information on approaches to curate information:

Hulett, Information curation in a world drowning in data noise, The Curiosity Vine, 2021

 

Please see my article for more information on our brain processes and interaction with our neurotransmitters:

Hulett, Our Brain Model, The Curiosity Vine, 2020

 

For a provocative journey into the underbelly of the social media world, see the documentary movie "The Social Dilemma."

 

7/27/22

Step-by-step instructions for converting and loading a pdf onto your Kindle:

  1.      Upload the pdf to the computer hard drive, google drive cloud directory or related storage.

  2.      Change the name of the file as appropriate, this will become the new Kindle book title.

  3.      Via the “send a copy” function on google drive or another device, email pdf via your email account to kindle.

  4.      The kindle provides a unique email address with the format "xxxx@kindle.com." Paste the proper kindle email in the  address line. (Or, if you do not know your kindle email, go to this link for email instructions - https://www.businessinsider.com/how-to-send-pdf-to-kindle)

  5.      Type “convert” in the subject line.

  6.      Send.

If need to change the kindle email, check out

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      •      Utilize email for desired kindle device

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