The work I do as a claims adjuster requires that I am a generalist. While not specializing in any of these things, I am expected to know more than the average layperson about the law, medicine, weather, plumbing, construction, electrical systems, engineering, accounting, forensic science, conflict resolution, crops, livestock, cars, trucks, boats, airplanes. Okay, maybe not airplanes. At least not yet.
But I can’t assure you that tomorrow morning something with an airplane won’t cross my desk, and then I’ll have to learn.
A couple of years ago I handled a claim involving damage to a quarter million dollars worth of corn that was stored at an elevator in a small Midwestern town. The company that manufactures the enormous tarps that are laid over grain that is stored outside during the winter was accused of making a defective tarp that allowed moisture to seep into the massive pile of corn. Before I would get very far into this investigation, I would do a good bit of research about not just corn, and its proper storage, but about the tarp material and manufacturing process. Once I got a basic understanding of the key elements, I made arrangements for a tour of the manufacturing plant. I spent half a day walking through the plant with the foreman, seeing how each of several pieces of equipment functioned in the process of taking huge rolls of the material and stitching pieces together and sealing the seams to create the overall tarp, which was upwards of 200 yards in diameter. We sent samples of the implicated tarp for testing by an engineering firm.
I spent another day with an agronomist I hired from a nearby university to inspect the corn itself. We stood in hard hats in the shadow of what felt like a national monument to corn, a large cement bunker holding the mound at bay (the Jolly Green Giant could have hidden behind it standing up), and studied the color patterns where the moisture had traveled through. We went through the elevator grounds to follow the path the corn would have taken from the time it was emptied from the farmer’s truck into the dryer and then to the storage bunker where, when enough corn was collected, the tarp would have been secured over the top.
He took samples of the corn for testing, and we talked to a lot of people. About corn. And tarps. And the weather. (It was unusually wet that year.)
By the time the claim was resolved, I could have held my own at any small town diner or even at the local elevator, shooting the breeze as they say with my farming neighbors. All it took on my part was a little curiosity about how grain storage works — and how to sew a gigantic tarp.
7 Ways to Stay Curious
1. Forage Like a Foxhog
Author Ian Leslie concludes his book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It with seven ways to stay curious, one of which is to be a “foxhog.” A fox, according to the Greek poet Archilochus, is an animal that knows many things, and a hedgehog has one big thing that it knows very well. Leslie notes that many of the famous “thinkers” through history fit one of these categories: Plato was a hedgehog, he says, while Montaigne was a fox. Ronald Reagan? Hedgehog. Bill Clinton? Fox. Wozniak? Hedgehog. Jobs? Fox.
Says Leslie, “The thinkers best positioned to thrive today and in the future will be a hybrid of these two animals. In a highly competitive, high-information world, it’s crucial to know one or two big things and to know them in more depth and detail than most of your contemporaries. But to really ignite that knowledge, you need the ability to think about it from a variety of eclectic perspectives and be able to collaborate fruitfully with people who have different specializations.”
I don’t think that I would consider myself a true foxhog. But in many respects, my job requires it. I have to know one big thing (insurance) with great depth, while to apply the knowledge of the one big thing, I have to have a broad knowledge (and desire to learn) about a lot of other things.
2. Stay Foolish
In considering the way that the Chinese empire, once the leader of the world in wealth, strength and innovation, lagged behind Europe in the 18th century, Leslie suggests that “success isn’t good for curiosity.” He recalls that the Chinese at one time expelled the Jesuits who had traveled to the continent with Galileo’s telescope to share knowledge and exploration of astronomy. The Chinese observed that they had done just fine without Western advancements and scholar Yang Guangxian reportedly said that “It is better to have no good astronomy than to have Westerners in China.”
Leslie reminds us that people and companies “who learn to cultivate their conscious ignorance — to be fascinated, even obsessed, by what they don’t know — are the ones least likely to be caught unaware by change.”
3. Build the Database
Leslie argues that “eureka” moments are not accidental. They occur, rather, as a result of the “gathering and the working over — the slow, deliberate, patient accumulation of knowledge.” As we work like a foxhog, accumulating information to be used at a later, unknown date, we are performing what could be considered the “essential preparation for epiphany.”
The way knowledge works, he says, is that facts “don’t sit in our unconscious, inert and isolated, useless until recalled. They make themselves available for all sorts of tasks the conscious mind would never think of using them for. Sleep seems to work on our long-term memories like alcohol at a party. As the conscious mind releases its grip on thinking, the facts stored in our memory feel more free to talk to each other — to strike up relationships with bits of knowledge from outside their neighborhood. When, during the day, the mind’s resources are mobilized in service of a particular problem, it’s this after-hours mingling that often summons the final breakthrough.”
4. Ask the Big Why
Knowing facts is important, of course. But sometimes our pursuit of the facts (or our firm grip on them) keeps us from considering the “Why” of a thing. Leslie quotes Stanley McChrystal, a former US general who led in Iraq and Afghanistan as he discussed the progression of the protracted war effort following the invasion of Baghdad. “When we first started, the questions was, ‘Where is the enemy?’ That was the intelligence question. As we got smarter, we started to ask, ‘Who is the enemy?’ And we thought we were pretty clever. And then we realized that wasn’t the right question, and we asked, ‘What’s the enemy doing or trying to do?’ And it wasn’t until we got further along that we said, ‘Why are they the enemy?'”
We have a tendency, Leslie notes, to prefer to answer the “What” question. It’s much simpler, after all. It’s typically concrete and quantifiable, and stays away from the “murky waters of emotion and causation.” But if we don’t ask why, “we become like Kanzi, intelligent apes who can monitor their environment, make requests, and follow instructions, but who remain blind to deeper truths.”
5. Be a Thinkerer
That’s not a typo. “To thinker” is a blend of thinking and tinkering, of following the model of Benjamin Franklin who seemed in some ways to think with his whole body. He was a thinker, a philosopher, to be sure. But he acted out his thoughts, endlessly experimenting to test his latest hypothesis. He quotes another thinkerer, Steve Jobs:
“You know, one of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left, John Sculley got a very serious disease. It’s the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90 per cent of the work. And if you just tell all these other people ‘Here’s this great idea,’ then of course they can go off and make it happen. And the problem with that is that there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. . . Designing a product is keeping five thousand things in your brain and fitting them all together in new and different ways to get what you want. And every day you discover something new that is a new problem or a new opportunity to fit these things together a little different. And it’s that process that is the magic.”
That process, it seems, might call on you being a foxhog, too.
6. Question Your Teaspoons
The Boring Conference, an event which grew out of a joking reference on Twitter when the Interesting conference was cancelled, features speakers presenting talks on ostensibly boring topics — mailboxes, IBM cash registers, neck ties, hand dryers. But because of what the conference founder, James Ward, calls the “transformative power of attention,” these topics, in the hands of their presenters, become fascinating studies in uninteresting details.
Leslie’s encouragement to “question your teaspoons” actually comes from the French writer Georges Perec, who once wrote an essay, “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris,” in which he sat in the same place in a cafe in Paris day after day, each time describing everything he could see, in an effort to discover “what happens when nothing happens.” An admirer of Perec’s, Ward notes that “when he refers to boring things, he is thinking of things that only seem boring, because we’re not paying attention to them.” He suggests following the advice of composer John Cage: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” And, I imagine, when you’re done interrogating the spoon, you could turn to the fork.
7. Turn Puzzles into Mysteries
Remember earlier in the book when Leslie suggested that studies showed people finding more satisfaction in art that held some sort of mystery? Here he reminds us that “a puzzle is something that commands our curiosity until we have solved it. A mystery, by contrast, never stops inviting inquiry. When we first meet a new problem, our instinct is to treat it as a puzzle: what’s the answer? Then, after gathering the knowledge we need to solve it, we sometimes start to think of the same problem as a mystery, one that will sustain our curiosity forever. A passing interest can be transformed into a lifelong passion.”
We never solved the puzzle (or was it a mystery?) of the damaged corn. No one will ever know for sure if it was because conditions were wet when it was harvested and it had not been fully dried, or if the tarp was defective and heavy snow melted through the seams. But we did get curious about some other things in the course of the investigation. Instead of focusing solely on the cause of the damage, we started asking different questions, looking into other boring things like the different grades of corn and what uses there might be for corn that was not seed grade. (Think: ethanol fuel you might put in your car.) The alternative questions opened up an avenue to settle the claim. And I will never forget how many different shades of gold there are amongst thousands of bushels of corn.
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We’ve been reading Ian Leslie’s Curious together. Have you been reading along? As we wind up our discussion today, perhaps you would share your thoughts in the comments. Do you consider yourself to be a curious person? What kinds of things make you curious? What kinds of things make your curiosity wane?
Catch up on our earlier conversations:
Photo by Luz James Jordan, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by LW Lindquist.