In this third section of the sequence I focus on how to leverage positive motivations—in particular curiosity, agency, and determination—to do great work. While all of these are valuable, they’ll suit different people to different degrees. In particular, I think of nerds as favoring curiosity, which is the motivation I’ll focus on in this post. In order to do great work in a given area, you need to spend a lot of time thinking about it, with many of the most exceptional people having an obsessive interest in what they’re working on. While it’s possible to do that via determination alone, curiosity is a much easier source of motivation.

I want to start by distinguishing two types of curiosity: detail-oriented and systematizing. Detail-oriented curiosity is about understanding how things work—like a child who keeps tinkering with blocks until they’ve figured out all the interesting structures that can be built with them. The best way to cultivate detail-oriented curiosity is to learn via answering specific questions or carrying out concrete tasks—e.g. learning programming by building cool apps, or learning physics by building a model rocket, or learning history by figuring out what your life would be like at different points in the past. When you do that, one initial line of exploration can branch out into many more topics. And the patient and direct observation which allows you to discover new things is much easier in pursuit of a goal which genuinely interests you, rather than an externally-imposed goal like those given to kids in schools.

Systematizing curiosity, by contrast, tries to understand the context of a topic in order to fit it into a holistic model of the world—like a child who keeps asking “why?” until they reach the highest known level of abstraction. That might mean studying the Romans by analyzing their role within the broad sweep of history; or studying an animal species by figuring out where they fit into their ecosystem or the tree of life. Systematizing curiosity can be sparked by looking out for deep structure and order in the universe, even (or especially) the parts that weren’t deliberately designed to be structured and orderly. Systematizing and detail-oriented curiosity are complementary: the former guides your exploration towards the most important domains, but the latter is necessary for a deep understanding of them.

I’ve used examples about children to highlight that obsessive curiosity is in some sense the default human state. Why does it go away? One barrier to systematizing curiosity is that, as we grow older, the world becomes less mysterious, because we have existing frameworks for making sense of it. But even if you already have one high-level framework for understanding a topic, there are often many more which you’re yet to discover. You might already understand the physics of airplanes, but not their economic or logistical or sociological consequences. Or you might understand how the Romans shaped the geopolitics of Europe, but not how they shaped the progress of science or religion or military strategy. New frames like these often cross-apply to many different topics, which makes it valuable to keep looking with new eyes for questions which spark systematizing curiosity even in seemingly-impractical domains.

Another big reason that we become less curious over time is that expressing curiosity requires admitting ignorance, which we learn to fear—especially when someone else already knows the answer and we might look stupid by comparison. Similarly, learning by doing projects exposes us to the scary possibility of failing at those projects—especially when school taught many of us that we’d be punished for getting things wrong. So we stop thinking of ourselves as curious people, or even start to pride ourselves on being incurious (e.g. by thinking of ourselves as pragmatic and fancy-free).

The more general principle behind our difficulty in admitting ignorance is that curiosity is stifled by focusing on the meta level rather than the object level. For most people, this happens primarily via becoming preoccupied with social dynamics: “who thinks what?” and “what do people expect me to believe?” and “what beliefs will get me into the inner ring?”. For people who tend to favor systematizing curiosity, another common meta-level trap involves going down epistemological rabbit holes—focusing not on “what do we believe and why?” but rather “what does it mean to believe things?” or “what are probabilities anyway?”).

Meta-level thinking is sometimes important, but should be seen as a seductive trap which often needs to be escaped in order to get stuff done. Note, crucially, that most of this sequence focuses on meta- rather than object-level topics, and so this advice very much applies to the sequence itself. The stuff I talk about here isn’t what you should be getting obsessed with (unless the thing you want to understand is psychology itself)—instead it should be a stepping stone towards much more interesting things.

The combination of systematizing curiosity and detail-oriented curiosity often leads to insights in unexpected places.
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