The Dance Between Kaleidoscopic Curiosity & Focused Ambition | Dear Alexander #41

I have often felt regret and lamentation over the seemingly ineffective busyness that has stimulated my days. This busyness usually comes in two forms:

  1. Completing tasks that make me feel like I’ve accomplished something when I really have just been putting off the most difficult tasks.

Busynes usually accompanies the classic A-type high conscientiousness personality that I identify with. However, I’ve realised I actually don’t want to be busy. Busyness implies a chaotic lack of control over my priorities and time. Instead, I opt to create ‘flexible deliberate control’ where my decisions are of conscious choice instead of either resentful obligation towards responsibilities I actually don’t want to do OR are as a result of the momentum of checkbox ticking tasks I convince myself are important, but really aren’t.

Another characteristic that accompanies my type of character is the want for control. However, maybe I don’t always have to control my day. It can be valuable to let go and allow the spontaneity of my curiosity take me to new horizons of discovery. And so there is a dance between effective progress and the art of living in the flow of life.

Yet it is hard to escape the feeling of wasted time when my actions have been without conscious thought and disciplined action. John Quincy Adams the sixth U.S president illuminates this thought.

“Our tendency to pour tremendous energy into doing things, with little reflection on whether those are the right things to do in the first place.”

“Even the most industrious self-exertion can fail to attain a worthwhile result and why unfocused ambition is a guarantee of frustration rather than fulfillment.”

Unfocused ambition has caused frustration in me many times. You end up doing a lot of nothing instead of a few tasks deeply and effectively. When I recall back to the source of this frustration I usually either:

  1. Planned to have a space for focused ambition, and then I got distracted.

Effort Exerted ≠ Results Obtained.

“When a clarity of purpose is lacking — even the mightiest discipline, after all, is wasted without a clear direction.”

Just because I put a lot of time into a task does not mean I would get the result I was looking for. In fact, I’d often realise I was working on the wrong task or spending too much time on peripheral tasks that didn’t actually have practical significance. This is why clear direction and purpose is needed to be defined early in the morning before I begin.

Losing Yourself In Rabbit Holes of Curiosity

“Adams laments his tendency to lose himself in rabbit holes of what may be interesting but is not relevant to his larger aims.”

“On looking back, and comparing the time consumed with the knowledge acquired, I have no occasion to take pride in the result of my application — I have been a severe student, all the days of my life — But an immense proportion of the time I have dedicated to the search of knowledge, has been wasted upon subjects which can never be profitable to myself or useful to others…

This is a tricky confronting idea to play with. How much time have I truly wasted in pursuing subjects that are not directly profitable to me?

Historically, I believe I have dedicated considerable time to learning and seeking knowledge in areas that don’t have direct immediately practical significance. But I don’t believe this is deleterious unless it occupies a majority of my dedicated learning time. Meaning, if I spend 80% of my time focusing on practical knowledge that is profitable to myself and the other 20% on random rabbit holes that may go nowhere, but engages and satiates my curiosity, I may very well find a balance between the dance of focused ambition and nonjudgmental kaleidoscopic curiosity.

But to argue against myself here, I believe it’s important to break my own rules sometimes, disregard that 80:20 ratio and simply do what I want to do and seek what I want to seek in areas I find stimulating. Not every day, month or year of my life has to be dedicated to the pursuit of focused ambition. What a liberating freeing realisation that is that I can leave the matrix if and when I desire. Perhaps I can find solace and peace by dancing with my curiosity more and not judge myself for not feeling like I’ve achieved something. But there is a caveat; this should be a conscious choice, not a justification for haphazard pleasurable behaviour to distract me from my problems. At the end of the day, I don’t want to be a mindless slave to productivity, ambition and achievement — these things must be chosen deliberately and purposefully.

“I have derived so little use from my labours, that it has often brought me to the borders of discouragement, and I have been attempted to abandon my books altogether — This however is impossible — for the habit has so long been fixed in me, as to have become a passion, and when once severed from my books, I find little or nothing in life, to fill the vacancy of time — I must therefore continue to plod, and to lose my labour; contenting myself with the consolation, that even this drudgery of Science, contributes to Virtue, though it lead not to wealth or honour.”

Interestingly, Adams admits that he does receive some value out of this process — ‘virtue’. Though chasing curiosity and general knowledge can feel like I’m a dog chasing its tail because the process doesn’t necessarily directly contribute to ‘wealth’ and ‘honour’. But the process of it still teaches and gives intrinsic value in its own unique way. In any case, there are other pursuits in life that I choose to do that grant me wealth and honour. Perhaps one does not have to pick one or the other but instead, find a way to dance between both.

“Several years later, finding himself so absorbed in learning logarithmic calculation that a whole day had fled, he chastises himself for an unfocused curiosity that flits from subject to subject, unbridled by poor time-management, lacking focused commitment to a deeper study of any one discipline:”

I find it easy to engage my attention in scientific pursuits of almost any kind, but difficult to guard against two abuses — the one of being insensibly drawn from one to another, as I now have from Chronology to Astronomy and from Astronomy to Logarithms — the other of misapplying time, which is essential to the business of life; public and private.”

I have felt the social and societal pressures to commit to one singular focus and discipline over one’s life. Like Adams, there is so much that draws my attention and curiosity. To pick one thing would be like forcing my mind into a prison. So I don’t pick one thing and I do flit from subject to subject. But maybe a bit of the magic of this dance between ambition, progress, productivity and freeing curiosity is to act with conscious decision making where I know, ‘at this time I will work on this topic and at that time I will work on this other unrelated topic’. As a result, I’ve delineated clear boundaries to be effective and productive whilst mitigating the guilt and ill-feeling of poor time management and lack of focus.

On the other, it’s important I create spaces where I remove all the constraints of productivity and just let my mind take me where it wants to go. This is the place where it doesn’t matter if my time management and productivity are poor because I have already made the conscious choice where this is the space where I allow that to happen. So there is no judgement. All that is left is my free-flowing curiosity.

“And yet life affords Adams a counterpoint to this harsh self-criticism — it is by such kaleidoscopic curiosity that we arrive at what we don’t know we didn’t know and gradually broaden the shorelines of our knowledge amid the ocean of our ignorance.”

Inspired by John Quincy Adams and Maria Popova.

Self reflective writings & book summaries on philosophy, psychology and human behaviour.

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