dampening of curiosity (mini-📝 10/100)

Walking around SF, absorbing the sights and sounds and smells, I’m reminded of so many divergent branches of thought and experience from my life now: the puff from a cigarette taking me to barely lit back alleys where businessmen take respite from their draining routines; the water lapping against the concrete transporting me to summer nights at the beach, the two-toned sensation of the warm fire in front and the cool darkness behind; the misty inlet in the distance bringing to mind the musky, cool air deep among the fauna, an expanse of unknown waiting to be explored.

The lack of these diverse experiences and sensory stimuli recently, both with COVID and focusing intensely on a recent project, has made me realize that I was deep in a state of dampened curiosity up until recently. I originally heard about this concept from The Making of Prince of Persia:

It got my mind off PoP [Prince of Persia] and onto new things. Made me realize how much I’ve damped my curiosity about the world, these last few months, in the interest of efficiency. It’s time to start rekindling it… looking for new people, places, friends. I shouldn’t just rush on to the next project with tunnel vision. I should relax, take a look around.

This state comes about from the paradox of going deep into execution mode for a creative and highly mental taxing pursuit. It mirrors the tension between our “always on” hyper-productive mentality and the newly vitalized movement to let yourself be unproductive and “take a look around.” The creative parts have mostly been figured out and you have to narrow your focus to produce, lest you wallow away in the land of endless idea generation. In order to bring something intensely creative into the world, it requires shutting your own mind off to the natural call of curiosity, the fuel for creativity.

At first, this heightened state of focus is intensely energizing, especially coming from the breadth of boundless curiosity, the focus is relieving, like Rock Lee taking off his weights you feel like you’ve powered up. In many ways, you are powered up, narrowing your focus and bounding your curiosity frees up a lot of mental processes to execute in flow, converting ideas into flesh, matter, and bits.

But there’s a hidden cost you incur over time staying here. The longer you stay, the more you start to feel comfortable in this mode of operation. Letting your creativity free suddenly seems scary, something you can’t believe you ever did before. You start to think it might be better to stay inside the walls after all, that the barriers are in place for your own good. Your comfort becomes a liability, your natural wonder smothered by plush, authentic down routines, cozy realms of expertise, and safe houses of social interaction.

I never want to feel so comfortable that I feel scared to leave. I want to teeter in that grey, liminal space between the edge of my comfort and the known boundary of the unknown, a place of greater risk but also greater reward, where the opportunity for magic is abundant but your body is forced to adapt to the harsh conditions to reap the rewards. I want to push my body and my mind to the limits, to stretch the boundaries of my creative pursuit, the depth of my interpersonal intimacy, and the borders of my knowledge domain. I yearn for the freedom to press the frontier of what’s within the realm of possibility, to expand our collective understanding of what we can expect, to bring the sublime into the everyday. 

How can we bring these idealistic figments of imagination into tangible manifestations while maintaining our curious drive? We move back and forth between divergent idea generation and convergent idea curation, oscillating between a childlike fascination with everything and an adult-like laser-focus on breathing physical life into our ideas. I guess the first step is the awareness of the mental state you inhabit and catching yourself before you get too comfortable, proactively giving your mind the space to breathe and wander a bit, even if you do have to return to the focused execution mode later.

This is the 10th installment in my experiment of publishing raw, lightly edited mini-essays every day towards achieving 100 public pieces. Check out the rationale and the full list here.