UnComfort Zone

Curiosity: What Happened To That Cat?

On Friday I gave a LEAD Talk – like a TED Talk only way less intimidating.

I was first up among ten speakers, presenting to an audience of about 80 community leaders. As with so many things, my nervous anticipation was much worse than the presentation’s reality and I genuinely enjoyed my eight minutes of modest stardom.

Once I got rolling, I was rolling. It was fun.

Speaking notes don’t always make for the best reading, but this is pretty close to what I actually had to say:

[my background slides are included as featured quotes]

~ ~ ~

One of the things I’m about to tell you isn’t true. Can you guess which?

I am one of twelve children, six of whom were adopted.

I once slid 1,000 feet down the face of a glacier.

I have performed as a belly dancer.

And last year, I sat where you are now, thinking: I want to do that. I want to give a LEAD Talk. I was curious what I might want to talk about.

aliceAnd there it was: I was curious about curiosity.

So I set about making myself a student of curiosity. I’m no expert, but I want to share some of what I’ve learned.

As luck would have it, curiosity was in the news right then. Researchers had found that when people were curious to learn the answer to a question they were better at learning that information — and they had greater recall of completely unrelated information they were exposed to at the same time.

The same study showed that when curiosity is stimulated, there’s increased activity in both the hippocampus, where the brain works on memory, and the regions of the brain associated with reward.

For teachers, this is huge. Pique your students’ curiosity on one thing, and they will learn and remember more about anything. And that’s true across the lifespan.

(This is why I wanted to keep you guessing about my introduction – if you are curious, maybe you’ll remember something I say today!)

~ ~ ~

People have been wondering about curiosity for a long time. Piaget viewed curiosity as a function of surprise – that incongruity between expectation and what actually happens. Too little or too much surprise and we aren’t curious – we’re either bored or overwhelmed. Think of it as a bell-shaped curve, an inverted U, filled with curiosity, maximized at that midpoint between none and too much. Call it the “curiosity zone”.

More recently, George Loewenstein at Carnegie Mellon described curiosity as being about “cognitive incongruitythe knowledge gapbetween what we know and what we want to know. The same inverted U…

When we’re tempted to be disappointed and judgmental about someone lacking curiosity, we might want to reflect on whether they have enough information to begin with.

Loewenstein and Todd Kashdan, of George Mason, then went on to describe curiosity as a function of confidence. Again, the inverted U. On the one hand, over-confidence means you don’t bother to be curious because you are just so sure of yourself. On the other: fear kills curiosity. Think of kids growing up in extreme physical or emotional uncertainty – or workers who fear their jobs are in jeopardy. Who has bandwidth for curiosity?

The good news in all of these models is that curiosity can be cultivated — but it can also be squashed.

Babies show curiosity or readiness to learn by babbling and pointing. They will do more of it if parents engage and reinforce the behavior – and will stop entirely if no one responds. Research has shown that when parents model questioning, especially in response to the kids’ own questions, the children learn to ask more and better questions.

But we’ve not always done a lot to reinforce curiosity.

God fashioned Hell for the inquisitive ~ Saint Augustine.

Think of Eve, Pandora, Icarus, that poor long-suffering cat…We’re steeped in stories that warn of the perils of curiosity – not only to ourselves, but to everyone around us. We have tended to think of curiosity as high stakes, deviant behavior that messes with accepted norms and authority.

Which, of course, is exactly what it does….

Curiosity is insubordination in its highest form. ~ Vladimir Nabokov

Curiosity may be insubordinate, but it’s essential to growth. Leadership gurus are all over this stuff. No less than John Maxwell has said “Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it will build the leader.” And that premier consulting group, Bain and Company, specifically seeks to hire really curious employees, believing they can deliver better results for their clients if they are “compulsiveabout asking questions.

Curiosity is a willing, a proud, an eager confession of ignorance. ~  S. Leonard Rubinstein

The great thing about curiosity is that it is not about being the smartest person in the room. It is about being open to new information….

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious. ~ Albert Einstein

As Einstein put it: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

So, the real question is: how to be more like Einstein?

First, be more like da Vinci.

Dimmi. Dimmi. ~ Leonardo da Vinci

Our friend Leonardo was known for his pleading “Dimmi. Dimmi.” (“Tell me. Tell me.”) He wanted to know about everything. The man was voracious. We should be too. We should ask endless questions, embrace what Carol Dweck would call a “growth mindset”. Be ignorant and proud of it!

Second: get a baseline – and then build on it. Kashdan has created an assessment tool to measure curiosity. In ten easy questions, we can get a sense of just how curious we may be. Do we ask a lot of questions? Do we like uncertainty? What’s our tolerance for complexity?

If I were back in the workplace, I think I would make this inventory a part of my interviewing and supervision. I would be looking to hire, cultivate and reward curious people.

Number Three: go deep and go wide. We should be collecting all manner of information and data – both on things that really, really interest us (“deep”) but also on totally random stuff (“wide”).

Brain Grazer, who has produced a string of blockbuster movies, credits curiosity as the secret to his success. He has what he calls “curiosity conversations”. He seeks out people from every imaginable domain – astrophysicists, police chiefs, political prisoners, you name it – just to learn from them.

We can all do this. We could do it in this room right now.

One of Kashdan’s most interesting findings is that couples report much more lasting marital satisfaction after undertaking novel, exciting activities together – spending time together in that “curiosity zone”. So Number Four on my list is Tango!

We should be getting out there with our loved one and doing the unfamiliar, the challenging, the silly, the new — just doing it and doing it together.

Kashdan’s work also suggests that even more than discord, boredom is the best predictor of a relationship’s demise. Don’t let it happen to you!

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. ~ Dorothy Parker

One of the most entertaining things I ran across in my reading on curiosity was the Boring Conference – an actual conference with papers and presentations on “boring” stuff like one guy’s necktie collection and a careful study of teaspoons.

The secret to the conference is in what’s called the “transformative power of attention” — things get interesting if you just look at them closely enough. The research is compelling: people who can sustain interest, even in the mundane, tend to be happier.

So – Number Five: Consider your teaspoons. Or, as Henry James put it, “Try to be the kind of person upon whom nothing is lost.”

~ ~ ~

marsI’m not one of twelve kids. But I have fallen down the face of a glacier, I’ve belly danced before a live audience, and I’ve tried to follow my curiosity.

I hope you will too.

~ ~ ~

Want to Know More?

Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything – Phillip Ball, 2014.

A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life – Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman, 2015.

Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life Todd Kashdan, 2010.

Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on ItIan Leslie, 2014.


Launching Another Little Free Library into the World

Riddle Me This: What’s bigger than a breadbox, smaller than a phone booth, and great as all outdoors? Inedible yet can satisfy any appetite? Can’t move but will take you anywhere? Sits in plain sight hiding untold treasure?

Answer: A Little Free Library, of course!

I’ve been a fan of the Little Free Library movement since I first stumbled upon it. What’s not to love about cute places to find free books?

Just six years ago, a guy in Wisconsin built a model of a one room schoolhouse as a tribute to his mom, a former school teacher who loved reading. He filled it with books and put it on a post in his front yard. His neighbors and friends loved it. He built several more and gave them away…

Fast forward to today, and there are over 32,000 registered Little Free Libraries around the world. I love that. I love that a great little idea caught hold and went like wildfire around the globe. Would that all little ideas should have the same fate.

So, I hooked my wagon to the Little Free Library star, and this week we launched.

Working with a local affordable housing group, we put our own little library on their property, on a busy street, and started talking it up. Before we even opened, donated books started to appear in the library. Neighbors I didn’t know emailed me to ask how they could help. The school crossing guard handed out promotional stickers at the corner. It was a thing before it was anything.

Have I mentioned that I love that?

And then, when we finally, officially opened, this happened:


IMG_0641 IMG_0643

We had crowds of kids and their appreciative parents. And neighbors. And passersby. And we stood around, together. We stood around together, eating gummy bookworms, sharing favorite book stories, reminiscing about the children’s titles as they floated by in the happy arms of their new owners. We stood around together clutching our own new-to-us books, bright with promise. We stood together already anticipating the pleasure of being back for more.

Little Free Library = Big Unleashed Community.

I love that.


Meditation: Lightness, Variations 1 & 2

I wanted to write about a shift in my meditation practices and took two very different approaches. They both speak to appreciating lightness in various forms. I decided not to decide.


Inspired by Goethe’s assertion that a man of culture should begin his day by contemplating a work of art, a German journalist meditated every morning before a statue of the lovely Quan An (literally “attentive to all sounds”, a Bodhisattva), in the But Thap Pagoda.

I had been reading about Buddhism in Viet Nam just before heading out for an afternoon walk, so this image was fresh in my mind. The sun was low and slanting, inviting. The air, with that crisp edge promising it would get cool, fast, as the sun continued to set. The sky, full of starlings moving in a pulsing mass from tree to tree, seeking the best perch in the fading light.

IMG_0561In transition in my mediation practice, I found myself thinking about this idea of meditating on beauty – on natural beauty, in particular. On light in nature, most especially.

I am drawn to the light shining through things, through leaves and grasses and clouds. I think about how light shines though us as well, if we allow it.

I think: lightness.

~ ~ ~

Moving On: OMG – I quit Andy P!

Before I begin, can I just ask: is “quit” a Philly thing?  As in “she quit him” = “she broke up with him”? I grew up with “quit” and I just never knew: is that a Philly thing?

Today is the first day of the rest of my life. Yesterday was the last day of my paid subscription to Headspace. I’m moving on.

This was a most amicable ending, so maybe I didn’t actually quit Andy Puddicombe, but I have decided our moment has passed. I will always have a special fondness for my First (Meditation) Love and will cherish the rituals we developed together, but the fact is I’ve outgrown him.

And that’s OK – this isn’t a heavy thing. Change is good, evolution even better. I can love him and still let him go.

Daily meditation is now a reliable part of my morning routine. I have listened to every one of Andy’s sessions, many more than once. But for months now I’ve been doing the “unguided meditation” modules. The annual subscription just doesn’t make sense.

Given I might not be alone in this evolution, I would worry about his business model and the future of what I think is a great vision, but he doesn’t need me – he’s got about a gazillion people meditating with him now. I’m proud to have been an early adapter.

Thanks, buddy. See you around. xox

p.s. I just got a Headspace subscription voucher to share with a friend – free to whoever contacts me first. Yours for the asking….

UnComfort Zone

Voice of Judgment, Voice of Fear

4Up Combined #2

What stops you?  What stops you from doing and being who and what you want to be? What stops the future that is trying to emerge?

According to Otto Scharmer’s Theory U and the good folks of the Presencing Institute, it comes down to  listeninghow we listen and what we listen to. Like many and too often, I hear a pair of unrelenting harpies – Voice of Judgment and Voice of Fear.

Perhaps you know them: the little voices at the back of your head telling you all the reasons you shouldn’t be busting loose. Why your envisioned future can’t and won’t happen. The scathing, shrill self-censure ahead of every step off the familiar path. The nagging nay-saying, alarmed at the unknown.

~ ~ ~

The shower splashes against my face, down my neck, across my chest. It warms the cold places deep within, softening, soothing. 

Rubbing soap from my eyes, I see it: the judgment I ascribe to others is actually my own. 

I watch the sudsy water disappear down the drain, willing it to take the judgment with it.

~ ~ ~

Theory U is dramatic, so it came as no surprise that there would be theater.

Social Presencing Theater focuses on what our bodies know about our heads and hearts. In the “Stuck” exercise, participants become mobile statuary, embodying where we are – and where we want to go.  One person takes a position that represents a place she feels stuck in her life or work (huddled, stretched; whatever), and then asks other participants to take positions related to that “stuck” feeling.

Take and hold the positions. Feel what the body knows.


See what the body wants to do.

~ ~ ~

I’m crouched on the floor. My right hand is tentatively raised – just a little – hovering by my right ear. My left arm is ram-rod straight in front of me, deflecting, defending, resisting.

I hold the position, waiting to see what my body wants to do.

My body wants to drop that left arm. It wants to stop resisting.

The arm drops. Within and around me, things begin to move.

Back Story

Admitting My Addiction

Those infernal little pushers are back. Guilelessly, they wait, confident we will come.

My utter lack of control in the face of Girl Scouts’ Thin Mints recalls a post I wrote but didn’t publish last fall:

Every year, it’s the same. I know it’s coming. I know I will feel powerless in the face of it. I feel an annual sense of dread that others will find me out, will discover that I have this urge….

So I’m coming clean.

Here it is: I love candy corn.

And not in a wholesome, happy memories, nice to reminisce kind of way. I love candy corn in an ugly, out of control, snarfing sort of way. An eat-the-whole-bag-in-a-sitting kind of way.

I can’t explain it. I believe I am otherwise a rationale and health-conscious human being. Intellectually, I know there is nothing — NO THING — of redeeming value about those little techno-colored corn syrup kernels. But. I. Love. Them.

And: I. Loathe. Them. They’re not actually all that tasty. The sugar is cloying, the texture uneven. Don’t even get me started on the colors and free radicals. And yet, I cannot resist them if — when —  I dip in. I feel sure the recipe satisfies some basic physiological dependence, some primal biological need, but I am at a loss as to what that might be. I harbor no illusions that nutrition comes into this in any way.

That we crave — and sometimes crave things that are demonstrably, desperately, devastatingly bad for us — is a potent thing. I am humbled, in awe of the courage and fortitude of those who face down far more insidious urges, moment to moment, day by day, year after year.


Milestones: Calibration and Celebration

IMG_0167Improvements from baseline can easily be measured. Strength, flexibility, endurance – these all come down to numbers.

…said I. Well, yes, and…

First, the good news: By my most conservative count, on Thursday I hit 100 miles in my quest to log 1,000 miles by my 55th birthday.

Now, the bad news: Measurement, it seems, is a slippery thing. (And, I hasten to add, this is not any mathematical shortcoming on my part. This is what you might call instrument failure.)

I began with such high hopes, confident as I was in the technology available to us all. I had no fewer than four apps counting my every step, GPS following my every move. But in a real-world twist of fate that I confess I find perversely reassuring, those apps couldn’t keep up with me. Not reliably. One day was either 11,190 steps / 5.3 miles, or 14,094 steps / 5.52 miles, depending; another credited me with 9 miles round-trip to the Zumba class I knew to be less than 2 miles away – maybe 3 since I took the long way.

What’s a girl to do?

Invest in more technology, of course!  The Jawbone Up Move (the least expensive of the fitness trackers out there, pushed into  impulse-purchase-eligibility by Amazon’s 30% off sale) looked like the answer to my prayers.  Worked right out the box, except for a preternatural preference for its default setting: male, 6′, 185 lbs., born 1987.  I was married in 1987 and only approach 6′ with the assistance of a ladderbut at least it seemed to count reliably.

And then there was the challenge of calibration. Just how long is my stride? How many steps to a mile? I used a tape measure; I compared notes with D; I reverse engineered walks, dividing distance by steps to derive stride. Finally, I paced off several quarter miles on the boardwalk and came up with what I think is a respectable constant.  Which happily aligns with what the Up has settled on, thus completely restoring my confidence in the little guy.

That number also turns out to be a lot fewer steps per mile than I had thought.  Meaning: I’ve been walking a lot more miles than I believed.  About 20 percent more. So instead of my target 5 1/2 miles per day, I’ve been logging closer to 7 — and on one memorable day that included my morning constitutional with K., circuitous midday errands in town and an afternoon stroll with I. and D., I had logged well over 11 miles before I tumbled into bed.

What’s not to love?

This has to be one of the few places where being wrong about time and distance is actually a good thing. I can feel the strength increasing in my legs and – ahem – butt. My definition of “within walking distance” (already an outlier, I understand) now stretches  to  3 miles. It’s not a bad mindset.

So: today I celebrate. I celebrate confirmation of a hard-won calibration and 100+ miles’ progress toward a long-term goal that feels increasingly real and achievable.  Milestone: check!


Ode to Milkweed

milkweed2The weary travelers savor a break at the humble road-side stop and take their fill of the house specialty before continuing on their long journeys home. Later, the whole splits, spilling its stock, and seeds like silken parachutes take to the air as the monarch butterflies did before them.

[Word Count: 50; another belated post to a Writing101 challenge]