Choosing Curiosity Over Fear With Elizabeth Gilbert

And all of that is a very strange way to see creativity and, I would say, a very new way. And by “new,” I mean post-Enlightenment, the last couple hundred years, and very Western — and, I would also say, very macho, in a way, very male, [laughs] because it comes with this grandiosity that’s on the individual, and this pressure to be great and to be a genius. And it’s strange.

One thing you’ve said is, the difference between passion and curiosity as something you’re following is that “curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming, and more democratic entity.”

.. this refrain that’s everywhere out there in our culture — to “follow your passion, follow your passion” — and that that, also, becomes a way that people feel themselves excluded, because they’re not sure what their artistic passion would be. Or again, if it’s their passion, can they really measure the value they’re creating?

And I love the language of “curiosity” you use, and I’d love for you to talk some more about that. One thing you’ve said is, the difference between passion and curiosity as something you’re following is that “curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming, and more democratic entity.” [laughs]

MS. GILBERT: [laughs] Oh, I love curiosity — our friend. I think curiosity is our friend that teaches us how to become ourselves. And it’s a very gentle friend, and a very forgiving friend, and a very constant one. Passion is not so constant, not so gentle, not so forgiving, and sometimes, not so available. And so, when we live in a world that has come to fetishize passion above all, there’s a great deal of pressure around that. And I think if you don’t happen to have a passion that’s very clear, or if you have lost your passion, or if you’re in a change of life where your passions are shifting, or you’re not certain, and somebody says, “Well, it’s easy to solve your life. Just follow your passion,” [laughs] I do think that they have harmed you, because it just makes people feel more excluded and more exiled and, sometimes, like a failure.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes, exactly.

MS. GILBERT: And it’s a little bit like — gosh, I mean, even the word, “passion,” has this sort of sexual connotation that you’re — I’m much more interested in intimacy [laughs] and in growing a relationship, than everything has to be setting your head on fire. And curiosity is an impulse that just taps you on the shoulder very lightly, and invites you to turn your head a quarter of an inch and look a little closer at something that has intrigued you. And it may not set your head on fire; it may not change your life; it may not change the world; it may not even line up with previous things that you’ve done or been interested in. It may seem very random and make no sense. And I think the reason people end up not following their curiosity is because they’re waiting for a bigger sign, and your curiosities, sometimes, are so mild and so strange [laughs] and so, almost, nothing — it’s a little trail of breadcrumbs that you can overlook if you’re looking up at the mountaintop, waiting for Moses to come down and give you a sign from God.

MS. TIPPETT: You said curiosity “gives you clues.” [laughs]

MS. GILBERT: It’s clues and…

MS. TIPPETT: Doesn’t necessarily give you a destination at all, right?

MS. GILBERT: [laughs] It doesn’t. And here’s the thing. Sometimes, following your curiosity will lead you to your passion. Sometimes it won’t; and then, guess what? That’s still totally fine.

You’ve lived a life following your curiosity. You’ve created a life that is a very interesting thing, different from anybody else’s. And your life itself then becomes the work of art — not so much contingent upon what you produced, but about a certain spirit of being that, I think, is a lot more interesting, and also, a lot more sustainable.

MS. TIPPETT: You use the language, “the virtue of inquisitiveness.” That’s great.

MS. GILBERT: I think a definition of an interesting person is an interested person. I’ve never met an interesting person who’s not also an interested person.

.. He doesn’t pretend — I know the first line of that poem is, “Suffering everywhere.” It’s the first line, “Suffering everywhere.” Look. It’s everywhere. There’s no denial of that, and yet, something in us, something in the universe — there’s some sort of spirit that also wants to be glad, and also, wants to be amazed, and also, wants to be engaged.

And we can’t lose that, because then, we’ve lost everything. He has another line in there, which I don’t know if I know by heart, but it’s something about — “To only give your attention to darkness and suffering is to worship the devil,” or, “to give your power to the devil.” And you know, you have to be careful about this, especially when you have an impulse to be a good person — a “good person,” and your definition of a good person is somebody who gives everything to others. It’s a beautiful impulse, but if it’s done from a place of only giving darkness and suffering your attention, then you become somebody who’s very difficult to be around. [laughs] There’s a lovely line that this British columnist said, one time, that “You can always tell people who live for others by the anguished expressions on the faces of the others.” [laughs] There’s some heaviness in there that just spreads out of you and makes everyone feel heavy, and even makes the people that you’re serving feel heavy, because they feel like they’re a burden and a responsibility. And so, if you can find the gladness and the lightness, I think your service becomes better, and I think your art becomes better, and I think your worship becomes better and lighter.

.. the false choice that people are given are these two ideas. One is that it’s all coming from me: Nothing funny is going on here; there is no spirit moving across the face of the earth. I’m just a pile of DNA, my cerebral cortex is firing off, and that is why my creativity exists, right? It’s all me; it’s only me — which is great, except then, how do you explain the mysterious part that you can’t explain, about why one day you were in flow, and it did feel like something was coming through you, not from you, and you brushed up against a sense of great mystery and communion. And then the next day, Wednesday morning, it was gone.

.. the very hippie-trippy idea of “I’m just a vessel. I’m just a vessel; channel — it just comes through me.” Then why am I so tired? [laughs] Because I’ve been working hard. So there’s some sort of a — there’s some third way. And I think the third way is, it’s a collaboration between a human being’s labors and the mysteries of inspiration. And that’s the most interesting dance that I think you can be involved in, but you are very much an agent in that story. You’re not just a passive receptacle. And also, it’s not entirely in your hands. And standing comfortably within that contradiction is, I think, where you find sanity in the creative process — if you can find it.

.. Terrified people make terrible decisions. Terror and fear make you irresponsible. They make you not think very clearly, and they make you willing to do almost anything to get rid of that awful feeling. And we’ve seen people do that on the individual level, and we’ve seen cultures do that. And we’ve seen politicians who find ways to exploit terror and fear in order to get short-term power — or, sometimes, long-term power, because if you can figure out how to hold the reins of other people’s fear, then you can control them for a while.

.. And so one of the very most powerful ways to not end up being controlled by that is to remain more curious than you are afraid. I think, any time in the community that there’s anybody who’s keeping their head, I think it’s a benefit to everyone around them. I think everything is contagious. Our fear is contagious, but our courage also is. And our courage makes other people be able to be more brave and come out of their houses and come out of their shells and out of their fear.

.. “<strong>I want to live in a world full of explorers and generous souls, rather than people who have voluntarily become prisoners of their own fortresses.</strong> I want to live in a world full of people who look into each other’s faces along the path of life and ask, ‘Who are you, my friend, and how can we serve each other?’”

.. I had a very dumb idea, it turned out, that what I really needed was to just be alone and as far away from everyone in the world as I could get. And I went to this island off the coast of Lombok in Indonesia and rented a thatched cottage on the beach for ten dollars a day. And I decided, for ten days, I wasn’t going to speak. I don’t advise that if you’re in the state that I was in. [laughs] What I probably really needed was to be around community and, maybe, some therapists. Putting a magnifying lens on yourself when you’re in distress like that can be very hard. And I ended up getting sick.

.. She had been keeping an eye on me, and I didn’t keep my schedule. I usually walked around the island at dawn and at dusk, and when she didn’t see me, she came and found me. And when she saw how sick I was, she brought me food. And I think — I’ve never forgotten this woman.

And what I think I learned from her was: Pay attention to what’s happening in your community. That’s what it means to be deeply engaged with the place where you live, such that you will see when someone is in trouble. And there’s ways that you can reach toward people, rather than away from them. And you can do that. I know we talk often, in this society, about how terrible social media and the Internet is. But used properly, that too can become a tool of outreach, a way of knocking on someone’s door.

.. it’s because the universe is looking for collaborators, because creation’s not finished. It’s not something that happened in seven days and ended. It’s an ongoing story that we’re part of. And it’s a much more interesting way to be part of that story, to work in collaboration and in partnership and in friendly curiosity with it, than to be terrified of it.

.. I didn’t really understand how much <strong>you had really written a lot about men and for men</strong>, and been a journalist and been — I don’t know, what is it? You once said you were the only girl in the room a lot. [laughs]

And so that’s not really the trajectory of, I think, what people would expect of this person who eventually writes Eat Pray Love. And, ironically — that is such a phenomenally successful project, but you said once, it had not escaped your attention that <strong>when you wrote about a man’s emotional journey, they gave you the National Book Award nomination, but when you wrote about a woman’s emotional journey, they “shunted” you “into the ‘chick-lit’ dungeon.”</strong> And I sense that you’ve — this has been part of your growth and reflection out of this, is — and I wrestle with this too, with my work — pushing back against the idea that there’s something unserious about talking about these things.

.. the Dalai Lama that — when he first came to the West. And somebody in the audience raised their hand and said, “What do you think about self-hatred?”

The whole conference ended for a while, while he had to have a couple of translators sit there and try to explain to him how a human being could be taught to hate himself. And he was so — he just said — there’s this transcript of this conversation and that moment of him saying, “This is very concerning.” [laughs] And I see self-loathing everywhere I look, in so many different forms, and it’s so — it breaks my heart. And I also know self-loathing, because I have been in it. Anybody who’s been in depression knows what self-hatred is. In many ways, <strong>depression is — the best definition of it is anger turned inward</strong>, so there’s this battle that’s going on within you where you become a rival of yourself and an enemy of yourself.

.. “The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you.” And I’ll just say, even as somebody who feels like I’ve done a lot of work on befriending myself, but that’s still a hard statement to claim, for me, and, I think, for a lot of people. It’s an aspiration, to be able to feel that way, to trust that.

.. when it’s not coming, and it’s not working, and it’s not being good, and I’m stuck in a problem around the creativity, it’s a very important shift in my life over the years to not think that I’m being punished or that I’m failing, but to think that this thing, this mystery that wants communion with me is trying to help me. And it hasn’t abandoned me. It’s nearby. And it wants — it came to me for a reason.

 

Can Slowing Down Help You Be More Creative?

Despite being a self-described ‘pre-crastinator, psychologist Adam Grant says those who slow down — even procrastinate — tend to be more creative, original thinkers.

About Adam Grant

Adam Grant is a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He is also a New York Times writer on work and psychology. Previously, he was a record-setting advertising director, a junior Olympic springboard diver, and a professional magician. Grant is the author of Originals, which explores how individuals champion new ideas.

Richard Rohr Meditation: The Story that Defines Us

The first book of the Bible, Genesis, is not the Bible’s oldest book. Genesis’ two accounts of creation were compiled in their present form as late as 500 BC. During this period, the Jews were likely in exile in Babylon, where they were exposed to multiple creation stories.

Two excellent teacher friends of mine, Walter Wink (1935-2012) and Rob Bell (b. 1970), both describe one of the most popular stories of that time, the Babylonian Enuma Elish. It describes creation happening after a battle between two gods. The male god kills the female god, then tears her body apart and uses half of her to create the heavens and half to create the earth.

Both teachers point out that the driving engine of this story is violence, carnage, and destruction. So, the exiled Jews decided to write down their own oral tradition, surely to stay cohesive as a tribe among all the competing influences from Babylonians and others. In the Judeo-Christian story of Genesis 1, God—who is “Creator” in verse 1, “Spirit” in verse 2, and “Word” in verse 3 (foretastes of what we would eventually call Trinity)—creates from an overflowing abundance of love, joy, and creativity. Humanity’s core question about our origins is whether the engine of creation is violence and destruction or overflowing love, joy, and creativity.

Is our starting point love and abundance or is it fear and hatred? How we begin is invariably how we end and how we proceed.

Hidden Brain: Life, Interrupted

David Brooks, the columnist, and I might be paraphrasing here, but basically he pointed out this observation that great, creative thinkers approach their time like accountants; that this is this great disconnect is that they’re very structured and systematic about their time and produce the most unstructured, brilliant, creative insights. So it’s a key paradox to point out because I really want to emphasize it. Adding structure and control to your time really can be the key to getting the biggest insights and most interesting work produced.

VEDANTAM: I’m wondering if part of the tension comes about because we actually think of inspiration as being the thing that strikes us unexpectedly. And I think the case that you’re making is that inspiration actually can be scheduled to arrive on command.

.. NEWPORT: Well, as, you know, Chuck Close said – the artist – inspiration is for amateurs. I think we overfocus on the inspiration piece. If you’re systematically pushing yourself and your knowledge and your craft, you will have inspiration. It will happen in the shower. It’ll happen while you walk to work. What’s important is, you know, setting yourself up to have that inspiration and then giving yourself the time and structure you need to act on it, to actually produce something of value out of it.  So I downplay the importance of inspiration and I emphasize the importance of creating a life where inspiration as possible and you’re well suited to act on it.

.. I’m wondering if some people might say your advice is really advice for people who are, in some ways, are at the top of their food chains. So if you have an author who basically is able to say, I’m going to disconnect from the world for 18 months, I’m just going to focus on writing this book. You know, someone else is probably picking up after this person in all kinds of different ways. If Cal Newport says, you know, I’m going to close the door in my office, I’m not going to answer my phone, I’m not going to check my email, but someone needs to get in touch with you in an emergency, that person is probably going to reach an assistant of yours.

And that assistant doesn’t have the same luxury of deep work as you do because he or she needs to be available to hear what the emergency is or to hear what the request is. Does having a group of people who are engaged in deep work necessarily mean there must be essentially a second tier of workers who are engaged in shallow work to allow the deep thinkers to do their deep thinking?

NEWPORT: It doesn’t require that, but it usually requires some type of reconfiguration of communication channels and expectations.

 

..  I think a big part of it is lack of metrics. So if we look at two parallel case studies, two different industries – let’s look at the Industrial Revolution and the rise of mass industrial production. This was a world where the metrics for productivity were very clear. How many cars per hour is our factory producing? And what we saw in that world – where bottom-line value is very easy to measure – is that very quickly, the structure of work moved away from what was convenient for the workers and towards what produced more value.

It moved away from the old system in factories where you had people work in teams at one spot in the floor to assemble the car towards things like the assembly line, which are incredibly inconvenient. It’s very hard to manage an assembly line. It’s very hard to get it right. It causes lots of issues. It’s annoying. But it produces a lot more value.

You move to digital knowledge work – we don’t have those metrics. It’s much harder to measure, OK, what’s the cost to our bottom line if you’re more distracted or less distracted? And so my conjecture is that without those metrics, we are going to fall back on these interpersonal or cultural biases. We’re wired to be social. We don’t want to upset someone. These type of biases take over because it’s much harder to measure, in this new world, the impact of different behaviors.

 

.. I’m wondering if that might be a psychological driver in people being unwilling to actually cut themselves off because not only might they discover that they are more productive, but they might also discover the world does just fine – thank you very much – without you.

NEWPORT: Yeah. I think that’s one of three big psychological drivers that have led us to this world we’re in now of the sort of constant-connectivity business. So that’s certainly one, I think – this notion of, we get a sense of meaning and usefulness out of constantly being involved in interaction. I think the other two psychological drivers – one is just, we’re wired to be tribal. And it’s very difficult for us psychologically to know there’s an email waiting that we’re not answering. And even if we know for a fact that the person who sent that message does not need a fast response, it still feels like we’re at the tribal fire, and there’s a tribe member standing there tapping you on the shoulder, and you’re ignoring them. We just have a very hard time with that.

And I think the third driver is, knowledge work is much less structured. And so how do you prove to your organization or to your boss that you’re valuable? And busyness as a proxy for productivity is something that a lot of people have defaulted to.

.. Well, at the very least, if you see I’m sending lots of messages, you know I’m working. And so I think those three different factors are all intertwining to get us to this place where we find ourselves just constantly sending messages as opposed to thinking hard thoughts or producing new things.