I read a lot in my elementary years. Growing up in the 1980's communist Poland I spent a lot of time in the cowboys-and-Indians world of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. I'd relive the main characters' stories with an older friend who introduced me to this world and lent me books I'd devour in spare time. I read other books too. I read like a maniac expanding my world and consciousness. They tickled my imagination.
I guess I was curious.
I also remember being happy.
I didn't read quite as much in high school. I read some of the books assigned in English though. I started playing guitar. I learned and wrote a lot of songs. I played all the way through college. I enjoyed a few university classes and a good conversation. Then I started work and I didn't do much of anything to grow.
Old Shatterhand and Winnetou in seemingly dire
circumstances until they spring themselves free
and kick some major Comanche tail.
Looking back, I feel like the 12 years of my life sandwiched between 25 and 37 barely happened. I lost a piece of my soul and joined the ranks of “the incurious.” I still learned things but instead of immersing myself completely I just skimmed the surface. Passionless, aimless, and incurious I sleepwalked through more than a decade. I became complacent. I might have been depressed. I know I was stuck.
How Do We Become Incurious?
I had a conversation with a barista of the community cafe that serves killer turkey melts I often frequent to do my writing at.
He said: “You’re having a bagel sandwich today” - he wasn’t the person I ordered with.
Last time, we talked about the turkey melt and how good it is. That happened to be the first time I had it. Then, I ordered it like three times in a row. But now, I was enjoying my bagel sandwich and the carrot sticks it came with.
“I like to mix it up” was my response.
“I guess it’s good to try different things sometimes” he concluded.
I could have given him the speech I often give my students but I was writing and did not want to lecture him on the importance of not being that person who orders the same frappe at Starbucks every single morning.
I suppose the culprits are many but falling into routines and resisting change are big reasons why adults lose that curiosity which had us asking many questions about many things as children. After all, we evolved to avoid danger and survive by any means necessary.
Our amygdala is why we feel fear. The memories of emotions such as fear stored in this part of the brain trigger anxiety when facing things we can’t control. As a result, we try to control everything. If we don’t consciously seek new experiences we turn into that frappe person - we become complacent. We don’t mix things up or break up routines. This limits our ability to learn more new things. In a way, we condition our mind to learn less.
We buy into society’s myths of status because they offer the comfort of knowing we fit in. It’s better to drive a BMW than a Honda Civic so we’ll work our butts off because that’s what most others do. We become conditioned to acquire more and “better” things instead of expanding our consciousness to realize that relationships and experiences add far more to our lives than stuff.
I myself struggle with the idea that I should get a Tesla once I’m rich and famous (!!!), but the car I drive now gets me from A to B quite well. But maybe when I finally get a Tesla my life will be complete and I can die feeling accomplished because I’m “exclusive.”
Teens are the ones most vulnerable to such conditioning. Be cool. Buy Js. Wear brand skinny jeans and swag Ts. Crush it at Fortnite. Get good grades. Get into a good college. Get a good job. Get all the stuff everyone else is getting. And don’t get me started on Snapchat stories, mesmerizing memes, and viral vids. These things have them going down many diversive curiosity rabbit holes and take enough time to leave little room for epistemic curiosity - the kind that helps them learn and grow.
In schools, we offer few alternatives that can compete with the invented world of pop culture and the virtual realm of social media. I don’t have all the answers but maybe we should let kids learn things they’re interested in because let’s be real - most are not learning the stuff we teach at school. They just do it to get ahead. Then they move on and forget what they “knew” a week ago.
Reawakening Our Kids Curiosity
I loved Denis Sheeran’s book Instant Relevance. It shows teachers how to make math more relevant for students by using it to calculate real things like the weight of snow you had to shovel off your driveway after a snowstorm.
But Sheeran’s book is just the beginning because in general, school's do not provide many opportunities for students to work with real artifacts or on real projects. High school teens don’t build playgrounds for little kids to learn about physics, math, and engineering. Rarely are they tasked with writing and publishing books or even video series on Amazon. They don’t make compounds they can use for something in chemistry, unless you count that white powder they get at the end of a chemical reaction they mostly don’t get as “something.”
These are activities that can perhaps help reawaken the dormant curiosities. The more we expose our kids, our students to such experiences, the better the chance that something you inspire them with today triggers the mental awakening in the future. Maybe he'll be 37 and a whole bunch of neurons you helped to encode with information suddenly fire and this kid starts blooming.
I woke up about 1 year after my son was born.
I decided to stop wasting time and start living. I wanted to leave a legacy he'd be proud of and I wanted him to see me doing things that mean something.
I didn't know where I was heading. I just wanted more out of life.
I started reading more and learning from other educators on Twitter. I took an online class that explained the neuroscience of learning and I found I wanted to keep learning more about how people learn.
I started becoming a better teacher.
I started writing. I discovered that I love pouring my thoughts onto a page which allows me to reflect and grow in all aspects of life. I found my passion. I don't believe it was luck. It was more of a destiny thing.
Once I made a decision to become a better father and a teacher and started taking steps toward those goals I was led onto the path I am on now.
I still slip up. This is the human condition. Plus, complete abstinence is rigid and, in some cases extreme. I still use my electronic devices for entertainment but spend significant time using them to create meaning and make new things. I hit periods of funk and procrastinate for 2 weeks or 2 months but snap out of it every time. I think once you start looking for meaning and taking action on your passions it becomes easier to notice the void and recalibrate.
How to Help Kids Recalibrate
You can't just give someone a creativity injection. You have to create an environment for curiosity and a way to encourage people and get the best out of them. - Ken Robinson
We can encourage questions and explorations, but we must provide the motivating environments and experiences that include these pursuits.
We need to avoid saying and doing things that discourage curiosity. Instead, we have to continually feed our kids' inquisitiveness and impress upon them the idea that curiosity and the pursuit of new experiences, knowledge, and skills lead to happy, fulfilled, and successful lives.
The alternative? Many adults become comfortable with where they are and what they have or just suck it up and grind it out 'cause the struggle has to be real. Acceptance of mediocrity, lack of personal and professional growth and fulfillment, and exclaiming TGIF! every Friday is what life is made of for what seems like the majority of us. But we can break that cycle. It starts with awareness at home and in school.
Whether intended or not, one of the consequences of living in today's society is learned helplessness; a blind acceptance of norms and myths we think make life better but are often detrimental. Our kids need to become aware of this.
So many times life happens too fast. We trade our passion for glory. We lose the eye of the tiger. This is what happens when we let our curiosity wilt. But remember Rocky Balboa? He got the eye of the tiger back! Then he kicked Mr. T's ass.
We can too. We just need to shake things up; change our reality in some way. Do something new. Go skydiving, wrestle an alligator, or write a book. Kick life's ass and kick ass at life. You decide. It's your life. Live it. Then show the teens in your life how to live it.
You have the power to change lives. Use it often so they can change the world.
NOTE: Oskar creates innovative tools for teens to help their eduction. Most teaching and parenting teens resources he makes are free. Check them out here.