Quirky experiments: be curious

In 2018, on my request, my grandfather wrote a letter to my wife to celebrate a milestone birthday.

It was a one-page handwritten letter filled with a goldmine-like numbered list of observations about life that he had gleaned along the way. In his typical understated way, he said “it is not a worked-out system but rather some random things that I approve”. After I read the letter, I thought much of it in the coming weeks and days.

One in particular thing still stands out to me: “give way to quirky experiments”.

The one and the same avocado!

I thought more about it and realised that Grandad is one of the most intellectually curious people I have known. He has always had some sort of experiment on the go – whether it was building something, planting or growing something, or simply reading about a new area.

Notably, I turned up at their house one day (well into his retirement) to discover a giant telescope sitting in his study. It turned out that he had picked up a book about stars, taken an interest in astronomy, and started stargazing from suburban Brisbane.

I’ve tried – to varying degrees of success – to adopt this advice.

Around the time of his letter to my wife, I grew an avocado tree from seed (pictured above). I tried painting (this was not a success). I’ve enjoyed baking bread. I grew a sourdough starter. I brewed beer with a friend. I’ve tried to grow various seeds or try new food combinations.

Many of these experiments failed; most barely lasted a week. But I can recall many of these quirky experiments – especially the ones shared with friends – because they added welcome trivia my life in a way that the ‘ eat / work / eat / sleep / repeat’ cycle cannot.

If all you are is the sum total of your work (and, dare I say, religious) life, then you are probably – frankly – a bit boring. If nothing else, your quirky experiments make for good pub conversation-fodder… “Did I tell you guys I’m growing an avocado tree?”

 

What makes something “interesting”?

Fair warning: this post is sheer pontificating.

A couple of years ago I was having dinner with a psychologist friend. We were talking about what we wanted to do in the future and suddenly she stopped and said to me “when you talk about the things that you want to do, you use one word a lot – ‘interesting'”.

I have thought often about that conversation since then. I have particularly thought about what it means for something to be “interesting”.

I still don’t know the answer. It can’t be merely that an “interesting” thing is new. Something can be new and thoroughly boring (backyard soil composition analysis, for example).

Perhaps our brains are so increasingly wired to be frenetic and distracted that “interesting” just means “new and sexy and shiny”, in the sense that we think “right, I understand that now, let’s move on”.

But I can’t help but think that it is deeper than that.

I think that perhaps “interesting”, for me, refers to something that is stimulating and also consequential.

It must involve both an engagement of the brain and result in some form of output.

The engagement without the output would be a hollow exercise. Without the output, the engagement is entertainment, not true interest

(or “meaningless!” As the author of Ecclesiastes darkly put it)

So – perhaps the word I should really be using rather than “interesting” is “meaningful”.

(Everything must be meaningful? My Gen Y tendencies are leaking through here)

In a work context, something is “interesting” if it combines problem solving (engagement) with a resolution (output). At home, it might be conversation (engagement) that and moves life or relationship forward (output).

In down time, it might even be a video game stimulating the brain (engagement), giving one a different sense of self (output). Interesting study on this here.

…another distinct possibility is that I am overthinking this, and an interesting life is just one consisting of stimulating conversation over good wine with smart people (preferably without insufferable lawyers trying to define everything).