Hey, what am I reading?
It’s a newsletter about curiosity. Mine and yours.
Have you ever met someone who is enthusiastic about everything, who is always so much fun to be around (turning everything into an adventure) - and who never, ever seems to be at that kind of loose end that can make Sunday afternoons an interminable hell? Have you ever looked at them and thought, with a mixture of admiration and envy, “damn, that must be a fun way to live”?
Yeah. Me too.
So what? Some people are just annoying.
No! Wrong take. (I bet you’re fun at parties.)
Don’t you want to steal some of that enthusiasm for yourself, and be able to bring it into normal, everyday life?
Don’t you want to rekindle that excitable thirst for novelty, knowledge and fun that you had in absolute bucketloads as a kid?
Don’t you want to get better at discovering all those amazing, life-improving things out there in the world that you’re still so clueless about?
I guess. But - how?
Glad you asked!
After a decade as a travel writer, I’m turning my focus on the practical skill of curiosity. Specifically:
how it can be learned and applied even when you’re not going anywhere much (yay lockdowns)…
the cognitive biases and mental shenanigans that stop us from being as joyfully curious as we could be…
the scientifically proven benefits of getting out of your comfort zone, and the knee-trembling fun of asking really annoying questions and embracing your inner adventurous weirdo…
And it’s also firmly about you.
Yes, some of this is about me chasing my own specific nerdy interests - and as the designated crash-test dummy for this newsletter, I will be putting myself through the most spectacular indignities on the path to hopeful enlightenment. If you occasionally learn something new and laugh at me for making a total fool of myself, I’ll be doing my job properly.
But I’m also challenging you to go do stuff. Weekly quests, ridiculous calls to arms against the forces of apathy and boredom, heroic bouts of applied idiocy. It’s all optional, but I reckon it’s where the real fun is here.
To borrow a favourite quote of my deeply curious friend Jonny Miller, “knowledge is only a rumour until it lives in the muscle” - and I intend to give your curiosity a really good workout.
OK. So what’s the plan?
The plan is the following three things. Every week you’ll:
Watch me chasing the answer to a “stupid” question. You know - the kind that kids ask, before they’ve learned that asking stupid questions is impolite and a sign of poor adulting. The kind of questions that sound uselessly foolish, but when you try to actually answer them, you plunge down a deep rabbithole of inquiry you never knew existed. Good, healthy curiosity is all about asking daft questions! (Also, about discovering that some of those daft questions lead to entirely daft answers. That will happen too.)
Anyway. My main hope is that by watching me chase my questions, you’ll get some ideas about how to chase yours.
Learn something about the scientific mechanics of curiosity: of attention, of cognitive bias (the thing that often gets in the way of our attention) and of every tiny, fascinating bit of cutting-edge research that feeds into this relatively new school of inquiry.
Also, because I’m a massive nerd and a bumbling wannabe outdoorsman, there’s going to be a lot of pop culture & literary references and also plenty of Great-Outdoors-related input, bringing in my background as a travel writer and, before that, a University student of landscape archaeology.
And finally, I’m going to add to my list of famous people who have Blocked me on social media by running interviews with some of the most curious people I know. All this and more, as the kids say!
Be challenged to get out there and see something new. A few years back, I did an experimental paid newsletter called You’re So Not Bored: “12 weeks. 12 challenges. One great big adventure into the unfamiliar.” It quickly became one of the most popular things I’ve ever done by email. This will be its continuation, in a slightly different form: a little more refined, a little more fun, slightly more sadistic in a cheerful sort of way.
The challenges will begin in a form appropriate for a locked-down audience, because of the weird, geographically limited times we currently live in - but later? Ah, later. The plans I have for you, my pretties. Insert an evil cackle here, if you like.
That’s more or less the plan - and the weeks will be arranged into Seasons. You know, like Netflix, or your favourite podcast. Each season will have a theme, and will consist of about 8 weeks of emails, followed by a couple of weeks to allow me to eat a hot meal or two, grab a shower, that kind of thing.
Sounds tolerable. So exactly who are you again?
My name is Mike Sowden.
This is where I could, and perhaps should, parade all the items on my CV as a writer, namedropping important publications you’ve vaguely heard of, humblebragging my achievements and making you feel like I’m an expert you can really trust.
But - no. Let’s be super-clear on this. I am not an expert here. This is going to be as much of a learning journey for me as it will be for you. I’ve spent most of the last year doing my own research, but it didn’t put any fancy letters after my name or land me a TED talk. Didn’t happen. Might never.
Instead, I am approaching this not as a world authority, but as a journalist - someone who asks interesting questions and doesn’t stop poking and prodding at the world until they’ve found satisfying answers. I’ve spent a decade learning how to be pretty good at doing that. It’s the form of my favourite non-fiction reading material, and it’s a really fun way to write. And I intend for both of us to have fun here.
So! You could Google me, I guess. (Please note: I’m not the famous chap who makes bow hair for musical instruments.)
But the following description, from my blog’s About page elsewhere, is as true a flavour of my presence as I’ve ever put down in words:
One of the happiest moments of my life was drinking a cup of tea at 8am in a steamy cafe in the middle of Kirkwall, Orkney.
I was happy because I’d just spent the night trying to sleep in the middle of a field in the freezing rain, sans anything even remotely waterproof.
To my surprise, not only was I not dead, I’d also rather enjoyed it, in a horrible, what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-me sort of way.
This should tell you a number of things about me:
1. I really like tea.
2. I’m easily pleased.
3. I’m a fan of the kind of unconventional outdoorsy experiences that involve a little bravery, a lot of stoicism, a hefty dollop of life-affirming misery, and anything that yanks you out of your comfort zone and gives you a thrilling new perspective on the world and your awareness of it.
4. I’m some kind of idiot.
If you want to become more curious and more questioning about the world around you, especially in these times where we seem under assault by attention-hijacking diversions and timewasters – that’s my beat. If I can open your eyes wider and prick up your ears a bit, I’m doing my job.
That’s the important stuff. The rest is just me playing at being an adult (and fooling nobody).
OK. You’ve convinced me. Where do I sign up?
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