Mar 19, 2021 • 13M

When I Grow Up, I Want To Be A Carrot

A few thoughts on curious simplicity. (Audio)

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Mike Sowden
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Hello again! This is Everything Is Amazing, a newsletter about curiosity that occasionally speaks, like this! I’m testing out Substack’s embedded audio function here - although I’ll do a transcript below for anyone, like me, who might get bored of my voice over the next ten minutes. 

I’d like to start by saying thank you - this feels like I’m in person, somehow, so, thank you for reading this thing I’m making, and for your replies and recommendations of it to other people.

I honestly had no idea how all of this was going to land. It’s not really travel writing, which is what I was doing before, it’s not really science writing, it’s not exactly self-help, but it is borrowing from all those things, and I’m trying to Frankenstein together something that feels a bit different - although, like Frankenstein’s monster, it’s really a bunch of sewn-up stuff that worked great elsewhere and who knows what’ll happen next!

(I should probably end this analogy now because…that story didn’t end well.)

Also, this is the stripped down, throttle-locked version of this newsletter. My plans for it were all about being out in the world, talking to interesting people and doing fairly ridiculous things in the name of applied curiosity. So it says a lot about my timing that I launched in the middle of a pandemic, with all the disruption that entails.

(For example: I had something lined up this week, for the middle of the week, and because of lockdown-related reasons it couldn’t happen - so that’s why I’m recording this instead.) 

All this locked-downness will have to go on for a little while yet. I’m here on the west coast of Scotland, I can still only talk to people virtually, and I still can’t really go anywhere right now. So if you’ve enjoyed what this newsletter has been about so far, I promise it’s only going to get better.

(And if you’ve hated it - uh, I promise it’s only going to get better.)

Thank you also to those of you who have signed up for my “Everyone Is Amazing” calls. I’ve started the first few calls today and they’re just as fun as I remember from last year.

So here’s what I want to talk about today.

Nature is pleased with simplicity. And nature is no dummy.
- Isaac Newton

I reckon getting more curious about the world is about doing a lot of quite simple things.

You might have seen in my weekly challenges, none of them are terribly demanding in terms of time and energy spent. Some of them may be hard in other ways - like, if you did the one where you’re replying to your most dreaded email.

But also, that is essentially a simple thing that has become unnecessarily complicated. The many times I’ve found myself in that situation, most of the difficulty was self-disgust - like, why the hell did I leave it this long, what kind of person does that, how drunk do I need to make myself to reply to this, and so on.

But answering it was easy. Done in 5 minutes, bang. In terms of effort spent for results achieved, it’s like an emotional lottery-win.

So...why does so much stuff like this get so complicated? Because it’s the complicatedness that is stopping us, right?

Take another example: Saying “no”. Saying no to things is a necessary part of saying yes to the right things. If you did the Say Yes To Everything weeklong challenge, you will have ended up saying yes to a lot of really stupid crap, as well as maybe a few things that turned out to be unexpectedly great. But that challenge is really about appreciating the power of a good No. 

But Nos are actually really hard.

Let’s say it’s the weekend tomorrow, and it’s looking like a really, really fine day out there, and the mountains are calling to you, or the beach. And it’s been an exhausting week and your head is just full, you know, not of anything you can particularly point to, but - full. So you just want to go off by yourself and just not think anything, just drink in the world for a few hours, and just be so aware of everything around you that you forget yourself. I mean, I’m an introvert, that’s how I feel sometimes - well, pretty often really. If you’re more of an extrovert, you may feel differently.

But let’s say you just want to go off by yourself, not because you’re sad or because there’s nothing wrong but because you’d enjoy it.

And you mention you’re doing it, and a friend says HEY what a great idea, I’ll come with you! Maybe we could have lunch at that awesome ski lodge that’s just opening up again, bring a few beers, make a proper day of it. What do you say? And what you want to say is No, but that’s suddenly hard. You can say No, but it’s not just a No, is it? It’s a “I don’t want to hang out with you”, or maybe a “I need to go by myself for reasons that are far more serious than our friendship” which leads to them saying “Okay, what’s up? You can tell me. Come on.”

And in that situation, you can’t say “there’s nothing up, I just want to enjoy the solitude for a while,” because they’re not going to believe you or they’re going to feel insulted - they’re going to conclude that you’re saying that their company is even less desirable than no company at all. 

At this point you may be so pig-sick of all this that you decide to burn your friendship to the ground just to keep it simple:

“You don’t want to go with me? What is it about me?”   

“Well, EVERYTHING really.”

It’s become pretty hard to say you want a bit of alone-time for a few hours. And it’s become hard to accept someone else saying it to you. You find yourself thinking, whaaat? There has to be a deeper reason, surely. That can’t be all there is to it.

Simple motivations and explanations aren’t terribly fashionable. The word “sophisticated” means “something that shows a high degree of complexity” - but we use it as a judgement as well. Being sophisticated is a good thing and being unsophisticated, ie. simple, means you’re an artless, shuffling peabrain chewing on a piece of straw with the fashion sense of Gollum. That’s what it means.

One of my favourite fictional characters of all time is from the late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, which are kind of satires of the fantasy genre of fiction, although they’re a lot more than that and he says some pretty amazing things about the world in those books, usually in the form of a really good joke. But the character I like is called Carrot. Corporal Carrot, of the city of Ankh Morpork’s police force, the City Watch.

He has a suitably absurd backstory - he’s 6 foot tall human who was brought up by dwarves and never realised he wasn’t one - when he first came to the city he found lodgings in a brothel and didn’t realise what it was, just assuming it was a place with a strange amount of ladies doing extremely loud DIY in their rooms late at night, and so on. All nicely ridiculous.

But Carrot’s most endearing feature is that he is simple.

Not the deeply unpleasant, judgmental real-world meaning of that word. No - he’s just uncomplicated. He is extremely smart, he is build like a brick toilet, and it becomes clear at one point that he is actually heir to the throne of the land. He’s basically the hero of the whole story, the chosen one, that great big annoying fantasy macho individualist cliche…

But he’s also wise enough to choose simplicity. He refuses to get dragged into pointlessly murky politics and powerplaying - he actually makes a decision to ignore his lineage and decides to stay a copper because he enjoys it. He has a simple, decent moral code. He treats people fairly and he always speaks the truth - and when people know you’re always being straight with them, holy hell that uncomplicates things.

So basically Corporal Carrot is unsophisticated, by the dictionary definition of it. And yet he is also really wise and really effective at what he does. He’s the one that gets things done, comes up with all the plans that actually work, and the one that changes people’s behaviour for the better - he’s an influencer, I suppose you could say.

He does all these things because he keeps things simple. He can handle extremely complicated things because the tools he’s using - chiefly his brain, also the rules of his job and so on - are kept very uncomplicated. 

I can’t tell you how much I love this. 

But there’s a real-world example of this, actually. It lives inside your skull and you’re using it to listen to me right now.

You’d think the human brain was an insanely complex machine, considering all the insanely complex things it can do.

In fact, it’s not. It’s built mainly from three types of neurons, which are cells that generate and pass along electrical and chemical signals. There are sensory neurons, motor neurons and interneurons. There are many other different types of cells, of course, including glia which administer to neurons and so on - but basically, your brain runs with a very simple architecture.

These neurons are madly adaptable, and can do a staggeringly different amount of things, including change the way they do those things. Within your lifetime, using your own behaviour, you can change the way your brain works. (Hopefully for the better, but hey, that’s up to you.)

In essence, your brain is filled with 100 billion Corporal Carrots, all working together to more or less keep the peace.

(Perhaps if your brain was filled with 100 billion super-sophisticated modern humans who couldn’t stop making things more complicated than they need to be, it’d probably spend all its time arguing over the best way to think, and you’d just sit there, doing nothing.) 

What does all this have to do with curiosity and the subject of this newsletter? Glad you asked because I am not Corporal Carrot, so let’s make this simpler.

The scientific measurement of curiosity is NFC, or Need For Cognition. This is the closest there is to a unit measurement of curiosity and it’s used in the social and medical sciences, and it’s more or less our eagerness to learn new things, to be open to new ideas and experiences, and to exert effort in closing information gaps - those gaps in our understanding that irritate us enough to want to close that gap by learning new things. 

Also, interestingly, NFC is negatively associated with social anxiety. It seems like the more curious you become, the less you fall prey to being freaked out by social situations and feeling like a total plonker every time you open your mouth. (That’s pretty exciting news for people like me.) 

But NFC also requires expending effort, so you get tired. If you have a higher daily NFC, you’re still going to run out of energy at some point, a bit like the way sports players are all equally knackered at the end of the day - you completely use up what you’ve got.

So this is where simplicity comes in - and our modern obsession with fancypants complicated ways of doing things. If you spend the bulk of your time learning *how* to do a thing, it stands to reason that you will run out of time and energy to do the thing itself. If you don’t have a simple approach to doing something, you will not be able to achieve complicated results with it over time - because all you’ll ever be doing is learning how to use the toolkit. 

And you know what that reminds me of?


Social media.

The next big thing.

Obsessive insider-baseball style arguments over the best way to do something, the most optimal method to do this and that. The constant churn of new services trying to get you to do the same old things on them.

I probably sound a luddite - I mean, I love tech, this newsletter is tech. I’m not saying we should go back to the good old days where people like me stood in the street and rang a bell and shouted at you as you went past. But the sheer amount of reinventing what already works is very much a modern thing. 

When I was a travel blogger, I got press releases in this fashion all the time: “it’s an app that lets you collect your experiences together in the form of words and photos, and then share them, and allow others to give you approval in the form of a Like”. Oh, if only there was something like that that existed already, eh?

And when I was chatting to Anna Brones a few weeks back, we were talking about the constant reinvention of basic principles that have been around for thousands of years by sticking a new label on them that makes them marketable. 

All this isn’t going to stop just because some newsletter writer whinged about it. There’s good money to be made! From all of us! But if we say no, and we just find a simple approach that works, and then do it, a lot, then we can take a Corporal Carrot approach to life and just get on with it in a refreshingly straightfoward way.

And you know when you’re getting it right, because there’s a kind of joy in simplicity. I get this from a full rucksack when I go hiking: an entire portable home in a bag, every single item with a role to play. Everything you need, so you can just get on with the more important job of paying attention to everything except your stuff.    

So if there’s anything you get from this newsletter, I hope it’s a willingness to look a bit dumb in the way you do things, a bit unsophisticated and laughably obvious, because you’ve chosen to pare your methods down and keep them simple. It’s the fastest way to enjoy everything that curiosity has to offer you.

Thanks for listening.

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Images: Julien Lavallée; ESA; Jeremy Thomas; Steven Saunders