Still Curious S2E4 - Danu Poyner

Danu Poyner00:00

You're listening to the Still Curious Podcast with me, Danu Poyner. No guests today, we're six months and 15 episodes into the show, so I thought I'd do a solo episode and try to theorize a little based on what I've learned so far.

When I started this podcast, I had a question in mind. If we all start off with a sense of curiosity, what happens to it as we get older? Why do some people still have their curiosity intact while for most of us it tends to wear off, get chipped away or otherwise ground down. And what is it about those people who are still curious that make them my favorite kind of people to be around? I was particularly interested in the connection between curiosity and learning, because for many curious people, learning seems to be a kind of superpower. It may even be that curiosity itself simply is a love of learning.

In the earlier episodes of the podcast, I tended to talk about curiosity in an abstract way with my guests. I've since backed away from that direct approach. I found it's more interesting and illuminating instead to ask people about the ways they're led through life by their interests, how they like to learn and the moments that led them to changing paths in life.

That's because the concept of curiosity doesn't resonate with everyone. Even necessarily with those I would consider to be curious people. For For some, it seems to have an idle, leisure class quality to it. Something that's only available to people with lots of spare time and isn't necessarily productive. In other words, to some people, the word curiosity can smack of a kind of privilege only available to people with too much time on their hands, or those who, if life were a classroom, had only ever sat in the front row.

So there are some for whom curiosity expresses itself through action, doing and tinkering. Being interested in things and then quickly finding out about them and absorbing them, making them part of their repertoire, but who hesitate to designate themselves as part of a category called 'curious', perhaps either because they don't feel like they belong in the same group of people who are stereotypically curious, or more tellingly, perhaps because they don't want to be mistaken for that kind of person.

Front row and back row are interesting, and I think useful, categories. Like all social theories that divide the world into two kinds of people, it oversimplifies things, but the point of oversimplifying things so bluntly is precisely to draw our attention to something we might otherwise fail to see. For Chris Arnade, a former Wall Street trader and physicist at John Hopkins University, what we risk failing to see is that when front row people end up talking only to each other about how to make sense of the world and design the societies we live in, a lot of people get left behind and made invisible.

Arnade has a book called 'Dignity: seeking respect in back row America'.

I suppose I mentioned this because school and school-based institutions have so much to do with this topic. Not for the learning itself but because of the habits of mind, these institutions form, the discipline they set. the social status they confer, and the resulting way they sort people, opening doors for some and shutting the gates on others.

In other words, in institutionalized education, what ends up becoming most important is the institutional part. Most schooling isn't ultimately about the learning. It's all about being able to pass tests. And what's at stake isn't your learning or understanding so much as whether or not you're considered fit to be admitted entry into an in-group.

In the case of institutionalized education, the prize on offer is usually entry to an in- group comprised of people who are the best at passing tests. At that point, we're a long way from curiosity. Especially because one of the quickest and most reliable ways to shut off someone's curiosity is to make them preoccupied with passing your test.

Of course, this isn't an argument against formal education or school-based institutions per se. Both remain important for lots of reasons and are in any case more or less inevitable. But it is to say the way we do formal education and school-based institutions probably isn't the best way if we want to keep curious people excited and engaged. Or if we want to avoid excluding all the ordinary but perfectly capable people who haven't lived their lives in the front row. At which point we would do well to remind ourselves, what actually is the point of education again?

So, where does this leave us? Well, it means I can start to update my working theory of curiosity and importantly what it means to be still curious as an adult.

I'll be back with those thoughts and more right after the music break on today's episode of the Still Curious Podcast.

What traits define 'still curious'?

So, what does it mean to be someone who is still curious, what qualities do such people have and how would we recognize them?

Firstly, and most importantly, I would suggest people who are still curious are people who have escaped a kind of conformity of the soul. They follow their interests for their own purposes, and they do so with a quiet insistence, no matter what anyone else might be doing or saying.

Secondly, they have a powerful set of qualities that have combined to help keep them safe and be successful on their own terms. Curiosity is a kind of life superpower. But some other important ones that go with it are ambition and perseverance.

It's one thing to be constantly interested in stuff, to have a love of learning and an aptitude for it. It's another thing to follow that through with action. And still another thing to keep doing that in the face of failure, setbacks, and life's relentless grind. And maintaining a sense of childlike wonder and playfulness while you do so is just the cherry on top. So, a love of learning and a track record of putting that into action being led through life by your interests while following your own internal compass. And persevering through difficulty, all wrapped in a sense of playfulness, humility, and wonder.

If you have all that, then you're probably still curious in the sense that I had in mind when I started this.

One thing still curious people have in common is they're really good at learning. They're interested in so many things that they've had to learn how to learn efficiently, sifting for and absorbing what they need. If you've ever met someone who has learning as a superpower in this way, you might wonder how do you even do that? Perhaps you are that person and you didn't realize. Maybe you have people ask you from time to time if you can teach them how you pick up stuff so quickly or how you quickly get across the most important stuff you need from a standing start.

There's a nice word people sometimes use to mean getting across something quickly in a pragmatic way. It's to grok. People with all these qualities tend to be very good at grokking stuff. They use a sort of technique of learning where they start looking at a topic from scratch and are able to quickly map the space, figure out what's relevant and important and then absorb it. Not in a superficial, I could probably pass a test about this way. But actually absorb it by taking it on, understanding it inside out and becoming fluent in it. It might be that people who are still curious get through life by constantly grokking stuff. By grokking as a kind of way of being. In other words, they might be grokkists.

Something else I had in mind when setting out to do this podcast was an ambition to start a company around the idea of life changing learning experiences that set the soul on fire.

It's one of the reasons I ask everyone who comes on the show to pick a life-changing learning experience, they would gift to someone and why. What's always striking to me about the answers people give to that question is that they're never the kind of thing you could get to by designing a course of videos or passing a test.

In other words, if we're looking to design life-changing learning experiences that set the soul on fire, institutionalized education may not be the best place to start.

Well, I have an update on how my project is going, but first I should probably share with you why this is so important to me personally.

My Story

I have a complicated ambivalent and sometimes tortured relationship with school.

I've always loved learning. I've always been curious. I've always loved being around places and people that are about learning. But I haven't always loved school.

When I was quite young and before I first started school, my dad taught me how to read.

We used Enid Blyton, Noddy books, and Dad had a simple technique. Each night we would read the first Noddy book from start to finish.

On the first night, he would point out to me the first word in the book and say to me, follow along as I read, and whenever you see this word, you say it out loud.

So I did.

On the second night, I would keep a lookout for either the first two words.

The next night, three words and so on.

After a few weeks of going on like this, I discovered that not only had I learned to read, but I discovered a love of reading that has stayed with me ever since.

I read lots of novels. Anything I could get my hands on really. And I read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series when I was about eight.

My parents also taught me how to count. Counting steps, when we were out and about, and other things we would see.

I was excited to get to my first year of school, where I found we would be learning to count to 10 and to spell words like cat.

There was a sense of disappointment that fell on my shoulders then. And it's a sense that has never really left.

I was good at school. I got very good marks.

The teachers would often ask me to help the other students or to help them with their marking.

My primary school even had a gifted and talented organization, which sounded exciting.

But it turned out they didn't really have an organization or know how to run one, they just had some good intentions. So they thought it would be a good idea for me to run it, which they framed as a fun challenge.

In which case I didn't really have any interest in running a gifted and talented organization.

I had my own interests, which I preferred to follow instead. I started to discover that often there's no reward for being gifted, other than you end up having to do other people's work for them.

In high school I was often frustrated by the lack of technological literacy that my teachers had. So I set up an after school class in which I offered to teach the teachers how to use an understand computers, which was very popular. I was never really interested in homework or assignments.

I did spectacularly well in some assignments and I would completely fail others because I would not do what was required for the test. There's that quote by John Lennon, who says, 'when I was five years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down happy. They told me I didn't understand the assignment. And I told them they didn't understand life.'

The longer I went on, the more I came to understand that school is ultimately about discipline and passing tests.

And I started to discover the experience of being punished for my curiosity.

I made a conscious decision that whenever I was forced to choose between sacrificing my curiosity for the sake of passing a test or conforming to some intellectual standard, I would refuse and accept whatever consequences came.

I used to get poor grades and detentions for my stubbornness. And several teachers were dismayed that they 'had to' fail me because I hadn't done such and such a thing. Even though my work was sometimes the best in the class. Often the assignment was just boring, so I would take a different approach that felt more interesting. And they would tell me I didn't understand the assignment. I wish I'd had that John Lennon quote to share with them then.

I ended up dropping out of high school in my final year.

Ironically, probably the last straw that made me decide to drop out was being fortunate enough to be offered a try before you buy university experience

where I had the opportunity to do a university subject for credit while completing my final year.

And it was unbearable. I just saw more and more of the same thing stretching out in front of me and I couldn't handle it. So I dropped out, with about six months to go.

I went to work in a shop called Australian geographic.

I burned through a whole bunch of different retail and customer service type jobs. I had ideas about how to do things and those ideas were not always well received.

So either I would get bored with the job or I would be politely but firmly asked to seek my opportunities elsewhere.

But it was good experience.

I was very self confident, too much so, in retrospect.

So I went through all of these different jobs for a few years and eventually I started my own business with a friend, doing logo design and corporate identity work for small businesses,

and also teaching computers, which I had always been good at.

It went ok for a while.. It went pretty well.

We were never short of clients, feedback was good. But I had no idea what I was doing. I was just doing things by feel and I made a lot of mistakes.

In the end, the biggest mistake was probably trying to grow it too far too fast without a solid foundation. And I ended up losing all my money and some other people's money.

And at age 24. I went bankrupt.

That was a life changing learning experience for me.

To be honest, it had never occurred to me that there was any possibility that the business might fail. I'd always been good at anything I tried to do,

and I just assumed I would be good at this.

That failure was a dose of reality I needed. And after dropping out of school and not being able to hold down a job for very long, I realized it was time to have a look at myself and reassess some of my choices.

In the first year after going bankrupt, I got by doing bits and pieces of freelance work and staying with my parents.

As a kind of therapy project, I decided I would write a book

about what I had learned from teaching technology over the last few years. A guide to computers for the curious and confused.

That was a satisfying experience and I self-published it on Amazon.

You can still find it there, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it.

In the end, I decided I needed to go back to school as it were.

So at 24, I now had options to gain entry to university as a mature student.

My non-existent high school results wouldn't matter as long as I could demonstrate my ability to comprehend the material.

So in 2009, I moved to Melbourne and started a policy and research degree at RMIT University.

And I hated it.

Pretty much.

As always there were some parts and some people I really connected with, but on the whole, I found that a very tedious and crushing experience. But it gave me concepts and vocabulary about things I was interested in and it gave me social legitimacy.

I would not be able to theorize it in the way I do about the problems of institutionalized education without that university experience. And so for that, I'm thankful.

There was one professor in particular who I connected with a great deal who taught courses on ethics, public policy and the history of ideas.

He was a kind of heretic in his own department and always getting in trouble with the institution. So I was instantly drawn to him.

I became his research assistant, which was really a way for him to become my mentor.

He has a kind of working class rebel.

Hardly from the front row. But he had made his way into the university system and stayed there to hold space and give a leg up to other people who needed it. In the end I left RMIT with a master's degree in social science and public policy. I did an honors thesis about authority, legitimacy and the health of and the threats to liberal democracies. This was pre-Trump and pre-Brexit, it still reads pretty well, if I do say so myself.

I did some teaching into undergraduate classes. And while the teaching itself was very rewarding, the way the institution treated its sessional staff undermined the experience completely.

I toyed with moving on to doing a PhD in Germany or the UK, and I bummed around in those places for a bit.

In the end what I really needed was some money and some stability.

So I took a fixed term job back home, and that's how I fell into research management and the tech for research space.

My boss in that job gave me a lot of freedom and autonomy and gave me interesting problems to solve where I could learn new things.

I ended up leading a software system implementation and change management project, which was really interesting and satisfying.

That led to a larger research management position at another institution. And then on to being a regional product specialist for a software vendor in that space.

I found that my long standing love of technology, my experience in retail and customer service, my research training, and my aptitude for just getting along with people in a nonjudgmental way really all came together in these roles, in a way that gave me a bit of an X-Factor.

But working at the heart of the university system really did nothing to dispel my thoughts about formal education and its perverse incentives.

And in the back of my mind, I'd always harbored hopes of doing another company again, one day.

When the pandemic happened, kind of brought those plans into sharper focus. Like a lot of people, I was re-evaluating my life or what I was doing, what was important.

And I decided I could bring forward those plans.

So I made a decision to go to business school,

and I did that in a new disruptive online school that kind of appealed to my piratical sensibilities.

And it was a really good experience. I recently finished it early this year. And so here we are.

So why does all this matter?

Because in all my time in and around education, I've never really found something that felt like it was for me, even though I love learning. I found bits and pieces, but mostly in spite of the system, not because of it. School has usually been an obstacle in my way to understanding joy and fulfillment and rarely something enjoyable, enabling or satisfying.

Even when everyone has good intentions and great people are involved, something about the nature of school itself always lets the whole thing down.

I think there are other people like me. Some who are probably far more sensible and less stubborn. More inclined to do what they need to do to get by and not make choices to their own self detriment as much as I've done over the years.

I know they exist because I meet them. Some are front row people who are dismayed by the way things are and do their best to move the needle where they can. Some are not front row people who, by choice or by necessity, work around the system and would hardly mourn its downfall.

Some are just ordinary people with no particular opinion on school one way or another, but who would gladly take a better option for learning if it were made available to them.

Almost all are just trying to figure things out and do the best they can without getting too overwhelmed.

In short, most of my favorite people, when you put them together, comprise a band of educational artists, misfits, pirates, and anarchists.

And I guess, I really just want to wait to help the misfits fit.

Not by sanding down or lopping off the pieces that make them unique until they fit into a prescribed shape that the current game demands. But by playing a different game altogether.

I've made peace with institutionalized education and I'm not out to abolish it or demolish it as some people are.

But I want to build something for us. A way of doing education that's what we would choose if it were ever offered to us that way. I'm calling it Grokkist because grokkists are who it's for. And if nothing else, I hope it will be a way for these kinds of people to find and connect with each other over things they find exciting and care about.

Most of us can recall the moments when we learn something that truly changed our lives. Then the times when a teacher or guide who cared about us, said something that opened up the world, set our souls on fire and sent us hurdling down new paths of possibilities.

Moments when we stumbled upon a sudden encounter that changed the way we look at things forever. Or helped us see things we couldn't see before. Moments when everything resonated and we felt just for an instant as if the universe was speaking directly, just to us.

So life-changing learning experiences are something we can easily recognize. Every story is unique and personal, but together they have a lot in common.

We hear constantly about the transformative power of education to change lives. Yet deep down I think we don't really expect this or that learning program to deliver a life-changing experience like the moments we recall that truly excited us. Even for those who work in education full time, designing education that ignites the soul seems like a far away dream or somehow forbidden. And you know what, when we think about it that way it is, but it doesn't have to be.

The key premise of Grokkist is that life-changing learning happens when the machinery of education gets out of the way and a curious learner following their interests is able to connect with a teacher or guide who's as excited about the learners experience as they are.

So my approach to educational design through Grokkist is to design out all the distracting, harmful and unnecessary elements of traditional learning processes until what remains is an exciting transformative and wholly resonant encounter for an individual learner.

In other words, I guess what I'm trying to do is design learning without any of the bullshit or the boring bits.

If you've listened this far and some of this is resonating with you, maybe this is for you too. If so, I'd love to hear from you. It's very early days, it's still taking shape and this is not the time or place to pitch it in too much detail. But if you're interested, you can jump on over to the website, link in the show notes and take a look what I'm up to see if it's something you'd like to get involved in.

And as always, please do get in touch with me at with your thoughts and feedback on today's episode, and what you'd like to hear more or less of in future. I'll be back next episode with a new interesting guest, as we continue to explore what it means to be still curious. Until then take care!

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