If something is interesting to you, then it’s probably useful to you.
Some stories and ideas may not have any practical relevance at the exact moment that you’re consuming them, but they will very likely offer you something of value down the road if you’re genuinely captivated by them.
Here are four reasons why:
1. You’ll remember them: Richard Saul Wurman wrote, “People never forget things, they just never remembered it in the first place because it was too boring.” This won’t happen as much if the content you’re consuming is engaged out of interest rather than perceived importance. Nothing is more readily retrieved than a story or idea that’s been heartily received.
2. They will affect you: It’s one thing to read, watch, or listen to something. It’s another thing to be compelled by what you read, watch, or listen to in a way that makes you sit at the edge of your seat, or burst out into laughter, or shed a tear, or stay awake all night because you can’t put the book down. These visceral experiences are things that lead to moments of conversation and reflection that pave new avenues of thought.
Think about the time you went from being an atheist to a theist or vice versa. Think about the last time you decided you needed to break a bad habit or get your act together in some way. I’m guessing the odds are high that you heard a speech, song, story, or statement that hit you right in the gut around the time when you decided to turn over a new leaf. Am I right? Or were you moved and motivated to turn your life around by a lecture that you forced yourself to sit through half-asleep because you were afraid of your mother yelling at you for getting an “F” in Anthropology? People tend not to move towards something unless they’re moved by something. If the content you’re consuming isn’t provoking you, startling you, inspiring you, disturbing you, stimulating you, or gripping you, do you really think it’s going to change your life? People don’t get fired up to do the things that make them come alive by reading for their school teachers. They get fired up by reading for themselves.
3. They will help you make the points you need to make: I gave a talk at a conference once called “Dreams Don’t Come True, Decisions Do.” I was asked to come on stage and give a brief pep talk before the evening social. I knew I wanted to make a point about stepping up to the plate and trying to create things without waiting on the world’s permission. So I walked on stage with the intent to do exactly that. And that’s when it happened: the usual magic that stems from following your interests. The night before flying to the conference I watched an episode of a TV show called Fringe. It wasn’t to build my career. It was to satiate my constant craving for science fiction. It’s irresponsible, I know, but that’s how it works. Even though I didn’t watch Fringe to be practical, it turns out that the episode I watched the night before provided a perfect illustration for the point I wanted to make. Telling that story might have been the best part of my speech. It certainly was the part most people remembered. And more importantly, it was the part that was the most fun to talk about.
My “Fringe” experiences happen quite frequently on and off the stage. I may find myself coaching a Praxis participant, or facilitating a workshop, or being interviewed on a podcast, and I’ll have an idea I need to get across. And that’s when I do what every teacher, coach, writer, speaker, or friend needs to do: I tell a story to make the idea come alive. And where do those stories come from? Moments of irresponsibility. Moments when I read a book, listen to a song, or watch a movie for the sake of sheer enjoyment.
Whenever I give a talk, there’s always a young person in the audience who asks me “Where do you get your stories?” I always say “I don’t get them, they get me.” They reach across the room, capture my imagination, and refuse to let me go. Comedians often say that the best jokes are the ones no one can steal from you because they’re about the specifics of your life. They’re uniquely your own. Chris Rock can’t tell a Chris Farley joke because it just wouldn’t make sense. The same is true of the stories, metaphors, case studies, examples, and illustrations you use to sell products, make presentations, give speeches, write books, help clients, impress employers, and make friends. The aspects of your work that move other people the most will be the ones that move you the most. And you can’t find that kind of stuff by reading books like “50 Generic Stories for Teachers, Authors, & Leaders.” You have to read and watch the stuff that hits you in the gut.
4. They will make you interested in the “important” stuff:
I just finished reading a book called “Death Note.” Technically, it’s 12 books. It’s a graphic novel series about a High School senior named Light Yugami. Light is a straight-A student who’s respected and adored by all of his classmates. He’s good-looking, athletic, smart, and personable. One problem: he’s bored and unchallenged. But that’s all about to change. One day while walking home from school, he sees a black notebook lying on the ground. The cover reads “Death Note.” He opens it and finds a a bunch of rules written on the first page. The first rule says something like “Whoever’s name is written in this book shall die.” Ha! This can’t be true. Silly book. What idiot has the time to make something dark like this? But remember…Light Yugami is bored. So he keeps it for kicks.
Of course, Light Yugami isn’t gullible enough to actually believe the Death Note works. When he goes home and turns on the television, however, he sees a live news report about a terrible crime in progress. The name and face of the criminal has been identified, but no one can stop him because he’s holding people hostage. In a moment of irrational and curious hope (desperation?), Light Yugami writes the name of the criminal in the notebook of death and waits. 40 seconds later, the criminal drops dead and the news reporters are shocked. Light doesn’t believe it, but his interest is piqued. So now he tries it on another criminal and gets the same result. He soon becomes convinced that the power of life and death belongs in his hands. Does this make him a murderer?
What if the people killed by Light were all criminals and deserved to die? Does that make it okay? Should he be the one to decide? If not, who should? Should he tell anyone? Can such a book be used for good? What would you do? Death Note aside, is it ever right to use violence as a way of dealing with bad people? When? What are the limits? Is violence okay if we use the threat of it as a way to make people behave well? Why? Why not? isn’t that what politics does? Isn’t politics the use of violence or the threat thereof as a means of making people do the things we believe are good as a society? How does that differ from a Death Note?
I don’t care about your answers to these questions (for the time being), but I hope you’d agree that these are among the most consequential questions we can ask. See what I did there? Actually, I can’t take the credit for it. I didn’t do anything. The graphic novel I just told you about did that to me. It made me ask very fundamental philosophical questions about the nature of violence/justice and it forced me to clarify my own assumptions about right and wrong. These are the very kinds of things addressed in courses on Ethics and Political Philosophy. Most scholars, teachers, and intellectuals would say that’s pretty important stuff everyone should think about. Well, guess what? You’re more likely to think about important stuff like that if you’re not obsessed with thinking about important stuff. If you pursue the stuff that’s important to you, it will “trick you” into caring about a bunch of seemingly boring stuff that’s not currently important to you.
Ortega Y Gasset wrote:
“So many things fail to interest us, simply because they don’t find in us enough surfaces on which to live, and what we have to do is to increase the number of planes in our mind, so that a much larger number of themes can find a place in it at the same time.”
When you study things that fascinate you, you increase the number of planes in your mind. Now the so-called “boring” stuff is able to find a surface in your consciousness upon which it can live. When people say things like “Oh that math stuff terrifies me” or “art bores me” or “philosophy makes my head spin” or “reading history makes me fall asleep”, it isn’t because they need more discipline. It’s because they need to increase the number of planes in their mind. There’s nothing going on inside their hearts and heads that resonates with the allegedly important stuff you’re trying to make them care about. The antidote is less important stuff and more interesting stuff. They need to fill themselves with themes and ideas that will function as a bridge across which more themes and ideas can travel. You can’t follow your interests without picking up new interests and practical tools along the way.
As a fine example of how “irresponsible curiosity” leads to the discovery of useful tools and interesting experiences, consider this excerpt from “Down The Rabbit Hole: How I Taught Myself To Code & Became An Engineer” by Praxis alumna Madison Kanna:
I never planned on becoming a software engineer. I dropped out of college and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. After seeing my big sister code, I got a little curious about it. I decided to forget about what I ‘should’ do with my life or what I was ‘supposed’ to learn. I started coding. I started Googling. I followed my curiosity.
Much like when Alice follows after the white rabbit, I had no idea where this path would lead to. I just knew I had to find out.
Lots of people would consider software engineering to be one of the “important” subjects. Well, Madison became a software engineer by chasing her interests. How’s that for practicality?
Here’s the bottom line, folks: Trust your tastes.
Shun conventional notions of being cultured and follow your curiosity instead. It’s the best way to find useful ideas that you’ll actually be motivated to use.