If you’ve worked with me over the past few years, you’ll know how much I enjoy making up incredibly long, stupid names to describe otherwise mundane objects. When I was a manager, I frequently labeled my organizational piece the “Clipboard of Justice” or the “Binder of Incredible Awesomeness.” It’s obviously a juvenile thing to do, but it often made the object easier to focus on. Ask my managers at our Menifee Sport Chalet what preposition appeared before every binder title. Hint: it involved my painstaking dedication to bettering my German accent. It also helped me remember ze fax number.
Always these objects involved a P-Touch label on some tangible object. I would pride myself in being able to come up with a name so long that the P-Touch label would span the length of the binder or clipboard. You might laugh, but coming up with these titles was a stroke of genius and quite the creative exercise.
Today I’m attaching a similar label but to a tool that is completely intangible.
I’ve reflected entirely too much on my return to school and I still have a difficult time convincing myself that I’m actually where I am. Upon graduating high school and achieving jack squat in community college, I assumed that when I left school I could never go back or if I did it would be for some technical school or some certification to be a teacher. I don’t want to short change the people that dedicate themselves to these pursuits (especially as I do see myself teaching though in the further future), but I felt that these pursuits were my ceiling, especially as I became disillusioned with my career as a retail manager. It occurred to me that any chance of getting into an even moderately respectable university would be slim for a guy who left school to become a businessman and a relatively jaded and unsuccessful one at that. The decision to go back was as much a desperate leap as leaving college so many years ago.
Oddly enough it was a conversation with someone who would prove to me just how low my quantitative reasoning ceiling actually was that would prove to be the genesis of the return journey. While my physics professor did his damnedest to make us feel stupid in class, he also made it abundantly clear that by working hard and putting in the time, you could go anywhere. We were in a class at Palomar College – not exactly Harvard – learning how to derive the formula for circular motion with constant acceleration (it’s actually some basic calculus – but I struggle to remember all of the steps). We are racking our brains and it was during this time that I suddenly realized I was not interested in figure it out. I was intrigued by the process but not enough to really want to shine a light on the nuance.
It is only recently that I’ve been able to put a name to this phenomenon that seems to exist independently within the confines of my mind – the Beacon of Inquisitiveness.
Now I’m going to spend a little bit of time explaining what the Beacon is so as to more accurately trace my journey – a journey it has subtly steered me on over time. I originally thought of this as more of a light that I would choose to shine in a direction (which isn’t really a beacon’s purpose) but it occurred to me that I would be giving myself too much agency with that metaphor. It feels like I gravitate toward something and, upon arrival, I begin to investigate it more fully. This analogy is better-served as I would almost certainly describe my early interests as things I “stumbled upon.” I certainly did not seek out amazing TEDTalks by Simon Sinek and Michael Shermer and Andrew Stanton – they were directions I was heading merely because something over there caught my eye, like a light in the distance.
A TEDTalk I identify with quite readily and which describes this beacon idea couched in more technical terms is this one, by Emilie Wapnick called “Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling.” Emilie describes this feeling people like us have and refers to them as “multipotentialites.” There was a television show called “The Pretender” that was basically our dream – being quite adept at doing just about anything you find interesting and becoming adept at it quickly. I can say that while it’s a bit of a humble-brag to say I feel that way about a lot (and the things I don’t excel at – language learning for example – are quite the kick in the pants), I can also say that what follows is only a temporary disquieting of a passion. Multipotentialites have a tendency to lose interest in something after we’ve thrown ourselves at it at full speed. But what we lose in passion we more than make up for in perspective. When I first returned to school to study astrophysics I had already purchased a telescope and taken great interest in learning the locations of various planets and the mechanics that led to how they would appear and when. Don’t ask me to do the math, but I can certainly explain celestial mechanics on the essential level. While I no longer use my telescope nearly as much, I still break it out occasionally and I still possess a great deal of knowledge that is immediately applicable to teaching trig, navigating using only the stars, and even reading the time and time of year. We live in a digital age where most of what I just described is unnecessary but you don’t survival train for every day life – and you don’t build a storm shelter to live in.
The Beacon of Inquisitiveness is within all of us and it is a curiosity that is difficult to quell. In fact, it only seems to go away when we rationalize it away. We doubt our ability to complete a book, understand a concept, finish a project. We look at that light so far away and think about how great it would be to get there, but the beacon does not light the way, does it? It reveals a destination that you must journey towards and take all of the bumps and detours necessary to get there. If you’re interested enough.
For me, the Beacon has routinely jumped around and without warning. While I have since come to understand that it seemed to be honing in on a single theme (or region, if you want to continue to follow the analogy), that was not so obvious when floating in the intellectual dark looking for land. Look! Planets! You like space shit, right?! Here, binge-watch these two seasons of The Universe and become obsessed with planetary possibilities (and disasters). There’s a new season coming out. Meh.
Hey! Look at this Lord of the Rings thing! You watched that one movie with your brother (thank you, Jonathan, for making me watch Fellowship of the Ring – you lit a beacon that has informed me almost as much as any science class), and there are books Tolkien wrote about the genesis of this incredibly universe he made! You could learn Elvish! I didn’t, thank god. But Lord of the Rings did grasp my attention for some time, specifically the lessons on leadership and ethics that oozed out of Gandalf and Aragorn. Hey! You like leadership! Watch this short video about how great leaders you’re obsessed with (like Martin Luther King, Jr.) get people to achieve extraordinary things! That TED Talk – How Great Leaders Inspire Action by Simon Sinek – has led to a lifelong study of Simon’s amazing ideas and applying many of those lessons to working as a leader with people.
Okay, that’s a snippet of the directions the Beacon led me towards before returning to school was ever a rain drop in my pond. If you only had that set of data points – what would YOU think was my interest? Seriously, if you’ve read this much, please take a moment to consider. What is this guy interested in?
It would take a return to school toward another Beacon, one surrounded by Neil deGrasse Tyson, NASA, and manned deep-space missions, before any semblance of land would really take shape. Even then my goal when pursuing a degree in astrophysics was to work in astrodynamics and be the guy responsible for keeping people alive in a spaceship, millions of miles away. I would be the one to tell you which direction to point the rocket and when to hit the gas and for how long. When I was in that physics class and struggling with yet another lab assignment I began to have an existential crisis and began to look in earnest at the pattern of beacons that had been present in the last few years of my life. It became abundantly clear that I wanted to be in charge of the people in the ship, not be in charge of the computations that would benefit them. That was the day the Beacon of Inquisitiveness lit up.
I just finished reading a remarkable book by Gavin de Becker called “ The Gift of Fear.” In it, de Becker makes a strong case for listening to intuition. Namely, he asks you to listen to it when you feel very real fear. In many cases, your intuition has already made an assessment of the situation and is already steering you toward a path to safety. He makes a series of exceptionally strong cases on how to turn off false sirens like anxiety or worry and just pay attention to where you are and let the growing sense of fear be the only siren available. It is a remarkably paradoxical recommendation at first glance – stop worrying so you can fear properly – but it becomes readily apparent when you couple it with meditative exercise and really pay attention to the source of thoughts and emotions. Intuition is a powerful force that, I would argue, is at play even when you’re not in danger. There’s a subtle interest in what’s going on around you and your brain (and gut – the enteric nervous system – yes, your gut can “think,” albeit on a symbolic level) steers you “subconsciously” towards the things you are interested in. de Becker uses traffic accidents as a near-universal interest. We slow down because we have something to learn – some result in that accident can teach us about how to avoid meeting a similar fate ourselves. Our “morbid fascination” is rooted in a deep sense of self-preservation. By looking at it we can ascertain a cause, maybe a deadly incorrect choice, and a possible alternative or at least mental simulation on what we would do if we found ourselves in the same position. I like to think that in matters not related to life and death our brains do something similar but in the broad interest of the world it is much less compelling but no less real – our brain is looking for something that will help us understand ourselves better. And thusly answer important questions like “why are we here?” and “what is the meaning of life?”
That system I feel is at least partially (if not mostly) responsible for my Beacon of Inquisitiveness. The beacons are the distant ideas we’d like to understand more and in my case those beacons have always been lit around a territory that at least one group of people are trying to call “anthropogeny” or “the study of the origin of human kind.” More important than the seemingly-top questions above, I think a rather important question that will lead to even more important questions is “what are we?” This is a loaded question and when you try to consider all of the angles for answering it, you begin to realize just how daunting the task of explaining what we are is. Some glib remarks come to mind in the vein of George Carlin’s “monkeys with baseball caps and automatic weapons.” Some vacuous claims can be made by religionists and that’s fair. But when we try to make a philosophically airtight case for what humans are I think we have to acknowledge that the answer is far more complex than most any of us are capable of understanding.
And this brings me to my new Beacon of Inquisitiveness, one I believe I have spotted and now that I understand the nature of these beacons I’m able to better plan where the next one will be. Or at least how to navigate the water so as to arrive at a much more desirable landing place.
The beacon itself seems to be located deep in the bowels of a couple of fields (regions) – namely evolutionary psychology and psychological anthropology. The terms are a bit of a mouthful but straightforward. More importantly, they currently seem to be the resting place of a signal that I am calling “The Conflict Beacon.” It has long been an interest of mine to find ways to get the most out of people – to inspire them to work with each other and to achieve great things as a group. It is often forgotten but one of the key pieces to building a successful team is conflict resolution, a skill vastly more important than team-building given how rarely we are able to build a core from scratch. In nearly every necessary human endeavor, we are asked to put disparate pieces to work, pieces that are at each other’s’ throats. It is not only callous but deeply unethical to toss any piece aside. I have spent a great deal of my career (both in and out of the classroom) learning about and applying methods to promote cooperation and resolve conflict with varying levels of success. There are no simple solutions and by first admitting the complexity of an individual and second learning how individuals’ thought processes have adapted over time, we come to a better consensus on how to handle conflict. The fields I listed above are focused on the origins of human motivation in the former and in the application of current psychological processes in the latter. Both are of massive import to cultivating my future understanding of the origins of conflict and cooperation.
The Beacon of Inquisitiveness is certainly leading me toward an end-game though I am confident that where it currently sits is unlikely to be a final resting place. I have very few doubts that I will reach this beacon and, upon exploring the surrounding landscape, discover yet another signal on the horizon grabbing my attention, helping to refine the understanding of the human condition.
The name is silly and while I created real, tangible items with much sillier names in the past, I have no intention of even drawing this thing but rather keeping it as a sort of analogous method of interpreting my interests. Each time something pops up that I have a sudden draw toward, I want to put it into the context of the Beacon, reminding myself that I am only seeing these slivers of land because of an intentional stare in a deliberately-chosen direction. I’m relying on a significant amount of unspoken imagery and I think that is not by mere circumstance – as I feel we all have something similar stirring within our brains on a symbolic level. I’m using the beacon analogy to put it into words your neocortex can understand but ultimately I wish to speak to your limbic brain – the one that listens to imagery and makes decisions. By providing an image of a beacon I’m giving not only myself but you a visual (without words) or set of visuals that are accompanied by a host of emotions. You may see it at dusk, providing enough of a silhouette of the surrounding area and filling your heart with joy. You may see it only at night in rough seas, wondering if you’re moving too quickly toward land and in danger of crashing (and burning) or so out of control that you’re not sure you’ll ever reach the light in the sky. Whatever your image in the analogy, you can conjure up the appropriate emotion to carry along with it – and the analogy itself is a far more powerful tool than any type-written tome. Before you read the next paragraph, you’ve likely already imagined the scene and possibly attached sounds, smells, and moods to it. Within the context of my own story I’ve provided above, you can probably attach them relative to my experience reasonably accurately as well. Such is the power of our emotional and symbolic non-spoken language. Its why a single look from a stranger can tell you more than their autobiography.
While the Beacon of Inquisitiveness is something of my own making, a tool of my imagination to help me understand the cravings I have for knowledge in the world, I encourage you to make up your own. Perhaps you appreciate the beacon analogy and perhaps you do not. To be honest, I don’t really care as I’m not emotionally attached to it as an idea. But I do care about building bridges of emotive language – a language that all of us are born understanding without prompting from our culture. I rather ashamedly don’t have the proof in front of me, but I recently read (or heard) that some 61 gestures are universally understood across world cultures – with things like “stop” (two hands extended), or “calm down” (pushing hands down), or “I surrender” (hands in the air), or “I don’t know” (shoulder shrug). Consider how amazing that is – we desperately struggle to learn a second or third language and yet without spending a single day with a foreign language teacher there are certain universal symbols we are all born with and can instinctively communicate without exposure to a culture. That is a remarkable fact and an incredibly powerful tool for informing our decisions in conflict.
The Beacon of Inquisitiveness is one of the most important revelations I’ve had in the last 15 years or so of my life and I have no doubt that its important lessons both in understanding and direction will inform me for 15 more years at the very least.