The author Dorothy Parker(1) said, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” With her global upbringing, international work, and multidisciplinary zeal, it’s safe to say that for journalist Anna Rascouët-Paz, there’s never a dull moment. Paz spoke at the fifth gathering of the San Francisco chapter of CreativeMornings on August 26, 2011. To Paz, the world is not a stage, nor a canvas. Rather, the world is a cultural salon. She encouraged the audience to cultivate their curiosity and “gather the dots.” It’s easy to pronounce a quality that is already emphasized (to the level of fatigue on the Web). Instead of leaving the insistent message of “Be curious” as a flat platitude, Paz identified ways to stimulate the act of being curious:
Paz spoke of a friend she has, who will genuinely listen and be open to debate. Paz advised the audience to find a trusted person with whom you don’t feel vulnerable arguing. Management Thinker Margaret Heffernan prescribed this in her TED Talk “Dare to disagree”: To find a “thinking partner, not an echo chamber.” A solid argument, to Heffernen, is “constructive conflict” that requires “people who are very different from ourselves.” Furthermore, from Heffernen: “…we have to resist the neurobiological drive, which means that we really prefer people mostly like ourselves, and it means we have to seek out people with different backgrounds, different disciplines, different ways of thinking and different experience, and find ways to engage with them. That requires a lot of patience and a lot of energy.” Complementing Heffernen’s last requirement, Paz made it clear about the challenges involved when achieving a curiosity-charged life: “It’s fucking hard.”
Channeling the mathematician and computer-science pioneer Alan Turing, curiosity is a “differential equation,” not a “boundary condition.” Paz’s passport is a vehicle to the ultimate destination—an “international mindset.” This is an entity that lawyer-turned-world-traveler Jodi Ettenberg keeps molding. In my Blogger’s Quest(ionnaire), Ettenberg shares: “The quirks of a new place, the overwhelming sight of a field full of ruined temples, the pristine beauty of a deserted island in a turquoise sea—I’m never at a loss for inspiration!”
A former financial reporter, Paz does not see quantitative data as an opaque wall, but rather a narrative construct. She looks for stories dwelling in the numbers. Paz is aligned with researcher-storyteller Brené Brown, who, in her TED Talk about vulnerability, proclaimed, “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.”
A type of story that Paz admires is tragedy. In his TED Talk “A kinder, gentler philosophy of success,” co-founder of The School of Life, Alain de Botton, also looks to this unfolding form of drama as a source of humanizing relevance: “Tragic art, as it developed in the theaters of ancient Greece, in the fifth century B.C., was essentially an art form devoted to tracing how people fail, and also according them a level of sympathy, which ordinary life would not necessarily accord them.” The cycle of ‘reversal of fortunes’ plays out in many shapes, sizes, and speeds, from the Great Depression to pay-it-forward moments. Transactions are stories where there is an exchange of awareness.
Generalists and Specialists
The overarching point that Paz poses in her presentation is the ratio between specialists and generalists—in financial-reporting speak, there is a deep deficit of the latter. To address this lop-sided reality, more generalists are needed. This is Paz’s preference.
I’m curious what the evolutionary effect would be if Paz’s ideal scenario of more generalists (than specialists) came to pass. Though an argument can be made that one type of thinker-and-doer is more advantageous than the other, I believe that the world needs both.
Paz equated generalists to polymaths of previous eras. This was a romantic gesture that I found appealing, because human effort to proactively learn and understand a variety of subjects and skills—without prejudice—is motivational. Her examples were legend: Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Blaise Pascal, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. To her list, I’d like to add Nellie Bly, Grace Hopper, Gertrude Stein, Alan Turing(2), among many others.
Compared to the intellectual range engaged by generalists, specialists may be narrow in their disciplinary focus, but this singular attention does not narrow their influence. Among the specialists that were highlighted in the TV series “COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey,” one very notable example was Clair Patterson. Immersed in his specialty of geochemistry, Patterson’s long-term and worldwide measurements of lead in the environment, including his conducting of lead-free experiments, resulted in the validation of lead as fatal to humans, that greatly informed legal restrictions on using lead in products by industries.
To me, Paz’s CreativeMornings talk sharpened the collective adventure of curiosity, shared and carried by people who either seize the creative charge of a generalist or that of a specialist. Or perhaps, the two directions interact and overlap along the way, sometimes subtly, other times in plain sight. Perhaps, a generalist is an open-minded specialist—and a specialist is a focused generalist. Whatever the creative discipline—whatever the intellectual leaning (generalist or specialist) she or he happens to adopt, everyone is invited to be, as paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey put it, “compelled by curiosity.”
(1) Dorothy Parker and Anna Rascouët-Paz are alike: writers, travelers, founders, and, most of all, curious.
(2) Being “Father of Theoretical Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence,” Alan Turing may have found appeal in Paz’s description of the brain as “a sophisticated piece of machinery.”
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Photograph by the Team of the CreativeMornings/San Francisco chapter. See the Flickr Album of Anna Rascouët-Paz’s talk at the San Francisco chapter of CreativeMornings.
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Big thanks: to Chapter Three, Razorfish, Typekit (who also hosted) for sponsoring CreativeMornings/San Francisco #5; to the CreativeMornings/San Francisco chapter Team for their volunteer work in making CreativeMornings happen in San Francisco.
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