Curious About Everything Newsletter #2

Including reads about curiosity, surrender, and the rigidity of expectations. Plus, a new mascot (Arthur!) and the best pieces I've read from the last month.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the pandemic has changed our views of what success means, and how we allocate value in our day to day lives. The best part of my nomadic decade was getting paid to learn as much as possible each day. While my life has changed drastically, as have many lives during this year of Outlying Things, the desire to learn remains.

I keep coming back to the pressure we put on ourselves to be productive and successful in the macro sense, which inevitably cannibalizes our ability to actually be productive in the micro sense. Based on reader emails, COVID-19 spotlighted for many of you how intrinsic values clash with learned values. For those who have the privilege to not be fully in survival mode right now, this thought process raises questions about what is important in life.

It’s rare we get to ask these questions on a global, societal scale. Often they arise as they did with me, when life changes in a moment and erases what you thought you knew.

When we look at happiness, and its downstream feeling of success, is there truly an objective state for either of those things? I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed in a traditional way, having gotten into law school at 18 and worked in BigLaw thereafter. But that trajectory did not make me feel happy. Instead, it felt like zipping myself up into someone else’s skin and calling it my own.

My subsequent exploration of curiosity and the seemingly haphazard building of my business was actually an intentional act, one where I actively decided that happiness trumped external measures of success. Happiness, to me at least, is where you do not let your external stimuli dictate your inner status. Sure, external stimuli can bring fulfilment in a more transient way, and also a sense of contentment. But feeling happy in life or satisfied is more of a process where you wrangle your mind to stay steady in its internal loci whilst bobbing around the waves of life.

I think back to Viktor Frankl, whose Man’s Search for Meaning I quoted in my post about processing the grief surrounding life’s big changes in the last few years:

“For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”

This may sting, especially for driven, ambitious people. The thing is, I find it to be very true. It’s similar to my philosophy for travel, to not plan the minutiae but instead get swept up in the serendipity of the experience. Set goals, sure. But don’t identify with them as pure markers of success. Don’t think that those goals are what brings you happiness. No matter the size of the goal in question, rigid adherence magnifies the ego, creating resistance.

Lawrence Yeo recently explored this topic on his site, More to That, where he delved into the art of exploring without expecting.

“Adhering to an expectation is what makes us efficient, and allows us to be focused. But with this focus on the end goal, we lose serendipity and the free-flowing spirit that is required from great works of art.”

This is where curiosity comes in. On a granular level, it creates extra space in your own internal narrative, which is what helps make life feel less sharp. For me, an ambitious person who had to let go of the expectation of mobility and a future I thought was within reach, it came down to balancing the rigidity of expectations with pure curiosity.

Society often tells us that curiosity with no goal is frivolous. Is life really so black and white? At a time when many of us have had to take stock of what we’ve built and where our values really lie, how useful is a mental model that prioritizes rigidity? Agility helps us all grow, and you can’t be agile when you’re drowning under the weight of your expectations.

Yeo calls this “thinking without striving”. I liken it to approaching things with childlike wonder. To carving out the joy of the small. And when you’re really in it, this feels like a tough ask. “Oh ok, I’ll just reframe my life. Thanks for the advice, lady.” It feels, in this big and ugly way, that all the externalities are what are weighing you down, wilting you to the core.

Ultimately, though, that’s not the case. Once you detach from external expectation — and the past expectations you’ve placed on yourself — you are able to stay steady and carve out more joy in the small. And, by extension, the large. Carving out joy from the small is a critical tool in getting through the vicissitudes of the human experience. And when life really gets small, as it has now for many of us and as it did for me in 2017, that tool is one of the ways you survive.

Carving out joy from the small doesn’t mean ignoring life, or letting it trample you. It doesn’t mean avoiding boundaries or not setting any goals at all. It means that to our detriment, attachment to a fixed view of the outcome then weds us to it, and we internalize that goal. If we don’t meet it, we feel like we’ve failed. That rigidity is a big part of what gets in the way of immersing oneself in the now. And the severity of those harsh expectations are also what prevent us from remaining present.

Meditation helps us remain present. Connecting to others (via Zoom, of late) helps us remain present. In wider terms, however, it’s cultivating a practice of curiosity that helps decouple experiences from expectations, and creates space for what is. This bumps up against society’s expectations of us; society rewards perceived value, not experiences.

It's a delicate line to walk. We never know the traumas that may come our way. But we remain stronger at our core if we allow ourselves to remain open and curious, and willing to learn from the ups and downs, instead of remaining rigid, self-recriminating, or afraid.

Brief Updates

  • I collected stories from readers around the world about their experiences with COVID, and shared them on my Instagram profile. For those interested, there are over 350 stories, saved as 4 different highlights. Coverage about the stories, and an excerpt from them, can be found on here.

  • I am finishing up the assets for the redesigned Legal Nomads, and that includes a rebranded version of this newsletter. Yay new Curiosity banner! I've collaborated with Ella, the wonderful artist who inks my food maps, to come up with design elements and a family of fonts that we will use for each of the different projects I'm working on.

    Linking them all is Arthur, the raven that is now this newsletter’s mascot. Arthur will also sit on the edge of the new Legal Nomads logo, which will be used on the redesigned site. I’ll share that one next month! While the site is not complete, the newsletter elements are. I love him.

  • Readers have been asking me to launch a Patreon for some time, and I was wary because there’s not much more I can do, outputwise, than what I’m doing. I’m limited by the backstop of my own ability to stand up for only so long. But you’ve been adamant that you see the Patreon both as a way to support me with my current limitations, and thank me for my prior (ad-free/long-form) work. So I’ve been working to get over my feelings of itchiness about asking, and I hope to launch this in early 2021.

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5 Best Reads, November-December 2020

1/ The Social Life of Forests | New York Times, December 2. By Ferris Jabr.

Fascinating read about how the trees, plants, microbes, and funghi in the forest are so intricately connected that scientists have begun to call them ‘superorganisms’. One such scientist is Suzanne Simard, who dug deep into the forest floor:

“By analyzing the DNA in root tips and tracing the movement of molecules through underground conduits, Simard has discovered that fungal threads link nearly every tree in a forest — even trees of different species. Carbon, water, nutrients, alarm signals and hormones can pass from tree to tree through these subterranean circuits. Resources tend to flow from the oldest and biggest trees to the youngest and smallest. Chemical alarm signals generated by one tree prepare nearby trees for danger. Seedlings severed from the forest’s underground lifelines are much more likely to die than their networked counterparts. And if a tree is on the brink of death, it sometimes bequeaths a substantial share of its carbon to its neighbors.”

2/ The Best Inventions of 2020 | Time Magazine.

A distraction from the weightiness of 2020: 100 inventions that change the way we live, as curated by Time Magazine this November.

The magazine solicited nominations from editors, writers, and correspondents all over the world and then graded them on factors like originality, creativity, effectiveness, ambition and impact. Inventions include: a smarter beehive, a greener tube of toothpaste, an accessible gaming set, and much more that are “changing the way we live, work, play and think about what’s possible.”

3/ How Climate Change is Ushering in a New Pandemic Era | Rolling Stone, December 7. By Jeff Goodell.

COVID-19 is often compared to the 1918 influenza, which killed at least 50 million people globally. But Goodall argues that it is more likely a preview of what comes next.

During the wild exodus of animals migrating due to climate change, moving to more hospitable environments, 

“these animals are likely to bump into new animals and humans they have never crossed paths with before. Carlson, the Georgetown biologist, calls these events “meet cutes” — random encounters where viruses jump species and new diseases are often born. The vast majority of the new infectious diseases that have emerged in recent decades have come from these zoonotic pathogens, as they are called, with bats, mosquitoes, and ticks being among the most competent carriers of new viruses. When they jump to humans, we get pandemics like Covid-19. What’s next? “It’s really a roll of the dice,” says Raina Plowright, an epidemiologist at Montana State University who studies the emergence of new diseases. By one count, an estimated 1.7 million currently undiscovered viruses are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts. Of these, more than 800,000 could have the ability to infect humans.”

4/ 64 Reasons to Love Paul McCartney | Substack, December 8th. By Ian Leslie.

“While Lennon has been the subject of endless psychological analysis, McCartney has received far less attention, partly because he is generally uninterested in self-examination, or in being examined. Lennon fits our template for genius, but the thing about genius is that it has no template. Here, I want to say why I think Paul McCartney is still underrated, as an artist and as a man, and why there are really only three justifiable emotions to feel about him: awe, gratitude, and love.”

5/ The Paradox of Dependence | Meanjin Quarterly, Oct 2019. By Lucia Osborne-Crowley.

I usually pick pieces that came out during the month the newsletter is sent out, but in this case I missed Crowley’s piece last year and it was too good not to share. I’ve sent it out to many a female friend, and all have replied that it singularly captures the dating experience in ways that made them feel heard.

“I needed help. Lots of it. We all do. And as I was lecturing people about how I didn’t need anything from anyone, all the people around me were holding me up. But I’d forgotten that people who love you let you lean on them without you noticing. When someone doesn’t pull away as you come near them, there is no free-fall.”

Quicklinks Worth Mentioning

Lots of good writing this month! Short mentions for other pieces I enjoyed:

1/ Why we Sigh. “A recent theory proposes that sighing is not just a reset for the lungs and breathing, but for our emotions too, bringing us back to stasis from big emotions, whether they be positive or negative.”

2/ Beautiful interview with Yo-Yo Ma."For me as a musician, I try to be aware of where I am. As a performer, my job is to make the listener the most important person in the room. The only way to avoid burnout is to care about where you are."

3/ 52 things I Learned in 2020. Tom Whitwell’s roundup for the year, including botanical sexism, buttons, lab-grown meat’s dirty secret, and much more.

Quote of the Month

“Coming home from very lonely places, all of us go a little mad: whether from great personal success, or just an all-night drive, we are the sole survivors of a world no one else has ever seen.” John Le Carré, 1931—2020.

Pie of the Month

Stacey Mei Yan Fong loves to bake, and loves the United States, and the combo of these two things has gifted us with a passionate, fun project: 50 Pies/50 States. In 2016, during her green card application process, she started baking a pie to reflect each state in the country, which has turned into a wondrous reflection of local tastes.  

I chose her Tennessee pie to feature, since it honours Dolly Parton (who helped fund the Moderna vaccine). Says Fong,

“The pie is a biscuits and gravy pie made with Swaggerty’s sausage all the way from Tennessee with a ode to Dolly Parton crust topper. Like this biscuits and gravy pie my love for her sticks to my bones. It is also one of Dolly’s favorite foods so I had to obliged.”

You can find Stacey on Instagram, and her website.

Thank you for reading!