The Collective

Why We All Need To Be More Curious

Am I normal? written on a chalk board in different colours

“The real enemy is the man who tries to mould the human spirit so that it will not dare to spread its wings,” Abraham Flexner.

How good is your chat? Last month I wrote that it was our civic duty to one another to be interested and interesting. I was only half joking. And while no one wishes to be the dinner party bore, the person you owe it most in life to be curious, is yourself. Back in 1980 only 10% of graduate and diploma students were mature ones. By 2012, that figure was closer to 30%. Not that being curious necessarily means a return to formal education. Show me a life where you stop questioning the world around you and frankly, you might as well as be dead.

Curious people tend to be happier, enjoy higher levels of positive emotions, have lower levels of cortisol and celebrate life in the present. As if that wasn’t enough, curiosity also fuels our imagination, our creative work and encourages us to be more innovative. It can bring untold excitement, help us escape the hum drum of daily life and also promotes more meaningful day to day exchanges with everyone we encounter.

Studies have shown that curiosity improves our memory, helps to release more dopamine and makes you sleep more soundly. Being curious also encourages us to step out of our comfort zone, helps us to keep our minds more active and challenges the way we do things. In short, it keeps us on our toes, it also – and here’s another welcome health benefit – keeps us looking younger, behaving younger and moving with agility. That is a long list of things to love. And as with so much positive learnt behaviour, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Of course for many of us, somewhere in the thick of middult-hood, we are too busy or run–ragged to be curious. Mumsnet founder, Justine Roberts was outraged a few years back when her husband suggested that she had no “hinterland.” In an interview with the Times, she said she nearly clubbed him over the head. Although as a mother of four, with a busy and demanding job, she wondered when she would ever find the time.

“But you move on, your life changes….with the benefit of hindsight, I wished I’d developed more of a hinterland. We fall into a trap where we do nothing but kids and work, or kids and domestics but it doesn’t all stop just because you’ve become a parent. You can still do interesting things and learn new skills.”  And so she set up the Mumsnet academy where the idea was that women could learn everything from how to start a business to the art of pasta making.

Sadly her enthusiasm for self-improvement or learning new skills didn’t quite catch on. Mumsnet found that many women were reluctant to spend time or money on widening their horizons, although therein lies a whole other rant about the importance of learning to put yourself first. Roll on seven years and a slew of vodcasts, podcasts, TED talks and sites such as theschooloflife.com are so readily available at our finger tips, that there’s little excuse.

Worrying that you’re not quite up to it to going back and study? I promise you, your zeal, dedication and sheer bloody mindedness (especially if this avenue is respite from a dead end job) will give you the edge over much younger peers. So too will the perspective of more life experience. There are other things to consider too, certainly points that I was never aware of at school which is that you need to incorporate failure as well as learn to enjoy the process. So much more fun that I had ever realised.

Fellow VH contributor, Jo Fairley wrote a brilliant feature some time ago about the website, masterclass.com where you can learn to cook with the California based chef and organic foods pioneer, Alice Waters, take creative writing tips from Margaret Atwood, or learn about photography with Vanity Fair’s Annie Liebovitz. The site recruits only the very best in their fields (truly a very starry line up) to produce beautifully filmed, instructive courses. At £170 for unlimited access, it works out at around £14 a month, the price of your Deliveroo. Just as compelling is Serena Williams on tennis, Frank Gehry on design and architecture or Dr. Jane Goodallon on the art of conversation.

As parents, we often wonder what we can teach our children, how we can best prepare them for later life. One of the most important lessons you can impress on them is that parents are still learning too– and screwing up often it should be noted! The buzz words at most schools these days include qualities like resilience, not so easy to teach in reality. I try to share examples of trying and failing with my elder two daughters and even, winging it and succeeding.

Hopefully they are beginning to see that it’s more important to be curious and for things to not pan out quite as they expected, than never to question anything at all. That it’s more important to learn something new than it is to look smart. Oh, and that there’s no shame in admitting that they don’t’ know something because we are all learning every day.

The landscape of work is changing too and curiosity along with an emotional agility are rather excellent tools at navigating this new world. Studies suggest our children might have as many as six careers in their lifetime- these qualities are going to be valued more than ever before.

And really, this is nothing new. As Lauren Laverne reminds us in an article celebrating learning in The Pool, the last words of Michaelangelo, artist, architect, poet and engineer, three weeks shy of his 89th birthday, were Ancora Imparo. Or, I’m still learning. Just wow.

Life Hacks For The Hamster Wheel And Why Good Is Good Enough

surreal image of clockworkings inside a lightbulb with a person walking inside

Clearly you don’t need me reminding you there are only 28 something days left to Christmas, possibly fewer if you’ve been slow to click onto Gill’s December opus.

As we emerge hazy eyed (and far poorer) from the ashes of Black Friday, it’s easy to lose perspective in the demented, alcohol addled run up to Christmas. That ginormous schmaltzfest where standards of perfection (of the Richard Curtis, gently falling snow – the sort that never clogs up the M25 – variety) are nigh on impossible to ever live up to. The end of year is also a time of mass reflection. The sudden self-flagellation that we haven’t achieved quite as much as we’d set out to.

And yet, sometimes it feels even managing the everyday hamster wheel is ball-ache enough. Throw in a young family, ten loads of extra laundry, the endless sorting out of sports kit and midnight sessions foraging through the recycling bins for suitable cereal boxes from which to make a rocket out of, and it’s a wonder that any of us are actually still standing.

Now might not be the time to ponder whether you really can have it all (personally I think you can although how you define ‘”all” obviously has a lot to do it with). I shall focus instead on my children’s school’s current mantra of good being, well good enough. It’s a two fingers salute to the pursuit of perfectionism (as well as presumably managing the expectations of a legion of pushy middle class parents). Earlier this year, an assembly hall of parents were shown the attached YouTube video. There was plenty of tacit nodding, a few (silent) tears, as well as me getting the giggles. Especially when it came to the sex bit. Watch it and find out for yourself.

Good enough being good enough was an approach pioneered by a British psychoanalyst called Donald Winnicott in the 1950s. Winnicott specialised in relationships between parents and children and in his clinical practice, he often met with parents who felt like failures: perhaps because their children hadn’t go into the best schools, or because they argued at the dinner table or their house wasn’t always completely tidy (plus ca change).  No child he insisted needed an ideal parent. They needed an okay, pretty decent, usually well-intentioned, perhaps a little grumpy but basically reasonable father or mother.

Winnicott wasn’t saying this because he liked to settle for second best but because he had learnt first-hand the toll exacted by perfectionism and realised that in order to remain more or less sane (which is a pretty big ask anyway), we have to learn not to hate ourselves for failing to be what no ordinary human being ever really is anyway.

It takes a good deal of bravery and skill to keep even a very ordinary life going. To navigate the challenges of relationships, marriages, work and children is quietly heroic. The point is, most of us can’t get off the hamster wheel for a myriad of reasons which involves mortgages and putting food on the table but turning into the world’s busiest person or a moaning martyr isn’t the answer either. My hamster wheels life hacks to help me get to the end of the day smiling include the following in no particular order.

Reminding myself that tidying is for losers

It’s all very well having floors and surfaces that you could eat off (nope, definitely not in this house) but there’s no point in being the tidiest person in Britain if you are also the dullest, so overwhelmed are you by your endless to-clean list . Stop talking about how much drudge you have to do each day (have you noticed everyone’s eyes glazing over??) and start channelling that energy into convincing your partner to split things more equally if you don’t do so already or finding something interesting to talk about which leads me neatly onto my next point.

Your civic duty to be interested and interesting

Counter intuitive this may feel but bear with me. Even as someone with little ‘give’ in the work/mum juggling act, I try very hard to find time to do things that make me curious. That ray of escapism is never more important than when life is a never ending treadmill. Doing or seeing something that makes your soul soar, will refresh and energise you in ways you can’t imagine. You will return to the task in hand with Herculean amounts of vava-voomness. As someone wise once said, keeping the spark in your relationship is important but not nearly as important as keeping the spark in yourself.

The great outdoors, or even just stepping out your front door

Go outside, stop, really look and listen. Notice the colours, the sky, the stillness, the damp, the mist, the changing of seasons. Think about what it really means to be alive. I promise I am not going God-y on you but life really is there for the living and how we choose to live it is ENTIRELY up to us.  Days when I make the effort to do all of this just go so much better.

Zero inboxes

A zero inbox is such a fake metric. Accept that your to-do list is never really going to go away. Actually, now might be the time to be thankful that you have a to-do list.

My daily bath

Run a bath, the world looks so much better from the inside of my bath, preferably with Gill’s Atlantic Seaweed in it (fabulous for anyone who suffers from bouts of insomnia, dry skin or who just wants a bit of cocooning). There is always time to have a bath. Always.