‘Twas the night before Christmas… and I was reading Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Not only it’s a hilarious and amazing read, but it also inspired me to try to do more fun and interesting stuff with my life. I’ve always been inclined towards many interesting disciplines, however, in recent years I’ve got a feeling that I’d had the broadest knowledge when I was about fifteen years old. Since then, I’ve learned more in a few fields – and forgot a terrifying amount of interesting information from the other ones (and these few too, to some extent). How does Richard Feynman fit into this picture? He never stopped learning, never stopped being curious and enthusiastic. Most of us remember him as a Nobel prize-winning physicist, yet he also made a professional excursion into biology during his studies, he became a professional drummer and painter and very good self-taught lockpicker, learned quickly to speak Portuguese and Japanese… His career took him to unexpected paths sometimes and he seemed to always enjoy new challenges and approach life with curiosity.
While most of us are not Nobel prize material, this outlook can work for anyone. I’ve always cherished curiosity and imagination but I realized that I’ve had very little time recently to feed it and let it grow. I almost – oh the horror – slipped into a dull routine. That’s unacceptable.
So I’ve made myself a challenge. I would learn something new or long forgotten each month.
Foreign languages, marketing, science, art…
I started re-learning German and learning Portuguese in January, lockpicking in February (yeah, I may have taken some direct inspiration from Feynman). In March, my resolution faltered as I found myself facing the necessity of writing a diploma thesis. That consumed most of my time from March to May, after which I did some revising before my final exams. That certainly doesn’t count as new or long forgotten. But – by a strange accident, I became a social media manager/marketer/customer communication manager/whatever-the-job-may-be-called for one Czech start-up company in May. Suddenly I was learning new things (you know, there is a lot to learn about marketing, although it sometimes doesn’t seem that way).
I successfully finished my MSc. in early June and hoped I would have more time afterwards. In retrospect, that had been a foolish notion. After all, I had postponed so many things to June and July that I’m still trying to get them off my hands. I’ve done some story pitching and translation work (of which we’ll hopefully see some results in the forthcoming months), the final book of my “Gemini” trilogy came out (not speaking of earlier May releases of the previous one and also of my “Terra nullius” anthology), I taught at the Summer School of Behavioral Economics and Psychology in Prague about animal behavioral biases and evolutionary roots of cooperation, and prepared several popular science lectures and articles (including an interview with Dr. Hauke Hussmann which I’ll post here soon). With the marketing work consuming an increasing amount of my time in addition, routine threatened to settle in again: working long hours, not enjoying it, not devoting time for other activities, even forgetting that it’s possible to just go outside for a nice walk or jog, scout the food market and cook something new, sit around with a good book, ponder strange ideas, create a crazy-flavoured lemonade, play an RPG with friends, go tea-tasting, venture photographing the city, visit the theatre or opera, spend a day in the hills or forests, pick up a book or article series on any topic, work on brand new ideas, be they for stories or articles… in short, have fun.
That would be a downhill slope. I’ve noticed the increasing signs of anxiety, moodiness and exhaustion, especially when thinking about the number of tasks ahead of me, my overflowing inbox… Sometimes one needs to turn off the “work mode”. But that doesn’t necessarily mean turning off the learning mode – though only devoting time for cognitively demanding activities wouldn’t be wise either, so some more or less manual activity needs to be included – be it a new exercise, cooking, painting, sewing, re-learning to play the flute or possibly trying to assemble some simple DIY stuff to help me organize the flat better (AKA no more papers overflowing my desk, stacks of books everywhere and such things).
Wonderful new opportunities
What have I got tentatively planned for the rest of the year? More in-depth knowledge about advances in planetary science, continuing my language-learning efforts, some basics of coding and cryptography if I manage to stay on this path, and more physical exercise, some painting and sewing as a distraction from the higher cognitive load. Also – more spontaneous work on new fiction or nonfiction ideas. After all, some of my best stuff has originated from sitting on an idea for a while, then getting an idea that expands on the previous one – and jumping straight to writing it down, because it just has to be written. With so many deadlines for papers, articles or copyedits, not speaking of a new novel, I haven’t done that in a long while and I miss it terribly.
If nothing unexpected prevents it, I’m going to the European Planetary Science Congress in Nantes this September. I cannot even put in words how much I’m looking forward to it. There will be entries about up-to-date developments in topics ranging from small bodies of our solar system to exoplanets. I will cover the event for several science-related media and I’ll be sure to post some summary or links here. I’m not a professional planetologist, just an amateur who also happens to write popular science articles, and a very fortunate accident – namely visiting a seminar of the Department of Geophysics in Prague this May – put me and my friend Tomas Petrasek on the path leading to this conference. I’ve got a lot to learn in order to catch the most from the lectures and posters, and I also started learning French at Duolingo. Though I’ll probably still be helpless without English by the end of September, it’s a start. Who knows, one day I may read Hugo or Flaubert in their original language… It all can be a wonderful adventure. It can be great fun!
Where do I see myself in ten, fifteen years’ future if this approach persists? Let’s dream big… an accomplished writer and scientist, polyglot, decent coder, worldwide traveler, amateur violin player (my poor, poor neigbours if I start learning that…), history buff, maybe even someone able to subtly change many lives for the better by the way of education, job opportunities, charity or simply a bit of intelligent entertainment. But while dreaming may be big, the steps are small – just spend moments learning what I’m interested in (and try to make it stay in long-term, which is the tougher part). This isn’t the kind of thing I’d put on a Trello dashboard; that would only take me closer to a nervous breakdown. No, thanks. Spending time this way is better more spontaneous.
I would go through the library and pick popular books on fields ranging from entomology to cosmology when I was a child. I would leaf through the world atlas, planning my future travels. I would look at images sent by various spacecraft and dream of humans seeing those places with their own eyes someday… Children tend to have the most wonderful range of interests. In the second half of this month, I’m participating in two summer camps as a tutor – one biology-themed, the other space-themed. I’m immensely looking forward to them. Work with children can be very fulfilling as you see how happy they are if they learn something new and interesting, or can share their knowledge with others, play a game, let their imagination run wild… I’ve previously worked on both of those summer camps and it had been a great experience. The attending children are brilliant, regardless of how much they know about the themes.
They remind me of myself some ten, fifteen years in the past, except they’re so much better. Their curiosity and enthusiasm are endless and wonderful. They have the best chance to become great scientists, polyglots and Renaissance personalities indeed. If I may support that curiosity and ethusiasm and help them on a path of knowledge they will love and cherish, it will be a great accomplishment in itself. Can I do it? Let’s find out. I’m curious already.