Good Stories Seldom Come from Happy Experiences

Good stories seldom come from happy experiences - Tim Kreider, "We Learn Nothing"

We talk a lot at the IdeaFestival about being curious since an ability to adapt to circumstance, to take in another view, to change direction, is indispensable to innovation. Useful innovation can't happen without a willingness to experiment, or at the very least, to recognize an important difference between then and now when we see it. But reading a collection of essays from Tim Kreider over the weekend, "We Learn Nothing," I stumbled on something that made me realize that curiosity has a finite quality. From his essay "The Referendum:"

Quite a lot of what passes itself off as a dialogue about our society consists of people trying to justify their own choices (pursuing a creative career instead of making money; breastfeeding over formula; not having children in an overpopulated world) as the only right or natural ones by denouncing others’ as selfish and wrong. So it’s easy to overlook that it all arises out of insecurity. Hidden beneath all this smug certainty is a desperate cluelessness, and the naked 3 A.M. terror of regret.

The problem is, we only get one chance at this, with no do-overs. Life is an unrepeatable experiment with no control. In his novel about marriage, Light Years, James Salter writes: “For whatever we do, even whatever we do not do prevents us from doing its opposite. Acts demolish their alternatives, that is the paradox.”

Curiosity isn't cost free. I've certainly been guilty over the years of over thinking things dwelling on rarities or falling into rutted thinking to the point of being paralyzed from acting. We introverts are like that - the thing that energizes us and gives us pleasure, mulling over ideas, can also become a substitute for moving our hands and feet. But it's also frightening, and as a consequence I am, like many of you, prone to rationalizing any one outcome by comparing it against the decisions made by others.

Most choices of course won't have noticeable consequences. But repeated action informed by a curiosity interested in the outcome, gives us not just results, but like the data from repeated experiments, truths. Unfortunately, the truths in many of our lives can be a source of pain. Reading another book over the break, Nadia Bolz-Weber's "Pastrix" - yes, I read A LOT - I ran across a quote from David Foster Wallace that sums up the danger for the experimenter.

The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.

Kreider's description of a "desperate cluelessness" is in reality the unfocused fear of anxiety. What I learned again over the Thanksgiving break is that this anxiety about the path not taken comes at a price as well. And that while the referendum may in some abstract sense keep the options alive or serve to rationalize the choices already made, it can also prevent me from paying down the purchase on my story, whatever it may finally be.

Stay curious.


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