Curiosity and Obligation

If you don’t mind being the priest then I’d like continue to treat this daily blogging thing like it’s some kind of public confession. I want to tell you about another stupid thing I do all the time because you’re probably doing it too and what I have to say might help you stop.

“Fools say that they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by others experience.”

Otto Von Bismarck

Here’s my confession: I keep turning things I love into things I hate.

I always starts off innocently and with the best of intentions. Perhaps I’m in the kitchen, the open window allowing a gentle summer breeze to tickle the hair on the back of my neck. I whistle a little melody as I chop the onions; I stitch together a couple of lyrics as they hit the pan; by the time they start to brown I’ve started orchestrating the damn thing.

Now, some part of me knows full well what will happen if I simply allow myself to follow this curiosity. If I let it, the idea will take me on an adventure, and the natural conclusion will be a song. A song will exist where no song existed before. It might be the best thing I’ve ever written. It might be the worst thing I’ve ever written. Who cares? The point is that I will have been somewhere and come back to tell about it.

Now, if we imagine this as a James Bond film, the scene would cut here to Blofeld, in his lair, white cat on knee, watching me go about my day on some kind of primitive iPad. Except even Blofeld isn’t dark enough – let’s make it the Devil. The Devil that lives inside every one of us.

As Charles Baudelaire pointed out, the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing us he didn’t exist. So, eager to find a way to stop that song coming out of me – but clever enough to cover his tracks – the Devil takes form as a voice in my head that says: “Right, this is clearly something important. You don’t want to waste this idea, this opportunity, this gift. What you want to do before you do anything else is get organised. Make lists. Define action steps. Be as ruthlessly efficient as you can.” And just in case I didn’t buy all that, he appeals to my vanity: “Of course, you could just see where the idea takes you but… oh, Oliver, you’re much smarter than that…”

And what I’ve found time and time again is if I realise – in time – where that voice is actually coming from, I can happily say “Fuck you, Devil, nice try,” and get back to work.

But – and it pains me to say it – I’m more often too weak and too gullible and too easily deceived. I find the advice – that I think is coming from myself – reasonable. I go along with it because it seems like the sensible thing to do. And when I realise what a terrible mistake I’ve made… it’s too late. The song’s gone now.


I don’t get this right very often. But I get it right more often than I used to. And the difference when I get it right is this: I see clearly when I’m being guided by curiosity, and when I’m being guided by obligation.

If something an obligation – which means some part of me doesn’t really want to do it, but perhaps I feel I don’t have a choice – then everything the Devil suggests is right. I should get organised. I should be ruthlessly efficient. I should try and get it started as soon as possible, and off my plate as soon as possible. My natural going-with-the-flow will not produce the results I feel I need to produce.

But if it’s a curiosity, then all that shit flies out of the window.

Because when I’m driven by curiosity, I’m not trying to be “done” as soon as possible. I want to swim in it. I want to explore every nook and cranny of it. I’m not in it for “the results.” I’m in it for the journey, the adventure. And curiosity is such a powerful source of energy that it will take care of a lot of the things that need doing without your conscious help.

Without curiosity, you need all the help and discipline and order that you can get. But with it, all that stuff serves to do is strip the experience of the joy and wonder that inspired you in the first place.

My life works when I follow my curiosity, not when I try to control it.

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