Archive | Curiosity

Birdwatching, Wonder and Contemplation of The Special

I am in the process of re-reading Simon Barnes’s delightful book, “How to Be a (Bad) Birdwatcher,” which I discovered a couple of years ago at a local bookstore when I was looking for something else. (I love Amazon, but despite its best efforts to recommend things to me, there is still nothing like browsing the shelves of a bookstore and discovering something quite unexpected.)

In his book, Mr. Barnes lovingly writes of his nearly lifelong fascination with birds, and he good-naturedly scoffs at the competitive “collectors” who are the official “good” birdwatchers.

The Habit of Looking

He writes early on, “Birds are in our past; they are in our blood and in our bones. In short, when you make the decision to become a bad birdwatcher, you do not start from scratch. You are already a bad birdwatcher. The baddest birdwatcher on the planet starts off with a huge bank of information, tradition and culture. After that, it is just a matter of getting the habit. The habit of looking.” (emphasis mine)

I am a (bad) birdwatcher. I don’t remember how it started. I vaguely remember being aware of a few birds as a child – robins, which I think we had all year in Seattle (Seattle having a mild climate, at least in those days), blue jays (which I later learned were Steller’s Jays), seagulls, pigeons, and crows, as well as a few notables such as something we called snowbirds (known as such because they occasionally appeared in the winter) and the highly unusual owl.

I moved to San Francisco as a young adult and I remember nothing of note about birds (other than hearing my first mourning dove and thinking it was an owl).

It wasn’t until I moved to rural Washington State in my mid-twenties that I began paying attention to birds. I hung my first bird feeder, but I don’t remember what visited it. I do remember sitting on my back deck, surrounded by woods on three sides, and being amazed by the depth of birdsong around me. I would close my eyes and try to count the many layers of birdsong – and would quickly get lost.

I think that is when the habit got me and I started noticing – and then looking for – birds. I saw my first bald eagle there, and that was an amazing sight.

We moved to Maine, and I discovered cardinals. And house finches. Both of which caught me in late winter with their calls – and their redness.

One day in late winter, when there was still snow on the ground and the only colors in the world were black, white and brown, I heard a loud bird call. It was a long, shrill, descending call. Over and over. What the heck was that? I followed my ears, and ended up staggering through the deep snow in my neighbor’s back yard until my eyes and ears located a spot of ruby red in a brown, leafless tree: Cardinal. He burned a spot in my mind with his fire. And I have been smitten ever since. We don’t have cardinals on the west coast, and I miss them.

Another day in Maine, this time in early, early spring when there was still a lot of snow on the ground but the gutters were running with snowmelt, I was walking into a building downtown and a magical trilling like the water burbling everywhere echoed around the granite entryway. What? I stopped short, and the man behind me walked into me. I couldn’t go in until I found it – a brown little bird with a red head and breast up in the archway, singing his lungs out. “Spring is coming! Spring is coming!” Despair at six months of wearing gloves and boots suddenly disappeared.

I later looked him up in my bird book, and there he was: A house finch. (Or a purple finch. But purple finches aren’t purple… what’s up with that? Anyway.) We have house finches on the west coast, too, and that makes me happy.

Also in Maine, I saw another bird I had never seen before. I described it to my husband’s aunt, who was nearly blind at the time. She thought about it for a minute, and then said, “It sounds like a flicker.” A what? But I looked it up, and she was right. Aunt Norma was a (bad) birdwatcher, too!

As time went by, my fascination expanded and, as we moved around the country, I was exposed to a variety of birds. I saw nuthatches, rose breasted grosbeaks, goldfinches that looked like dandelions on the lawn, herons, egrets, pelicans, red-winged blackbirds. Cedar waxwings that were smaller than I expected. Pheasant that sounded like a squeaky car door. Wild turkeys. More bald eagles. Ducks that nested in trees. White crowned sparrows, ruby-crowned kinglets, phoebes, various hawks, turkey vultures, and kingfishers. It’s a glorious birdworld, although I miss some of my friends from other areas (especially cardinals).

All of this came flooding through my mind, in less time than it took to write it (or read it), as I started to re-read Simon Barnes. I am most definitely a (bad) birdwatcher, and I’ve got it bad, too. But I don’t mind.

The Point

What was it that made me traipse through Mr. Brown’s snowy yard to see that cardinal? Wonder. Just as it was Wonder that once made me photograph a bowl of cherry tomatoes (Remember to Look Up, “Appreciate Beauty”). A cherry tomato is not a bird, but wonder is wonder. Wonder that something so simple can be so beautiful. And that is all that needs to be said.

Wonder. And Curiosity.

Except that is not all I will say. Wonder applies. It translates. And Curiosity, like birdwatching, is a matter of habit. The habit of looking. A habit that can be cultivated.

What are you curious about? What would happen if you cultivated curiosity about… people who are different? Or who don’t agree with you? What would happen if you wondered what would happen if…

How would your life be different if you got in the habit of noticing things? (Or, for the advanced among you, how has your life been transformed because you do notice things?

Here is what Simon Barnes says about birdwatching at its best: It is “not the chasing of the rare but the untroubled contemplation of the special.

I get goosebumps when I read that.

And here’s the thing: It doesn’t just apply to birdwatching. It applies to all sorts of things. Not just birds.

What is special in your life? Is it a finite list? Or does it continue to grow?

Curiosity About… Cats, and Boundaries, and Transference

My cats have trouble with boundaries.

Not with spraying to mark them, thank goodness. But with what issues are theirs – or not – and what issues they need to get involved in – or not.

I first discovered this a few years ago, when I stepped on Rocket’s foot. She screamed, and the next thing I knew, Abby, who is only 2/3 Rocket’s size, exploded on the scene hissing and spitting and ready for a fight. I thought she was there to protect Rocket but, no, she was just reacting.

I’ve also discovered that when neighboring cats occasionally come to the windows, my indoor cats get very territorial and try to fight with them through the glass.

That’s not very surprising. What is surprising is that Abby and Rocket then turn on each other. They will get into terrible scraps, taking out their frustration and adrenaline on each other.

This happened a little after six a.m. this morning. I awoke to the sound of Rocket and Abby hissing and screaming and scratching at each other. I ran into my office, where Rocket had Abby pinned on her back. The term “the fur was flying” describes it pretty well. I waded into the thick of it although, as I grabbed Rocket and tried to separate them, it occurred to me that maybe this wasn’t my brightest idea ever. I wasn’t about to let them hurt each other, though; I managed to loosen them and Abby ran off into the other room. I also realized that there was cat pee sprayed all over the rug. Pew! This was not a little sibling rivalry spat.

My office has windows along one wall, and patio doors along another. I realized that there was a cat outside the door, watching this whole scene. As Rocket prepared to lunge at it, I turned on the outdoor lights, banged on the door and scared it away.

Well, the girls (and I) slowly calmed down, and they un-puffed and began licking themselves. (It’s kind of hard to tell when Abby is puffed, since she doesn’t have a tail – it’s more about body language. Anyway.) Luckily I keep their claws clipped and, although it was time for a trim, I haven’t found any major damage. Rocket has a scratch on her ear, and I’ll continue to check them for bite marks and keep an eye on them for a couple of days.

I wonder, what is it about a cat’s brain that allows it to transfer that animal instinct onto its sibling and ally? Is that a lizard-brain thing? Why aren’t they able to say, “Whoa, *Boundary*, she is my pal, I’m not going to whap her when what I really want to do is whap that trespasser”?

And I wonder about times I have taken out my emotions on others, on innocent bystanders and on people who manage to mash my buttons. I wonder: Is it the same lizard-brain thing that causes us to project unresolved shit onto the people around us?

Luckily, we are not lizards (or cats), and we can learn to see what we’re doing and work out our issues in a productive manner as long as we are conscious of what is happening.

Well, the cats have had their breakfast and settled into naps. I have sprayed cat-smell remover on the carpet and liberally sprinkled the room with baking soda. I’ve vacuumed once already, but the smell, like my wonderment, lingers on. I’ll have to work on this for a while.

Have you ever observed someone treating someone else as if they were the object of their ire, even though they were an innocent bystander?

Have you ever been the innocent bystander?

Have you ever been the one acting out on someone else?

Have you ever wondered why we do this?

What questions can we ask when we feel dumped on to find out, Did we really invite that dumping? Or is the other person really reacting to something else all together?

Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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A Novel Approach to Diversity

I just finished devouring the latest novel by one of my favorite authors, Robin McKinley (Beauty, Sunshine, The Hero and the Crown, The Blue Sword, Chalice, Dragonhaven, etc.). She writes primarily in the “fantasy” and “young adult” genres and this novel, Pegasus, is no exception to her marvelous track record.

I enjoy McKinley’s novels on several levels – so much so that there are a few I go back to repeatedly and re-read (specifically Sunshine and The Blue Sword). She creates different worlds in which we are immersed, with galleries of important characters. I never want her books to come to an end, ejecting me back into my own world, and I find myself having flashbacks to certain moments and events and wondering what is behind the curtain of reality in this world. (If those aren’t signs of a good novel, I don’t know what is.)

Her stories are not just adventures filled with mythical creatures, magic and battles (usually involving swords), they are psychological novels with emotional voyages of discovery.

It occurred to me as I was reading Pegasus that there is a common theme that runs through my favorite McKinley tales: Her heroes often find themselves thrown into situations with a Mysterious Other that is either misunderstood or demonized by the hero’s culture. The hero, through the unfolding of a relationship with a particular individual, begins to realize that there is more to the Others than originally believed and that at least some of the Conventional Wisdom about those Others is either incomplete, dead wrong, or simply cannot be applied to all individuals. Through curiosity and being willing to set aside natural revulsion to (or fear of) what is different, the hero begins to see the Other in a new light (and often ends up being changed in the process). Of course, this is done at the risk of being ostracized by the hero’s own culture.

McKinley’s heroes are repeatedly confronted by individual Others who do not match the portraits that have been painted of them as a group, and the hero comes to the question, “If this is not true about them, then what else is different than I’ve been told? What IS true?” And they are faced with a choice between retreating into comfortable myths and exploring for themselves.

At the same time, the heroes often find that there are Bad Guys among their own kind, further blurring the previously simple structures of right and wrong, safe and dangerous.

It takes courage for McKinley’s characters to follow their curiosity. Even though they are thrust into situations they did not choose, they do face choices throughout their stories, and it is their struggles with those choices that really are the stories.

We are not faced with dragons, vampires, Beasts, or flying horses, or even desert nomads with magical powers. But we do face the same choices every day: Am I willing to question the Conventional Wisdom about those who are different from me? Am I willing to question the stories I make up myself? Am I willing to acknowledge but not blindly accept the danger signals from my lizard brain? Am I willing to rock the safe and secure boat of unquestioned “knowledge?”

Our dragons, vampires and pegasi are all human. But they are of different colors, cultures, and economic strata. They are the younger – or older – co-workers and family members who just look at the world differently. They are those departments down the hall that make it difficult to get our work done.

It takes courage to connect with the Other, to be curious and step out of our comfort zones and into the unknown. This is the edge of chaos, where things change, where our worldviews change, where we change.

McKinley’s heroes may not acquire riches as a result of their choices, but they do discover richness beyond their wildest dreams.

As can we all.

Who are the dragons, vampires and Beasts you have faced – or face? How does curiosity help? Please leave a comment (and give me something to read while I wait for Pegasus II).

Compassion Is a Pain in the Ass – or – Stop Making Sense, Part Duh

Compassion has recently been a recurring theme for me. I noticed this after I published a blog post titled Stop Making Sense on the ridiculously stupid decisions that pass for logic sometimes, especially in a bureaucracy. In that post, I told two (true) stories that made me shake my head for years. I had started the post some time ago, but I couldn’t finish it for a long time. Why? Because I couldn’t get past it being a rant. I was left with a big “So What?” by my own post.

I hate it when that happens.

Scene Change

I discovered Pema Chodron several years ago (thanks to Bill Moyers’ PBS series “On Faith and Reason”), and one of the things that appealed to me about her, and about Buddhism in general, was her focus on compassion, or “loving kindness.” Especially toward ourselves. But it wasn’t until recently when I went through a process of coming to terms with a vocal condition that makes it difficult for me to speak, admitting how I truly hated my voice and choosing instead to be compassionate with myself and my voice, that the concept of compassion went from being a “Yeah, that’s nice,” abstract concept to something real.

In other words, it wasn’t until I stopped kicking myself in the shins every time a word wouldn’t come out or I struggled to make myself understood, that it started to get easier to not want to kick other people in the shins.

Case in Point:

That blog post. I couldn’t finish it for the longest time because I still wanted to shake the silly bureaucrats who make decisions like the ones I described. And I didn’t know how to get past that – until it occurred to me that they were (possibly) trying to do a good job – but maybe they were hampered by a variety of unexamined beliefs that led them to their conclusions. (I confess I am still tempted to say, “a variety of mistaken beliefs that led them to their ridiculously stupid and counter-productive conclusions.” I still have work to do.)

Which reminded me of an essay I read a while back, written by Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of Pepsico. In her essay, “The Best Advice I Ever Got,” she wrote about how she learned from her father to “assume positive intent.”

That’s when I was able to finish the blog post.

And I was actually pretty proud of that post. I thought it was well written, it had a catchy title, and it wasn’t a rant. It offered something practical about getting past being stuck when dealing with those ridiculously stupid and counter-productive conclusions.

But it got no comments. None. Zero. A big goose-egg. “Waah!” I thought, “I stink as a blogger!” But my posts on “What Spiders Teach Us About Building a Great Team” and “Bobby Fischer Teaches Systems Thinking” got comments. So what happened?

Maybe compassion just isn’t catchy. Maybe I didn’t make it catchy. Maybe I should have admitted how HARD it was for me to get to that point – a little confession might have been catchier. Humility can be very funny, sometimes.

So, I’ll put on a big red clown nose and admit that being a change agent is HARD. (Actually, just being a decent person is hard.) And it’s hard because in order to be any kind of effective, I have to be compassionate, not superior. (That’s one difference between being a Consultant and being an “Insultant.”) I have to be aware of my own stuff and be able to meet people where they are, not where I think they are.

There is a big difference between compassion and pity, between being compassionate with myself and indulging in self-pity, and between having compassion for others and being patronizing. Compassion does not allow us to collude with bureaucracy and mistaken beliefs, nor does it allow us to judge those with whom we disagree. Compassion is a pain in the ass, actually, because it strips away our ability to simply react and take the easy way.

But compassion is also what makes it possible for us to consciously use ourselves, and it gives us room to learn from the differences between us, to ask for the sound and current data that is needed to replace unfounded beliefs, and to play infinite win/win games instead of win/lose power games.

In other words, compassion is one of the things that makes curiosity possible.

Now that makes sense.

What do you think? Please leave a comment.

What Skydiving Taught Me About Curiosity

It was one of the scariest moments of my life, when the person ahead of me on the airplane went to the door – and jumped.

And then it was my turn.

Believe it or not, I didn’t go skydiving for the adrenaline rush. But a friend of mine had been talking about it, and talking about it, and talking about it, until I finally asked, “WHAT is so fascinating about skydiving?”

And he answered, “It’s so peaceful.

*Puzzled look.*

Well, then I was curious. And I had to go.

So I jumped with two instructors at 15,000 feet. Now, Mt. Rainier is only fourteen thousand and something feet high. We jumped at 15,000 feet.

Nobody told me how NOISY it would be in freefall! Imagine being in a car with the windows open going 120 miles an hour. Only there’s no car.

But once the parachute opened – that beautiful parachute – everything got quiet. And it was peaceful. It was my favorite time of day, too – sunset. It was beautiful.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it hasn’t killed me. I learned that day that if I allow myself to follow my curiosity, I often get an unexpected bonus. In this case, the bonus was this: Now when I have to do something scary, I can say, “Pffft. I can do that – I’ve jumped out of an airplane!”

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” – Martin Buber

What unexpected treasures have you discovered by being curious?

Curiosity Is Like a Muscle

Being curious sounds so easy, doesn’t it? If it is easy, why don’t more people do it? How can we foster and encourage it, both in ourselves and in others?

In my last post, I wondered about the things that keep us from practicing curiosity, from being curious: Habits. Conformity. Thinking we already know. Fear. In the end, people either continue to be curious or they give up their curiosity. They let their curiosity muscle get weak.

There is good news, though. Many, many people still practice curiosity. And even those who give up their curiosity, or keep it on a short leash, can regain it and make friends with it.

Are you afraid to be curious, to expose your curiosity? Do you make it safe for the people around you to be curious? We can choose at any time to be curious – about ourselves, about other people, about the world. We can foster that curiosity.


How can I become more curious?

How can I encourage others to become more curious?

Ah, Grasshopper, I’m glad you asked that.

How can I become more curious?

Choose. Choose to wonder.

Be brave. Don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable at times. Being uncomfortable is not permanent, and it is not fatal.

Listen to your inner chatter, and notice when you wonder about something. Then, follow the questions.

Be open to learning. Even experts don’t know everything, nor were they born experts. But they become – and stay – experts because they’re always learning.

Ask. Don’t just wonder; ask.

Have you ever heard someone say that the more they learned, the more questions they had? Start.

How can I encourage curiosity in others?

Be curious yourself, and be visible about it. “Be the change.”

Be open to being questioned. Don’t be offended if someone asks you a question; assume positive intent. It is as important to be open to being questioned as it is to ask questions. Make it safe, and lead by example.

Vulnerability: We must be willing to admit we don’t know.

We must create a safe place for others to ask questions, and allow them to be vulnerable, too.

Try It Out

If you are not in the habit of being curious, you can choose to try it out.

If you are in the habit of being curious, be aware that it is an easy thing to take for granted. So remember that it can be challenging for others, and try to make it safe for them to be curious as well. Set an example: Be brave, be curious, and invite others to come along.

What can you do, or do you do, to exercise your curiosity? Do you make it safe for the people around you to be curious? I’d really like to know.

“You must be the change you want to see in the world.” – Mohandas (The Mahatma) Gandhi

What Gets in the Way of Being Curious?

I recently spent five days with more than one hundred fascinating people at the Become an Inspiring Speaker workshop. (And it was fabulous!) In one of the first exercises, we paired up to talk about our focus and our reasons for being there. I paired up with Ross Barrable, an acoustic sculptor and builder of wind harps. (How can you not be curious about that?)

I told Ross about my interest in wonder and curiosity as catalysts for creativity, innovation, learning, and compassion. His eyes lit up, and he asked me, “Why are people curious?” I suggested that a better question is, “What keeps people from being curious?”

We are hard-wired to be curious. Children are naturally curious, and grown-ups can be, too. In fact, the human brain rewards curiosity by emitting an opium-like chemical when a new concept is grasped.

Being curious is easy – as easy as falling off a log, as they say. Or is it? Some people lose their sense of curiosity. (Is it a sense? Is it a muscle? Hmmm.) Why?

If being curious is so easy, why don’t more people let themselves be curious? I think there are several reasons.

One reason is that well-meaning adults train children out of it. Children get scared, and we want to protect them. We want to look smart. And we get tired of all those questions. So we tell them what we know, or we tell them what we think we know, or we tell them to stop asking so many questions. Maybe curiosity gets squashed as people leave childhood and it is easier to conform than to keep being told to stop asking so many questions.

Another reason is just Habit: It’s easy to get comfortable, even lazy.

Another, more insidious reason is that we think we know the truth; for example, we think we know about people who are different from us. So we don’t inquire.

I think the main reason is Fear.

But I think the main reason is Fear.

By asking questions, I run the risk of:

Looking dumb.

Looking nosey.

Looking bigoted.

Looking disrespectful.

Looking defiant.

When we ask questions, we run the risk of being ridiculed for asking “stupid questions.” We also run the risk of getting new information that might force us to change the way we think. That can be uncomfortable.

Nobody wants to be forced to do anything, especially to change. I once read a quote attributed to Rosabeth Moss Kanter that said, “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.” I think that is true.

So, why don’t we ask questions?

It’s easier not to ask questions; it’s easier to go along.

We think we know something.

We’re afraid to admit we don’t know something.

We’re afraid of looking dumb.

We’re afraid of changing our minds.

We’re afraid that if we allow one part of our worldview to change, the whole thing will unravel, and that feels like chaos.


Being curious takes courage. I submit not only that courage is like a muscle, but curiosity is like a muscle, too. Like any muscle, the more you exercise it, the easier it becomes and the more fun you can have with it.

One more thought:

I submit that it takes more courage to admit that I don’t know or I am wrong than to get to know someone else.

I’ll say that again, a different way: It takes less courage to get to know someone who is different from myself than it does to admit I might be wrong, or that I don’t know. Once I am willing to admit that I don’t know something, asking the questions is easy by comparison. Even fun.

So, are you curious? If not, are you willing to wonder why? What keeps you from being curious?

Wondering How to Counteract Racism/Ageism/Sexism in Hiring?

I was recently asked to write an essay on this subject, and I subsequently expanded on it and submitted it as a Guest Post to Michael F. Broom’s blog at The Center for Human Systems. I’m THRILLED to announce that it was accepted, so I’d be very pleased if you would click here to visit his site and read the essay. Then, please leave a comment and tell me what you think, whether you agree or disagree or have additional thoughts.

While you’re there, look around. The Center for Human Systems offers a variety of online and in-person programs, including the Triple Impact Practitioners Program from which I recently graduated. Originally developed for organization development professionals, the articles, blog and courses actually apply to anyone who desires to be more conscious in their dealings with others, including leaders at all levels and in all industries.

Stay tuned for more posts here on the subject of wonder and curiosity, featuring inspiration from cats, birds, spiders, yard sales, and Bobby Fischer! There’s some great stuff coming!

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