Neil Tambe

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I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

5: Curiosity

May 7, 2017

This is my third attempt trying to share with you why I think curiousity matters so much for goodness (hopefully I’ll be persuasive and you’ll agree - and you’ll have more ideas to bring to the matter than your old pops does). But now that I’ve noticed the difficulty, it makes sense that I would have a hard time explaining why curiousity matters - I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t curious. It’s hard to explain curiosity because it is water to me.

When I learn something new, or an explore an idea by reading, or by asking someone some more expert than me a question, I get such a satisfying feeling. It even makes my skin tingle sometimes. In a way it’s a relief, like the feeling of icy cold water, the second it hits a summer’s parched tongue. It’s exciting like finding a secret passageway for the first time. It’s like finding a distant cairn on a difficult trail, signaling that we are one step closer at knowing the truth. It’s a feeling of connection to many millions of people, both alive and gone ahead, that learned what you learned and explored the idea you just explored.

But most of all, these days, learning something new makes me feel echoes of your Dada. Learning, to him, was such a delight. He insisted upon it. And he brought tremendous intensity to learning. In retrospect, learning is when he was freest, and most himself. He loved it.

That exhilaration for learning is something he passed to me, and I to you. Writing this letter to you about curiosity unexpectedly reminds me of his sincerity, warmth, and honesty. I miss him, and I hope sharing these thoughts on curiosity are something he would be proud of.

Learning is a special craft for your Granddad, too. When your mother and her siblings were growing up, he would always say , “learn something new, do something special” before school every day. But I’ll let your mother tell you more about that. It’s a very special memory of hers.

But let’s focus and turn to curiosity and it’s relationship to choosing goodness. We lay our scene in the kitchen.

Let’s say you want to become a great cook. Not a professional chef, but a great cook nonetheless. So you figure, you’ll cook something. You know what you’ve eaten before and you’ve seen your mother and I make meals in our kitchen at home, so you know at least something about cooking - some of the smells, that burnt food tastes bad, food flavor combinations you like. You know things like this.

Since you don’t have much experience in the kitchen, you decide to make something simple - macaroni and cheese. But if you only know what you know about macaroni and cheese based on what you’ve eaten before, where do you begin? Where do you get ingredients? You’d have to know about grocery stores. And you’d have to know something about cheeses and pasta, generally, to be able to choose what you want when you get there.

Once you bought ingredients, you’d have to know whether to use a stove or a microwave and how to operate each one. You’d have to know what pots and pans to use. On top of all that, youd have to know how much macaroni and how much cheese to combine. And all that for such a simple dish!

And lets say you figured that you could hardly consider yourself a great cook as the dish is not that complicated, nor is it nutritious. To be a better cook, you’d have to learn more dishes, fundamental skills, and practice a lot. You’d have to learn about the stove, oven, knives, and other tools. You’d have to learn to use your senses. After that, you’d be a decent cook.

But a great cook? That would still take you another level of learning. Great cooks know about more than just cooking. They know about chemistry, and why different substances interact the way they do at different temperatures. They understand the physics behind heating, cooling, pressure, and the properties of solids, liquids, and gases. They understand nutrition and how food affects health. They understand history, culture, and customs related to how people eat. They even understand something about art and design and are particular in how food is presented. Great cooks probably know a thing or two about planning and operations, too.

To be a great cook, there is so much to learn, and not just related to the most obvious elements of cooking, but across many diciplines and traditions. It takes time and is hard work. It certainly doesn’t happen overnight.

The reason why I bring up trying to be a great cook is that trying to choose goodness functions in the same way. You have to learn so many truths from peripheral disciplines, same as cooking. You have to practice, just like cooking. You have to start with the basics, just like cooking. It takes years to get there, just like cooking. It’s really hard, just like cooking. You won’t be paid or compensated for your efforts, just like cooking.

So why would anyone want to learn how to be a great cook? Afterall, it’s really quite a commitment. Being a great cook, especially because we’re not considering professional chefs who are paid for their work, requires a willingness and motivation to learn.

That raises a very interesting, essential, and fundamental question: what motivates someone to learn? If we can answer this question, we will learn something about what may motivate someone to learn to choose goodness over power, too.

There is a theory from the social sciences that is helpful here - intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The idea is, there are two basic types of motivations. Intrinsic motivation is motivation that comes from the happiness, joy, or meaning you get from the task itself. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is the motivation that comes from earning a reward or benefit that comes from the external world.

With learning and discovering what it means to choose goodness, just like in our example with cooking, there is no extrinsic reward coming. There is no pot of money for learning to be a good person. being a good person. There is no prize or daily recognition that comes with learning to be a good person. being a good person. There is no certificate nor medal for learning to do the right thing. When it comes to learning to choose goodness, there is no extrinsic reward that exists that I can of or have ever seen. I find it even slightly uncomfortable to think about rewarding someone for learning what it means to choose goodness - it feels ideologically inconsistent.

The saying “good things happen to good people” is probably true. But that’s hardly an extrinsic motivator, realistically speaking, because the time between when you learn and when you receive the benefit of the good thing happening to you is so far away, its not really present in your mind when you’re learning.

So when it comes to learning how to cook, learning to choose goodness, or learning just about anything on your own you have to be intrinsically  motivated, because that’s the only type of motivation that you actually have the option of tapping into. Put another way, you have to find pleasure or interest in the act of learning itself, because you will receive no external reward for engaging in that learning.

This is where curiosity comes in. I told you earlier about how much I enjoy and find pleasure in discovering something new. I hadn’t thought of it quite like this until just now, but that pleasure comes because my curiosity is satiated by learning. Curiosity almost creates this very exciting gentle tension, which is resolved satisfyingly by learning.

In a way, learning isn’t as pleasurable unless you have that curiosity putting just a little bit of tension and anticipation into the mix. Because without the curiosity, you can’t get the pleasure of satisfying your curiosity after engaging in learning. Just like a joke can’t have a funny punchline without a setup, learning can’t have the intrinsic satisfaction without curiosity. Just like the Temptation and the Hawaiian War Chant, you can’t have one without the other (you’ll get that joke later in life, it’s a University of Michigan Marching Band reference).

That is why curiosity is the first capability of choosing goodness, without curiosity there is no foundation for the intrinsic motivation needed to learn on your own, and in turn discover goodness over the course of your lifetime.

If you decide that choosing goodness over power matters to you, and that you want to learn to choose it, you must know what it is. You have to understand goodness to choose it.

But as I’ve mentioned already, goodness and an understanding of it doesn’t grow on trees. You’re not born with that knowledge at birth, you have to go figure it out, you have to earn it and learn it. And therefore, you must want to learn it.

That willingingness and desire to learn is what you need to discover goodness for yourself. And that willingness have to be strong and enduring, because the path of goodness is hard more often than it’s easy - as I’ve told you - it can get messy and complicated.

Genuine curiousity is the strongest creator of motivation to learn that I’ve ever come across, and it’s the only motivation to learn I’ve ever seen that actually lasts. That’s why I think curiosity is so important and crucial to discovering goodness - staying the course toward goodness takes an abnormal amount of motivation because it is very hard to learn, takes really long, and comes without any extrinsic rewards. Curiosity is my best answer on where that abnormal amount of motivation comes from.

Certainly, I hope you are curious the world and the real causes and effects you see in how it works. And I hope you are curious about God, too. I hope you are curious about history, science, music, politics, physchology, management, mathaematics, and so many other things. I hope you are able to explore people, places, planets, and philosophies beyond your own. I wish for you a life of voracious learning and discovery.

But if you’re only curious about the world around you, you’ll be missing something important - yourself. You need to be curious about whether YOU are a good person, because you won’t always be. To choose goodness, you need to want to know the truth not just about the world around you, but also the truth about yourself. This act of self-examination is crucially important, and we’ll get to that more later.

By now, I hope the question you’re asking, is, “well Papa, how do I become curious?” And that’s what we’ll turn to now, all the best ideas, stories, and learnings I’ve had about how to cultivate and nurture the curiosity within us.

I’m so excited to share this with you and talk about it with you someday. Let’s begin.

Your Papa


If you’re interested in reading more of the Choosing Goodness project, I’d love to send you a quick e-letter when I share additions. Please leave me your contact information and I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

To see all the posts in this series, click here.

Please do say hello: neil.tambe[at]gmail[dot]com