4 min read

Permissionless Curiosity

Permissionless Curiosity
Photo by Eneko Uruñuela on Unsplash

I failed my psychology midterm. That's how it felt anyway.

I got my midterm grade for a class I am taking, and it was worse than expected. Within seconds of seeing it, I was trying to figure out how I could fix it.

How could I get my grade up? Could I ask for it to be regraded? Is there extra credit? How much more would I need to study for the next test?

I went into ultimate hoop jumper mode. Paul Millerd describes this archetype in The Pathless Path:

The term “hoop‑jumper” was coined by writer and former professor William Deresiewicz to describe the behavior of his students at Yale, who seemed more concerned about getting A’s and adding bullet points to their resumes than using their time at one of the world’s best universities to follow their curiosity… I was becoming a hoop-jumper just like Deresiewicz’s students at Yale, internalizing the idea that education is “doing your homework, getting the answers, acing the test.” I had not developed a sense that “something larger is at stake.”

The first time I noticed this mentality was in my sophomore year of high school. Funnily enough, it also happened after a psychology test. I remember looking at my score and thinking: I'm not going to let this happen. For the next month, I studied 7 hours a day (it was a summer course and I had nothing else to do) to get an A.

For the game that I was playing, that worked, and I think the journey I followed from there was ultimately great for me. But I was playing the wrong game.

It's been almost four years since I took that test, and I've grown a lot. While there's still that evolutionary response that somehow equates a bad grade with being kicked out of the tribe, I can now see beyond it. So after the initial shock to seeing a bad grade, I chose to see the reality of my situation.

I knew that material down pat. The points I lost were caused by one of two issues: I didn’t memorize minute details or the questions were worded weirdly to a point that I demonstrated knowledge in the wrong direction.

I asked myself: if you could go back in time, would you actually decide to spend a few more hours learning material that you're going to forget in a few months? The answer was no. In truth, getting a less than great grade is actually more in line with my goals than shooting for an A.

I’m not here to get a great GPA and play it safe. I’m here to learn. To grow. Am I satisfied with the knowledge I’ve learned from that class? Yeah. So, why be upset about an incredibly imperfect method to assess my knowledge?

The answer is to not be. And when I let go of that need to win every single game (no matter how stupid the rules), I found liberation.

Because when you start choosing which games you play, you get really, really good at them.

Do Little, Accomplish Much

I’ve been working on cultivating this mentality in my life for a while now. A life in which I treat my focus as a multiplier. By focusing on games I play and giving them my all, I can get pretty far.

There are so many games to play. There's the game to be a great university-student. There's the game to be a great son. There's a game to make an impact. There's a game to be a great friend and boyfriend.

And while I use the the term "game" here, I approach them pretty seriously. "Game" is simply a reflection of the dynamic that I can choose how much time I spend on each of them (i.e., how much I play them). These games determine my life and influence the lives of many others. They should be taken seriously.

I've come to realize that I can't be great at them all. I have to choose. And I'm finally at a point in my life where I can say that I would rather choose learning over conformity.

Permission to Enjoy

Inherent in the tertiary education system is the implicit understanding that one must be granted permission to learn and enjoy learning something.

If you want to take any class, you can be sure to find gatekeepers telling you who can and can’t learn the material.

If you aren’t performing to the standards of a professor, it is understood that you should withdraw.

The other day, I wrote that I believe competence to be an integral part of enjoying something. I think there’s timeless truth to that. But I also think that this is an idea that has been introduced and reinforced by the school system.

I shouldn't need permission to enjoy something. I shouldn't need permission to be curious and want to learn more. Unfortunately, that's the way the modern university is designed: you are only as worthy as you are better than your peers.

Comparison is the Thief of Success

Figuring out what you love is incredibly important for discovering how you can make an impact. There’s an inextricable connection between the two.

When you love something, no one can out compete you. You do it in your free time. You do it for fun. You don’t do it for a result.

It’s commonly thrown around that comparison is the thief of joy. It’s also the thief of success. Because when we compare, we are destined to feel incompetent.

And when we tie our enjoyment to competence, we can never find what we truly love. Comparison introduces permission-seeking into your life. It defines what you can and can't do based on what others do. I don't like this. I'm not going to play that way. Today, and from here on out, I'm choosing to play permissionless.