I’ve been thinking about curiosity in learning lately. In particular, why it is that I can become obsessed with some subject matter and not others.
You may have seen my latest obsession with maritime history focussed on the Royal Navy between the years 1787-1790. That’s pretty specific, isn’t it?
It’s like I have some crazy desire where I need to learn everything that happened between those years, what ships were connected to what captain; what was happening elsewhere around the world that necessitated the circumstances that transpired for people and ships to be where they were at that point in time.
For me, history is like a big jigsaw puzzle. It sends me down rabbit warrens as I uncover more information (useful for me; useless for others I might add) and it takes over everything in my life for that point in time.
Back in 2004, I was in the Royal Australian Navy Reserves and our small editorial team gathered every Thursday night to plan and publish the Navy Reserve News. Once our work was completed for the evening, we had a cup of coffee and a bit of a yarn talking about anything and everything.
At the time, the awful news of what was happening on Pitcairn Island was in the media and our talks focussed on the history of Bligh and the mutineers.
I didn’t know much about the story except for it being a movie with Mel Gibson in it and some cranky captain named William Bligh. Thinking back now, it was these hearty and humorous conversations and stories shared with my fellow colleagues that made naval history come alive for me.
In the Navy, people were always sharing stories. They used to call them, “spinning warries” and it was the best way that activated my curiosity and desire to learn more. Stories ignited my imagination and made me inquisitive to seek out and learn more.
In the last few months, I have been learning about the history. Books, podcasts, movies, artworks, sketches, websites – anything I can get my hands on, I have been on a “Bligh Binge”.
Like some mind map with William Bligh in the middle, the more I explored, the more it took me to different parts of the story to reveal and unfold a time in English history where things were in a state of flux and moving into a period of enlightenment.
Reading the stories and the accounts were like I was watching a part of history unfold at that point in time. I wanted to immerse myself in it and connect with the characters because it felt like they were simply real people going through challenging times. The more I dug, the more I learned and in some strange way, I felt closer to the …why.
Last weekend, I travelled to Sydney to meet up with a friend who is out here for work. I used the opportunity to revisit parts of the city and retrace the steps of the first settlers and Captain Arthur Phillip who was the first Governor of Australia. I never had an interest in Australian History before – let alone at school. In fact, I hated it. It was so boring to me because of the way it was taught with dates and rebellions. I’ve been to Sydney many times but it was the first time I appreciated being there because it brought my learning alive.
In a way, I reconnected with it and saw the city in a completely new light. I saw Sydney in the eyes of a child, in constant wonder, curiosity and awe:
“Did Captain Arthur Philip walk down this road? Was this road even here?”
“Did Bennelong sit here and look out into the port or probably look towards the settlement with resentment?”
“As the ships sailed into Port Jackson, what would it have looked like?”
“Is this the site of the first governor’s house?”
“Did Bligh walk right where I’m walking today 209 years ago?”
“Argh. Was Bligh a Freemason?!” (as I scrutinised the medallion that is peeking cheekily from open shirt in this picture)…
Imagine my delight when I saw a statue of William Bligh at the Rocks. Situated opposite the large cruise ship departure area, his non-imposing statue stands on a small patch of grass. Blink, and you could miss him and walk on by without realising how great this master mariner and surveyor was and how he was much maligned by the press of the time.
So what’s this got to do with curiosity in learning?
Whether it’s maritime history, or any other subject – curiosity inspires us to learn more about the “why”.
It invigorates and energises you because it activates your mind and makes you question, consider and reflect on different possibilities. It makes you appreciate how small you are – a tiny dot in the grand scheme of world history.
You see things in a completely different light and with alternative perspectives and it makes you realise that what you know is only one piece of the greater puzzle and in actual fact, you don’t know and will never know the answers.
Curiosity allows you to be in a state of an open mind; of being willing to consider all options and possibilities.
It allows you to be in the position of not knowing – and to ask that dumb question – and not feeling awkward that you asked it.
While people like Bligh were intrepid explorers and discovered new worlds, I like to think that my curiosity allows me to be like them.
This is what fires me up about my work and why I love learning new things so much – even when to others, my obsessions make no sense at all. It’s the place which I’m most comfortable because I don’t know where that journey will take me; what I will see, what I will learn; what assumptions I’m going to have challenged and what I learn about myself in the process.
Along the way, these explorers had log books (and the memoirs they wrote upon return to England for the public to read) but we are lucky in this day and age to have a multitude of different tools, apps and platforms to share our own discoveries to others.
I’m interested in your thoughts. What gets you curious?