Jacque Marshall

Curiouser and curiouser: life without a clue

Along about 1985, I discovered that curiosity is the key to the Universe. If you don't have it, you can't learn what you don't know. If you can't learn, you can't—well, do much of anything, except things you already know. Which ain't much.

Obvious, I know—once you've figured it out.

See, somewhere very early on, I was conditioned to believe that I should know everything, a priori. Impossible you say? Well, yes, but since when did possibility ever have anything to do with world-views? The paradigm I inherited was brilliantly summed up once when, in response to my innocent 8-year-old question about a movie we were watching, my brother replied scornfully, "Jacque, your ignorance is showing."

By high school I had so thoroughly internalized this attitude that I actively avoided any effort at eductating myself, and most attempts of my environment to do so. Both of my friends Patti and Merredith were systematic, aggressive, and enthusiastic students, behaviors which I viewed with revulsion and disdain. "I don't wish to know that!" was my silent watchword. I graduated high school with the absolute minimum of credits, handily making myself incapable of going to college.

This model of the world started to unravel in 1978, after I met my friends Howard and Jon at that year's World Science Fiction Convention. Both lived in Boulder at the time, and drew me into their fascinating circle of friends. The one thing everyone in the group had in common was a ravenous and eclectic appetite for ideas and information. I listened with fascination, but could contribute nothing.

In order to participate in any meaninful way, I would have to change my attitude about learning. But that attitude was so deeply entrenched that something fundamental had to shift, change deeply enough to motivate me to overcome a lifetime of resistance and an complete lack of skill.

Amusing aside: this beautifully demonstrates Harville Hendrix's thesis that we are attracted to people who call us to our weaknesses.
Hormones came to my rescue: I developed a crush on Jon of truly Wagnerian proportions. But when I expressed my interest, he let it be known that he could never be interested romantically in someone who wasn't in love with learning.

So I set about falling in love with learning.

Several grueling years of reading later (Howard helped inaugurate this effort by giving me my first subscription to Scientific American that year for Christmas.) I had reached the point where I could at least listen somewhat intelligently, and wasn't quite so terrified of not knowing things.

But my first breakthrough came, as one might expect, it came from a completely unanticipated direction.

At my second NLP training I found myself struggling with some particularly difficult idea. The struggle was very uncomfortable—an old, familiar discomfort, one that had always made me back off from new or difficult information in the past. The context I was in this time encouraged me to examine my experience, and so I stopped and explored this struggle for the first time. "Grumble grumble. I'm confused," was the dialogue that I uncovered. A beat went by. "Oh! Confusion! That's what that is!"

Strangely, having a label for the sensation suddenly made it much more tolerable. Furthermore, the function of this sensation was suddenly clear: We were exploring an idea that was new to me. Something that I didn't know. Or maybe my thinking about it was disorganized, difficult to get a grip on. The existence of confusion implied the possibility of clarity.

Again, this seems obvious in retrospect, and probably is so to any normal human being. I don't know if I can articulate the magnitude of this insight. But it opened a crucial gate for me, and relieved me of an awful burden, namely: that horrid feeling of panicked paralysis that came over me whenever I was hit with something I didn't understand (which, given my learning history, was most things). Now, once I'd calmed down, I could actually pause and realize that there was something I needed to learn or clarify.

This led to the deduction that, in order to learn something, one must first know that one doesn't know it. Recognize one's ignorance. (Or clarify one's confusion—I realize as I'm writing this that I'm lumping confusion and igorance together.) It suddenly struck me that people all around me were navigating this shoal with (to my newly opened eyes) astonishing dexterity. Two people in particular stood out as masters of learning (as evidence by the depth and breadth of their knowledge and insight). They were Howard, and Cathy, who was on the staff of the NLP seminar. They were, more than any other characteristic they exhibited, ravenous in their curiosity about the world.

Since NLP is all about structure, and curiosity seemed to be the capacity they had which I lacked, I set myself to discover the structure of curiosity. I began grilling them mercilously (thus, someone pointed out with some amusement, exercising the very capacity I was trying to "acquire.")

I came up with a few broad guidelines. For example, it seems that one has to have a knowledge base to refer to, and sufficient access to it (conscious or otherwise) to determine where the gaps are. One must be able to identify the gaps in such a way as to suggest what questions to ask to fill them. One then must be able to formulate questions that will ellicit the information one is after. Again, all very obvious and straight-forward—unless one is coming from a premise that one is supposed know everything one needs to know already.

The very concept of "question" began to fascinate me, and I realized that it wasn't curiosity I was lacking so much as the capacity to ask questions. It soon became clear to me that if one doesn't can't ask questions (or, maybe more importantly, doesn't have permission), one is fundamentally handicapped. Furthermore, if one can't ask questions, one is much easier to control and influence, which is doubtless why I was systematically trained not to as I grew up. Questions, I soon concluded, are the Keys to the Universe.

Questions are so key that I felt compelled to embody this insight in an icon, which I took as sort of a personal logo. It struck me that two interlocking question marks echo the central boundary and "eyes" in the yin-yang symbol.

Another element that struck me between the eyes is the concept of "making sense" of something. I came to the conclusion that this expression represents a literal truth, in the sense that, until one can represent an idea in a precise and specific sensory manner (such as a clear image, or a particular sound or set of words or whatever), the new idea will continue to be comfusing or difficult. It's like the classic exercise of making sense of the picture of the pig's nose sticking through the fence—until one can attach some sensory experience to it, it doesn't "make sense."

During the next year or two, I systematically practiced and refined my new skill in the same way one would exercise an atrophied muscle. I now had a functioning framework from which to start doing "research." RTFM (Reading The ahem Manual) finally became an option. If, as frequently happened, I didn't understand something, I could now recognize that I didn't understand it (instead of just locking up in blind panic), figure out what I didn't understand, and set about forming questions to find out what I needed to know. The process was clunky and awkward, much like the painful jerkiness a car exhibits when driven by a beginner. But it worked. Whereas before I had been a resolute technophobe, I now started evolving into the resident technical wizard at work.

But the seminal breakthrough came in 1986. Strangely enough, it happened when I saw the movie Jumpin' Jack Flash. A lot of things happened to me when I saw that movie. (That's a whole 'nother essay.) But the key piece here is that I got introduced to the inside of my own head.

It came during the scene where Whoopi's character Terry is home alone in the evening. She's watching some old movie on TV while she's eating dinner. She stops with a spoonful of Spagetti-Os halfway to her mouth and sighs forlornly. "Oh," says I to myself, "is this going to be a love story?"

Then I sat bolt upright in my seat: Where the hell did that come from!? Puzzling over it afterward, I realized that just before I had asked my question, the hero in the movie Terry is watching was at last proclaiming his love for the heroine. For the first time in my life, I actually witnessed the sequence of information from the outside coming into my mind, and causing me to draw a conclusion about what I was seeing. Again, I'm sure anybody of normal mental organization finds it weird that I was so boggled by this. But I can't overstate how blinding this insight was for me.

I can only describe it as like sitting in a darkened theater all my life, watching the movie that was my experience. Suddenly I turn around and see the "projector" for the first time—seeing that my internal reaction is a result of a specific external experience. I had broken through the dissociation that separated me from my own internal state.

With that insight in hand, I dove back into my skull and began madly reexamining every aspect of my experience. The whole question-asking thing became much easier after that, because I could actually get at my existing field of knowledge direclty—I had merely inferred its existence previously.

The contrast this made in my ability to function is illustrated beautifully by two experiences. In both cases, I was doing temp work as a receptionist.

The first time was in 1982, working in a law firm. I could type, I could answer the phone (as in, pick up the receiver and say "Hello?"). But there my relevant skill-set ended. I could list the number of things I was called upon to do that I didn't know how to; suffice to say it was most of them, and that I spent the entire job in a state of near catatonia, wondering when someone was going to notice how completely inept I was and throw me out on my ear.

My cover was blown when one of the lawyers asked me to type up a memo. I reluctantly admitted that I didn't know how, and he looked puzzled and said, "Er, so if you don't mind my asking, why did the temp agency send you?" Reasonable question. "Uh, because I was the one who was available?" (Which told me a lot about temp-work.) He didn't kick me out, and I survived, but I came away from the experience deeply traumatized and convinced to my core that I was simply incapable of something as "simple" as front-desk work.

The second experience came in '89 (post-Clue, as my friend Matt says). The venue was the front desk of a psychiatric practice. This time, with my newly-minted inquiry skills and access to my own brain, I successfully navigated a strange operating system on the computer, calling pharmacies with prescription renewals, upset and crazy clients respectively pleading for medication and trying to rattle my cage, and demands from a nasty and insensitive doctor. I acquited myself well enough that they gave me a bonus, and asked for me by name the next time they called the agency.

I'm still allergic to research, and reflexively shrink from the unknown, especially when stressed. I keep having to re-discover that advancing into the unknown causes the yawning black gulf to brighten into a clear path of inquiry. It doesn't make the horrid feeling retreat; but that horrid feeling doesn't engulf me like I'm afraid it's going to. The trick now is to practice this enough to streamline it into an assumption.

—21 May 1999

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