Word-Of-the-Week #935: Unfamiliar

July 7, 2022 by  

Unfamiliar – not within one’s knowledge; strange.

Do you experience anxiety or tension in unfamiliar situations? When was the last time you learned something new? Is there a new activity you would like to try?

This week features 4 strategies to Tune in to Your Curiosity from “The Power of Curiosity. Discover how cultivating an inquiring mind can help you lead a happier, healthier life,” by Todd Kashdan. His follow up excerpts, “One of the best ways to better appreciate the power of curiosity is to start exercising it more consciously in your daily experiences. By doing so, you can transform routine tasks, enlivening them with new energy. You will also likely begin to notice more situations that have the potential to engage you, giving your curiosity even more opportunities to flourish.

  • Build knowledge – Knowledge opens our eyes to interesting gaps about what we don’t know. When a marine biologist goes snorkeling and is able to name specific fishes by the size, color, texture, and shape of eyes and fins, he or she is going to be acutely aware of the unusual features that the rest of us will miss — a pattern of orange stripes that are vertical when they are usually horizontal. The child who can name 45 states is much more interested in discovering the five he or she doesn’t know than the child with only three states in the brain bank. The person learning to play the piano will hear more nuances in a piano concerto than the person who doesn’t know treble clef from bass clef. If you want to be curious, start accumulating knowledge.
  • Thrive on uncertainty We rarely look forward to anxiety and tension, but research shows that these mixed emotions are often what lead to the most intense and longest-lasting positive experiences. People who take part in new and uncertain activities are happier and find more meaning in their lives than people who rely on the familiar.

Most of us mistakenly believe that certainty will make us happier than uncertainty. Imagine that you go to a football game knowing that your team will win. Most people would say that, yes, that would make them happy. Yet knowing the outcome in advance takes away the thrill of watching each play and the good tension that comes with not knowing what will happen next. You will likely be surprised to find how big a role surprise and uncertainty plays in your joyful experiences.

  • Reconnect with play – We can add play and playfulness to almost any task, and the attitude of play naturally builds interest and curiosity. This dynamic was captured wonderfully in a National Public Radio story about an assembly-line worker in a potato chip factory whose job was to make sure that the chips rolling down the conveyor belt were uniform and aesthetically pleasing before being bagged.

This man found the job dreary. So he developed a game that made it more interesting: He searched for potato chips resembling famous people and kept a collection (imagine silhouettes of Elvis, Charles Manson, Marilyn Monroe and Jimi Hendrix). Because he was constantly scanning odd and bizarre shapes for celebrity resemblances, the day moved quickly. He also became incredibly efficient at catching misshapen chips.

  • Find the unfamiliar in the familiar – One way to become more curious is to intentionally circumvent expectations, labels and assumptions about “seemingly” familiar activities and events. It’s easy to prejudge an activity because we think we have seen it before or avoid an activity entirely because we expect it to be boring or unpleasant.

In a recent study, researchers asked people to do something they reported disliking and pay attention to three novel features when they did it. This small exercise altered the way they viewed and felt about the activity. For example, an 18-year-old male bodybuilder who scoffed at crocheting spent 90 minutes practicing the task. The three novel discoveries he reported were 1) how demanding the process of making small stitches could be (he hadn’t anticipated that this “easy” task would tire him); 2) that it could be meditative (“time flew by”); and 3) that the crochet stitches could be tight enough to create flip-flop sandals (which was the project he worked on).

When the study subjects were contacted weeks later, those individuals who were asked to search for the novel and unfamiliar in their laboratory task were more likely to have done the task on their own without being asked or prompted (though it is unknown if the bodybuilder continued crocheting). This same little experiment can be applied to any activity in your life. Consider the list of low-interest, but necessary, activities in your typical day. Choose one of these ho-hum activities and, as you do it, search for any three novel or unexpected things about it.

Also keep in mind that, even though recurring situations may look identical on the surface, any event — especially one involving people — has some degree of novelty each time it occurs. Be on the lookout for even the tiniest thing that is different, special or notable, and chances are good that you’ll find something.

This week is all about embracing the unfamiliar. Can you remember a time when you experienced the joy of surprise and uncertainty? How easy is it for you to suspend judgment and see things as they are and not how you expect them to be? When was the last time you “played” at work?

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