There is such a thing as a bad question.

On Reddit’s fitness forum, people share stories, trade tips, and ask questions on a shared quest to improve their health and sculpt their bodies. The site is a treasure for the motivated, curious beginner.

You also encounter questions like, “Is it okay to eat a grapefruit before my workout or should I wait until after?”

Bad question. Good person, but bad question.

This is a bad question because it is fear disguised as curiosity. Learning a little more, reading another book or blog post can feel like progress, but it is also a common stalling tactic. Same with asking for advice. The wisdom of experts can help us avoid painful, time-consuming mistakes.

But this question is about grapefruit timing.

I want to grab this person and yell, “JUST TRY IT AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS!”

Yesterday, I talked about passive curiosity, which asks, “What do people already know about this subject?”

Active curiosity wonders, “Let’s see what happens when I try this.”

The curiosity of taking apart a camera to see if you can put it back together.

The curiosity of introducing yourself to a group of strangers to see how they react.

The curiosity of taking the long way everybody avoids rather than the short cut everybody seeks.

The curiosity of failing forward.

The curiosity of taking the first bite.

The curiosity of saying yes.

When a person specializes in passive curiosity, we call her well-read. When she dedicates herself to active curiosity, we call her well-lived.

The well-read person is sometimes interesting, and often dangerous. The well-lived person is always interesting, and often heroic.

It is the difference between timing a grapefruit and starting a movement.

There are some days I wish I was less curious.

There was a once a six week stretch when I was obsessed with learning how to make juices. I read an article by a fitness coach about how we can get a lot of missing nutrients when we puree vegetables and fruits into a frothy liquid, add chia seeds, and gulp it down. I spent weeks researching various juicers on Amazon. I read up on the best juicing recipes: which veggies retained their nutritional value during the juicing process, and which didn’t. How to clean seeds and pulp from a juicer.

Maybe I could have become great at juicing, but after a few weeks a new curiosity gripped me: Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law is the observation that the amount of time you spend on a task expands to fit the amount of time you have to complete it. So, if you have six months to get in shape for your trip to Hawaii, it will take six months of working out and eating well. If you only have one month, then you will find a way to do the same amount of work and see the same amount of progress in one month.

For a few weeks I blabbed to my coworkers about Parkinson’s Law. I read and thought about thirty different applications and corollaries of the idea. I was a Parkinson’s Law evangelist, a true believer. Until I started playing a game called Papers, Please..

In the movie Independence Day, we learn that the aliens move planet to planet, eradicating life and harvesting all the resources. But what do they ever use the resources for? Who knows. Perhaps they just enjoy traveling to new planets. Perhaps on their home planet they just have enormous, untouched piles of carbon, magnesium, and silicon, and in front of the piles there are little signs listing the planets of origin. They were just curious.

This is passive curiosity. The passively curious discover a topic, absorb everything they can, then move on to a new subject. It is a curiosity that is useful for cocktail chatter and racking up library fines. Students are implicitly taught to develop their passive curiosity: to focus lesson to lesson, remember what they can long enough to complete a test, then move to the next chapter. Nomadic knowledge.

Passive curiosity answers the question: “What have other people learned about this?”

So what question would active curiosity answer?

Fighter planes were new technology during World War II, and we needed to learn how to protect them.

The military commissioned a study that examined bombers that had returned from missions and had taken damage. The study found that a small number of areas took the majority of the fire. The commission recommended that we add armor to those areas of the aircraft.

Luckily, Abraham Wald stopped them before making a costly mistake.

A statistician before the war, Wald understood survivorship bias – our tendency to focus on the winners that are able to tell their story, rather than the losers that cannot.

He observed that instead of reinforcing the areas that took the most damage, we should protect the areas that took no damage. What the commission had actually studied was where bombers could take damage and survive. The planes that had been shot down, the ones that didn’t return to base to be studied by the commission, were hit precisely in the areas where the survivors were unscathed.

We are all survivors. It’s easy to forget, but the seat you’re sitting in right now is one that hundred people like you could have had. Our idols and mentors are brilliant and talented and wonderful, yes, but also lucky. So are you.

The bruises we carry with us and the mistakes we’ve made, the accidents we’ve had and the flack we’ve taken: we could focus on those when we try to improve ourselves. We could dwell on how to never be hit in the same place twice. But we made it. We survived all those hits. Our scars don’t tell us where we are weak, but where we are strong.

The better question is, where are we unscathed?

When I started out in customer support, thousands of people would contact us every day about resetting their password. In order to do so, they would have to answer a security question which they set when they created their account. It was easy to predict which users could answer their question and which would fail and ultimately call us assholes and fascists.

It had nothing to do with the people and everything to do with the question they chose.

In 2007, there were two types of security questions:

  1. Factual: E.g. The name of your third grade teacher, grandmother’s maiden name, etc.
  2. Opinions: E.g. Favorite pizza topping, favorite hobby, name of your best friend, etc.

Factual questions were never a problem. Facts don’t change. You might forget the name of your third grade teacher, but her name is fully independent of your feelings, preferences, and desires. Conversely, opinions are nothing but the shifting sum of our feelings, preferences, and desires. Opinions are the meals we cook with whatever happens to be in the fridge at the time.

Whenever we told a user that no, their favorite pizza topping was not pineapple, they’d go apeshit. “I know what pizza I goddamn like, you dicks, now let me into my account.”

I will repeat, the problem wasn’t the users, it was the questions. We make the mistake of thinking about our preferences as malleable in the past, but stable in the future. People create their account thinking they’ll always love pepperoni, not imagining the possibility that in eight months a pushy date will insist they try Hawaiian pizza and blow their mind.

Our favorites are fickle.

And so is our motivation.

In an ecstatic midnight fit of passion, we bought the domain name, mocked up designs, drafted our blog posts. It went really well. Really well. We got a lot of Likes that first month.

Six weeks in, something changed.The thought of working on our side project didn’t move us like it first did. We wanted to spend Saturday morning testing AdWords, but we just weren’t Feeling It. We wanted to join that new morning running group instead. Or we hadn’t had a good brunch in a while and wanted to hang out with our friends. Pepperoni turned to pineapple.

As marathon runners know, motivation will not get you across the finish line. Motivation won’t get you further than a dozen blocks. We must plan to feel indifferently about the thing we love right now.

My favorite resource on how to develop that plan is Seth Godin’s The Dip.

Of course, it might not be my favorite in a year.

I think my Spotify profile hates me.

I spent September in Spain, and the outrageous cost of data outside the U.S. was a good excuse to go on an iPhone diet. During that time I didn’t log into Spotify a single time. Before my trip, I downloaded my favorite songs from 2016 directly to the phone and used those as a soundtrack to long walks through Sevilla’s narrow streets and bustling plazas.

From Spotify’s perspective, I’d ghosted them. At no point did my account check in with their servers, let them know where I’d been and what I’d listened to.

My algorithm was starving.

Every Monday, Spotify generates a playlist called Discover Weekly, where they use your listening habits to automatically select an hour of songs that you might enjoy. The more you listen (and the more your tastes fall into a narrow and predictable set of genres), the better their recommendations become.

Spotify introduced me to many of my favorite musicians this year: NAO, Tei Shi, Gallant. Under-the-radar geniuses that I probably would have missed without a good music sherpa. In it’s best moments, Spotify understands my preferences better than I understand myself.

Upon my return from Europe, something had changed. I fired up Discover Weekly and… their predictions seemed desperate and inaccurate. Here was a bland funk remix. There was atonal indie rock dirge. Starving for data, my algorithm had started flailing.

Or. Perhaps it was passive-aggressively trying to teach me a lesson: “Here, want to disappear for a few weeks? Hey, I don’t care. Go on! While you’re at it, why don’t you check out this cool Puddle of Mudd B-side. And you like rap, right? Get on this hot Wiz Khalifa collab! Stupid idiots love it!”

I recently came across a video where kids from 2016 react to Tamagotchis, the toys from the mid-90s that tasked children with taking care of a baby alien. Every few minutes the Tamagotchi beeped to get your attention – to play, to eat, to poop. My friends and I spent about a month of fifth grade tending to our pixel babies. And then we moved on. I put my Tamagotchi in the dresser drawer next to my old folders and notebooks. It chirped, and it chirped, and then finally fell silent.

I thought, along with everyone else, that my Tamagotchi’s spirit died along with its nickel battery. Instead, like Obi Wan Kenobi, Tamagotchis became more powerful than we could possibly imagine. They are the invisible force that surrounds us, binds our millennial technology together. The buzz in our pocket, the iPhone notification, the email that begins “We noticed you haven’t logged in for awhile…”

The ghosts of our digipets, chirping away. They are hungry. We must feed them.

The fear feels like a lightness behind your eyes, as if your head wants to float up like a lost balloon and leave your fumbly, stumbly body for good.

You spent three years learning French out of a textbook, five years ago. The woman behind the bar asks you a question and you stand there terrified, mentally swiping left on every garbled response that enters your brain.

When you speak a new language out in the wild, you’re terrified of being misunderstood.

In fact, you will be understood better than ever.

In your second language, you will speak with more emotional clarity and honesty. There are two reasons for this:

1. Words are more than their definitions. Words are collective memories. Without the weight of history behind them, we toss heavy words lightly. We’ll use horrific curse words like monopoly money. We will call our taxi driver our dear friend and tell him it was a pleasure to meet him.

2.  Precision is the enemy of clarity. Large vocabularies obscure meaning. Which of these reviews of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic is more precise? Which is more clear about the author’s feelings?

“What The Epic does come to sound like, over the course of its significant running time, is a generational intervention—an educational tool that widens the definition of styles that fall under “jazz classicism.” With his writing for string sections and chorus, Washington even flirts with that most dreaded of appellations:smooth. But these specific choices also wind up paying dividends: The calmly spiritual voices and Washington’s wailing playing during the back half of “Askim” feels novel.”
Pitchfork review of The Epic

“The Epic sounds beautiful. I love it. I love listening to it. You should listen to it too.”
-My review of The Epic, as translated from my Spanish vocabulary.

The average native speaker knows twenty to forty-thousand words depending on their level of education. The average foreign language speaker knows around five thousand words. Who will be more more clear about how they feel? Who will be more direct about what they love? Who will sound more human?

(They will say)

“All things in moderation.”

No. No!

Moderation is dull stress, joint pain, compromise, boredom, homogenization, mediocrity. Carpel tunnel. Weak opinions. Dad bods.

No. All things in extremity. In small amounts. At random intervals. Sprints, not jogs. One square of the darkest chocolate, not a bar of Nestle.

We ignore the lesson that taps us gently on the shoulder every day. It is the moment that smashes us, breaks us, and ejects us into the atmosphere that travels alongside us forever. Not the daily bumps, but the rare stabs – deep enough to leave scars.

No, no things in moderation. Feast, then famine.

When you visit Paris, avoid The Louvre. Despite its reputation as the center (or centre) of high art, its massive size and dense crowds create an exhausting experience for many people. Unless you are an art student, a fan of indoor hiking, or a talented pickpocket, just skip it.

The Louvre’s biggest attraction and most upsetting experience is the Mona Lisa. Each day tens of thousands of people crowd into the room where the painting hangs behind bulletproof glass. Only the tall and persistent get more than a fleeting glimpse of the canvas. Most spy it only through the neck-and-shoulder gap of a tourist raising an iPad above their head, snapping a blurry memory that will surely last a lifetime.

Instead, wander the small streets around Rue Vieille du Temple in the Marais neighborhood, and explore as many of the contemporary galleries as you can. Seeing a breathtaking painting up close is an experience at once religious and deeply humanistic. Observe the way the paint rises and falls, smudges and streaks. What was a vivid figure standing before you becomes a series of a hundred million movements of a person’s hand. A marriage of intention and coincidence, perfectly arranged imperfection. Up close, you see the brushstrokes. You see the hand that made the brushstrokes. You see beyond the image that the paint depicts, you feel the fragility of the painter.

Go explore the world and look for the brushstrokes.

Attending a performance by Cirque du Soleil or a fight in the UFC is completely different from watching the televised broadcast. Up close you are overwhelmed by the sense of physical risk. Our notions of courage and harm are largely informed by images on screens. Rarely do we see people risk their life before us. Being in the room gives us a bigger thrill, yes, but also a more profound understanding of their talent and a deeper respect for their defiance of fear.

Since the printing press, reproduction has given us the incredible opportunity to spread our work to millions. Yet, each reproduction distances us from the creator. It is easy to forget about the artist, or worse, to idealize them. To imagine their ability as innate and not painfully, arduously earned. To assume their success was inevitable and not a series of daily skirmishes with doubt and fear. To view them as immortal and not laughably frail; people with sore wrists and gas and bouts of forgetting friends’ birthdays.

When we get close enough to see the brushstrokes, we restore humanity to the creator.

And only when we get close enough to feel their humanity do we understand their divinity.

Bury a body on the beach.

No one needs to know about it but you.

And when they find the bones washed up, the mystery will captivate them.

Chaz Bundick of the band Toro y Moi describes a body he buried in the lyrics of his song Half Dome. Toward the final chorus, he repeats the line:

Look at who you are beside

Again and again, the words lapping like waves. And on the final repetition, nearly inaudible:

Look at who you are beside

(No one)

What could he mean? Is this an illusion to a specific person in his life? An observation about the obliterating vastness of a walk in nature? A red herring to throw everyone off the trail?

When brought in for questioning by the Song Exploder podcast, Chaz offers his confession:

“Yeah, that was intentional. I threw it in there just because it’s fun. The Beatles would do that, just throw in random stuff that was inaudible. It’s for purposes like this, like ‘I found this, what is this?’”

He had no motive. In the midst of creative intention, a carefully obscured piece of nonsense will fascinate them, aggravate them, confuse them, inspire them.

Your art should be a bit weird, a bit inexplicable.

What is this? The question will drive them mad. In your next project, bury a body on the beach.