Skin in the Game—Staying Curious

“So, tell me. Why is this so hard?”

Silence. Eyes straight ahead. One student looks down at the lifeless jumprope stretched out in front of them.

“I’m curious. What do you need to do to get the entire class to jump the rope at the same time?”

Silence.

I spend most of my time on the road with my company, Creatively Independent, devising theatrical playgrounds, also known as residencies, for people of all ages to explore why and how they create art, right now, in this moment. We support failing gloriously and playing as if your life depended on it (because it does). And that requires finding and addressing your boundaries; your walls.

woman looking at art
“Awe” by the psychic eye, cc.

During this residency, eighteen students hit a wall. More aptly, a few of them hit the wall and the rest walked up slowly and pressed their noses to it.

They were trying to jump rope as an entire class for about twenty minutes. Energy was flagging. Each attempt took more planning and was given less effort. One student started barking orders and then surprisingly not following them.

A beautifully ridiculous task was becoming soul-crushing. The current education system was playing out right before our eyes.

“Why are you doing this exercise?”

“Because you said so,” one student said flatly amongst mixed faces of apathy, anger, confusion, embarrassment, and shame.

True. Chris, CI’s education director, and I set up the game, just like a playwright crafts a plot and characters, but now what? Why aren't the students putting in the game?

If I’m not asking why, I’m not fully in the moment. If I’m not curious about my art, my process, my identity, my community…I’m not living my life, I’m marking time.

Pause. Some of you may be thinking: Kids these days are so detached from the world and plugged into their phones. It’s almost impossible to get them to care!

I hear this a lot as clients lapse into frustration, teaching seemingly apathetic students who often check out or check list their assignments. The frustration is understandable, but the focus is all wrong.

P.S. Any statement starting with “Kids these days…” is condemning, not questioning. Only inquiry will provide growth. Plus, that phrase is ageist towards youth. Just like: “I’m not sexist (or racist or insensitive), but…” Yup. The words that follow will most likely be sexist (or racist or insensitive). If you're an adult working with youth, don't start that mental divide. You will begin to model the detachment you don't want.

This apathy isn’t an age thing. It’s a curiosity thing—or rather a depletion of it. The hard lean on training—“to form by instruction, discipline, or drill” (Merriam-Webster)—is pushing out a vital ingredient of growth for teacher, student, artist, and audience: curiosity.

In Rising Strong, Brené Brown champions curiosity:

Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty. It wasn’t always a choice; we were born curious. But over time, we learn that curiosity, like vulnerability, can lead to hurt. As a result, we turn to self-protecting—choosing certainty over curiosity, armor over vulnerability, and knowing over learning…

If I’m not asking why, I’m not fully in the moment. If I’m not curious about my art, my process, my identity, my community…I’m not living my life, I’m marking time.

How curious are you, right now? The quickest way to find out is to feel how amped or drained someone else’s curiosity makes you.

When someone asks you about your latest piece, does it start a waterfall of excitement spouting resources, more questions, and a long conversation full of tangents? Or do you get smaller, and shut down with curt answers that kill the thread?

Curiosity, like water, finds any crack, any hole to fill, by any means necessary. It’s designed to motivate. It is rebellious. It is boundless. It has a will of its own.

And it’s being dammed up by our education system and how we, as a society, treat children.

For someone floating in the flow of curiosity, other people’s inquiries aren’t draining, they’re exhilarating. Think of it as a rush of water adding to your own current.

But for those with walled-up curiosity, these outbursts of questions feel like drowning in the unknown. The ground you “know” has been covered in an instant. Gone! Masked or eroded by the unknown, the undiscovered.

“Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or, at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of a smart question nobody has thought to ask. It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant.”—Ian Leslie, Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It.

Let that sink in.

If your tendencies are to teach by the book, aim for straight A’s, audition for sure things, stay within your “type,” create art that guarantees to please…you don’t have skin in the game. You don’t have you in the game, your playfulness, your curiosity. You are doing it because deep down, whether it was yesterday or decades ago, someone told you to do it that way.

Come Back, Little Curiosity, Come Back

child peering down a hole in a playground
“Wonder” by Alive in Calgary, cc.

Curiosity is a part of the practice of sustainable artistry.

It’s a vital part of your DNA. If it feels distant, it’s not gone, it’s atrophied. Time to build it up, strengthen and stretch its limits. The only way to do that is to practice feeling it and then following that feeling, daily.

Ask yourself: "What would I follow down the rabbit hole, right now, if time, money, and energy weren't an issue?”

That little white rabbit, Alice, is what entices your curiosity. The subsequent journey will fill you will all kinds of goodies: joy, wonder, information, confusion, new tools, new relationships, new perspectives… Curiosity is your ticket out of the doldrums and into a truly unique wonderland of your making.

When's the last time you let yourself head on down the rabbit hole?

Do it. Then report back on how it goes and what it revealed.

Happy travels, rock stars!

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Thoughts from the curator

Jess Pilmore explores sustainable artistry by breaking down the starving artist myths and giving mindful support for blazing your own, flexible, dependable path.

Sustainable Artistry by Jess Pillmore

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A very thought provoking article...looks like I need to get started on that novel. :)

After a reading on Sunday night, an audience member started asking all these questions about one of my characters. She apologized saying, "I'm sorry, I think I asked all these at the last reading, too." And she had. But I was thrilled to revisit them and see where I had been led by following them. That was the whole reason I schedule a reading of my play-in-progress: I needed that jolt of everyone else's excitement and curiosity to remind me to keep exploring even as I drill down into this next important draft.

Thank you for reminding us how stay curious, especially in the face of educational systems that don't always encourage that.

Wonderful, Maggie. It takes a special act of vulnerability to stay open to questions, which starts a ripple effect of encouraging more prompts and what ifs to come your way. Good on you! Excited to hear what the next layer of your creative expedition uncovers. Keep us all posted!