On Fascination

If the story about Claude Shannon is true, as told by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman in A Mind at Play, a life of deep work can be largely a life of pursuing our curiosities. Shannon is known as the founder of information theory and as the founder of digital circuit design theory and one of the most influential geniuses of the 20th century.

A story similar to Shannon’s is told in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. Of course, Da Vinci is known for his art, but he was also an accomplished anatomist, architect and engineer. And not just on paper. In fact, Leonardo’s competencies are so many they’re embarrassing to list (see the wikipedia page).

Here are some interesting commonalities between Leonardo and Shannon. When Shannon was a kid, he was interested in tinkering, circus arts, Morse code, and math. When Leonardo was a kid, he was interested in nature and drawing. While these are activities that anyone could be forced to practice, they could equally be pursued as a matter of curiosity. And that appears to be how Shannon and Leonardo did it.

At some point, Shannon and da Vinci needed to monetize their talents. They were forced to work on things they didn’t want to. But they never gave up on what fascinated them. The objects of their fascination are what we remember them for. And they eventually served as the basis for their wealth and creative freedom.

I don’t think it’s a mistake to say that when people are looking for a passion to guide their careers that they might be in search of something that’s simply fascinating to them.

If you weren’t aware of being fascinated by anything, how would you look for an object of fascination? This is my best stab at answering the question,

  1. Don’t try to accomplish something. Instead, see what happens when you try something, and just keep trying things. We often punish ourselves be forming attachments to outcomes. Of course, this is normal. We depend on outcomes. But it’s contrary to building and sustaining an intrinsic interest and a love for what you’re doing. Accomplishment is fatiguing. Seeing what happens is exciting.
  2. If there’s something you want to try doing, don’t try to do it the right way. Try to do it the way that interests you. This is often how innovation occurs. da Vinci was fascinated with spirals and consequently came up with his own way of painting hair. He thought that the real world doesn’t have sharp visual boundaries, so he invented techniques for blurring boundaries and invented a legendary style, while making important observations about visual perception in the process.
  3. Avoid any form of accountability for the objects of your fascination. Do not sacrifice an intrinsic interest for extrinsic rewards or you’ll lose your fascination. Do not pursue approval or money, until you’re curiosity has moved on, or you need the money. Shannon worked on his breakthrough paper in information theory on his own clock and released it when he was ready, without anyone breathing down his neck. He went on to work on other curiosities, like artificial intelligence, just pursuing his curiosity.
  4. Do not be afraid that you are wasting your time on what fascinates you. There may be no better use of your time. It’s in the late night hobby projects and private obsessions that you express your unique individuality. One of the most excruciating life regrets is a failure to live according to one’s sense of personal identity. The time spent pursuing the objects of your fascination may be no truer expression of your individuality. This is how Leonardo became Leonardo, and not just Verrochio’s pupil. This is how Shannon became Shannon and not another student of Venevar Bush, or worse, a drone working on less imaginative puzzles.

There aren’t many more effective ways of feeling alive and inspired than doing things you’re truly interested in. Nor are there many better ways of cultivating self knowledge. When you do share what you’re working on, it will be one of the most effective ways of  letting people close to you know who you are.