Obsessive Curiosity & Uncompromising Idealism

Photograph by the late Tim Hetherington

Ingredients for Creating Things That Matter

When something interesting floats by in the world, I try to write it down before it evaporates.

I recently found some words scribbled in my notebook, captured on different days: obsessive curiosity and uncompromising idealism. I still don’t know what prompted me to write these down. Finding them was like stumbling into someone else’s journal.

These words, feel like many things in the universe, feel inexplicably connected. The more digging I did by studying the humans who embody these traits, the more I realized how intertwined they truly are.

First, how do we define obsessive curiosity?

I define obsessive curiosity as allowing our mind to tenaciously follow what it finds interesting. It requires us to hush the critical self-editor and naysayer in us, and, instead, get lost in the maze of own questions.

What is uncompromising idealism? 

I define this as standing up amidst extraordinarily challenging circumstances that deflate us, punch after punch. Like a blow-up yard Santa standing its ground through a hurricane. Uncompromising idealism happens when we remember that our attitude and outlook are choices.

Both obsessive curiosity and uncompromising idealism require the latent ability to refuse. To refuse to give up, blend in, be “normal” or align our thinking to the masses.

They also give leeway to allow. To allow for patience, risk, failure, stamina, loss and a surrendering to the unknown.

Both traits help us avoid the trap of living within the narrow specifications defined by others.

Obsessive curiosity and uncompromising idealism fuel the organizations, industries, movements, technology and inventions that shape our word.

A statement by Hebert Boyer from the documentary Something Ventured shows us what an obsessively curious mind can accomplish. Boyer is a scientist and researcher at heart. During his unyielding hunt for answers to his questions, he just so happened to jumpstart the field of genetic engineering and co-found a little company named Genentech. Boyer said,

“It wasn’t my goal to start an industry. My goal was to make sure the science got translated into an endeavor that was useful for people.”

Then I think of Tim Hetherington, an accomplished photojournalist and uncompromising idealist. Tim devoted his life to bringing forward and understanding the humans in war-torn countries. In the documentary Which Way is The Front Line from Here you can see him running alongside 14 year-old boys toting machine guns and seeking shelter from gunfire during the Liberian civil war. Tim had a sincere fondness for humanity and a passion for helping the world see the people—the human beings—behind the war headlines.

Tim was killed in 2011 during the Libyan conflict. He left behind an incredible legacy of work and one of the most profound statements I’ve ever heard. One that could only be spoken by an uncompromising idealist:

“Moral outrage is not a useful tool. Building bridges is.”

I’m drawn to people who live and breathe obsessive curiosity and uncompromising idealism. They have some important things figured out. They’ve figured out how to make it through life without drowning in the status quo, and they’ve learned to curtail their disgust, disappointment or dissatisfaction with "the way things are" by applying their passions to make an impact on the world.

The best part is, we can join them anytime! It is not a closed club—we just have to choose. Who we were yesterday does not preclude us from becoming someone different going forward. As Kurt Vonnegut said in Breakfast of Champions:

“History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again. Please write that down.”