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323: Bringing Back Wonder to Your Life

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Buck: Welcome, everybody. My guest today on Wealth Formula Podcast is Dr. Frank C. Keil, PhD. And he is the Director of Cognition and Development Lab at Yale University. He’s also the author of a recent book called Wonder: Childhood and the Lifelong Love of Science. Well, first of all, welcome to the show, Frank. 

Frank: Thanks very much. I’m here to hear what you had to say. 

Buck: Yes, the reason I thought this was a relevant show is we talked a little bit offline. I think we talk a lot about wealth and personal finance, but a lot of it ends up being like how do you balance that and how do you you mentioned you had a position some hardworking professionals and how do you balance that and how do you look back at your life and try to enjoy it a little bit? Right? And that’s why your topic seemed very interesting to me. Why do you study what you do? 

Frank: Well, I’ll tell you why. I studied wonder. That’s what the books about. And I do a lot of different things. But that’s a big focus recently. And one of the reasons is because it is incredibly satisfying thing to do and we’re wired to wonder. One of the great discoveries of last 20 or 30 years of scientific research is that children, even before they can speak, infants are out there making inquiries about the world to their explorations, and they’re trying to understand the answers to why and how questions, not just the facts, but why and how questions. This is a ferocious desire to learn how the world works. And by the time they go to age four to five, some kids are asking up to 100 questions a day. The crazy thing is that most kids, once they start school, they plummet to two or three questions a day. If that this amazing drop, not everyone. A few people keep it alive and keep planning it in the black. Tremendous, intellectually exciting lives of wonder. And it doesn’t matter in the profession. It’s just a cognitive style. You can’t get stomped out of it. The book is about how this happens and how we can stop it, because it doesn’t cost anything to wonder. Wonder is immensely fulfilling. You’ve listened to watch the Great Polymath and other scientists, and they’re non scientists. Often the last thing they want to do in their life is learning more about how the world works. I can give lots of examples. 

Buck: You talk a little bit about the wonder and obviously there’s a part of the thesis is that this wonder in general, this joy first of all, describe that for me. What exactly is wonder? 

Frank: It’s very important to get my meaning clear because there are very different meanings over the centuries. What I mean is something that’s sort of a blend of people like Rachel Carlson and Richard Feynman, it means a true delight in the complexity of the world and an eagerness to explore it’s, not being stupefied in kind of a helpless awe, we go, Oh, wow, I can’t understand that. It’s too amazing to begin. It’s just the opposite. Why is that interesting? I want to explore that. So it’s a weird combination of intellectual humility and boldness. Boldness is daring because you want to think about it humility because really, you know, and I think that’s what’s so special about it, the unusual combination. And that’s the way I mean it. And that’s the way kids show it early on. They’re very excited to learn, but they also know they don’t know. 

Buck: So let’s just in general, if you had to generalize how children’s cognitive dispositions are different from adults, how would you? 

Frank: I don’t think they’re as different as I think the kids were locked into earlier stages, but they didn’t have the computational or representational hardware that we do that’s pretty much form away, and it doesn’t seem to be true. What may be true is that they’re not so cynical and worried about what people think of them. So they’re not as into social comparison. So if they look silly, they don’t mind and they haven’t figured out that what they say might actually hurt them. It doesn’t really, but they start worrying about that. And so I think they’re just a little bit more exuberant cognitively. I don’t see any major limitations. Young kids besides simply knowledge and experience, which we get them lots of good parents. What that means in your parents is you want to join us with them. You want to tell them what to know. Because we don’t know either. We want to be partners. Wonder is a social activity. It’s not just lone rangers out there thinking about the world. Almost all the great scientists for social beings. It’s interacting with others, trying to discover things together and creating great new insights.

Buck: Can you drill down a little bit on this idea that maybe this is I’m presuming from what you’re saying right now, that your thought is that largely the shift away from this wonder from childhood is largely a societal phenomenon. Not necessarily. That it’s hardwired. 

Frank: Yes, that’s exactly right. We know it isn’t because of a number of people who don’t shift down and lose the wonder. I also talked about something like about Finland and how they completely revamped their school system really radically. It took them 1015 years to do it, but they made teaching one of the most elite, challenging professions you could have and respected it, and they put much less stress on the value. And kids are more on independent exploration. And their pizza scores, international science ability scores soared among the top in the world. It’s a very interesting letter on this. It’s not perfect, and people make this kind of quasar religious Pokemon to learn their secret, but it’s darn good. So that’s an example of how culture can shift. Other ones do it more demandingly through exams and studying 20 hours a day with tutors. That’s not what I recommend at all. I want to be spontaneous, choice not to make them to hate. 

Buck: You feel like there’s a correlation between the joy of learning and this sort of wonderment and curiosity of the world. Is it correlated to happiness in children? 

Frank: I think so. That’s not been proven. That’s not an empirical happiness is so hard to define. It’s a little tricky. But let me give you an example. When you wonder about something, you’re sharpening your lenses and I see the world. I’ve been really working with some students in a seminar how to understand Natural phenomenal to spring. What happens there? Bird song, brain nuclei swell, it seems to how does it happen? How do certain plants break through the frost? And when I go outside looking around in me at spring, it is such a richer experience than you saw before. I’m seeing a 3D technical kind of world. Look for black and white, gray, fuzzing one. So I use the metaphor sharpening lenses. Who wouldn’t want to have a more crystal clear, more technical lens in the world? That’s the one that brings you because it gives you deeper interpretive structures. I think it’s incredibly fun. I actually make a point with my students to say if you’re not learning something new once a month or even changing your mind about something which you thought was pretty important, you’re not working hard enough because you can’t know things that well. You should be really working. You should target and evaluate yourself. That may sound ambitious, but once you get the habit, it’s very easy.

Buck: Is there examples? I’m still curious about this ability for people to potentially carry that or resurrect that kind of joy into adulthood. Because I feel like in thinking about talking to you today, I know what you’re referring to because I remember it as a kid to a certain degree. I think I even remembered it being a little bit older kid, but I was a little bit more of as you would describe, as a polymath. 

Frank: She went to the gauntlet too. You were a board certified surgeon. And a few things will stamp out Wonder faster than that. Six or seven years of fellowships and residencies doing 70 hours weeks. So you’re pretty resilient to come out of that. And what I think you need to do is ask, why am I doing this? There’s a lot of work on motivation. Did I come into this just to get a title or to earn a lot of money? No, I didn’t, because I wanted a lifestyle where I could explore and learn and grow. We also need a tool to enable you to think in some way it’s nothing. And so Wonder is, I think, one of the most hashtag things we can do. And it’s not hard to grow it. If you have children or, you know, children, don’t ask them fact questions. Ask them why I have questions and confess them your own ignorance. Ask open ended questions. Don’t say questions. Have yes and no answers. Have ones like us in the library and do it as a team. So I remember as a kid, a friend, his parents, every dinner with pose. He’s really fun. So brain tastes known to the answer to not us, not them, anybody. We puzzle them. My parents didn’t show the same thing, but they’re a bit more valued. Some of us much are open ended and I love that. So they’re activating new with kids. You can talk to them a certain way. You can find science teachers who are inspirational rather than evaluational. I had a science teacher as a child who just blew me away. He told everything. That history, science. So he taught about internal combustion engines, which at that point were the car engine from the evolution of explosive of chemicals back in China and firecrackers to cannons to steam engines into the whole chronological story how it came together to make piston engines and about the same time as a traditional sciencecript. And it made so real so fast and so human. And I remember every lesson he took as a kid in the fourth and fifth grade. And those kinds of teachers can make a difference. So if you see them, grab behind them and hold on for your kids. 

Buck: I’m curious in terms of if this is a change that’s caused by society rather than being hardwired. Are there other cultures? 

Frank: Well, I mentioned defense culture. The opposite cultures would be those that are so intense on evaluations and testing. And by the way, I’m not against standards testing. I think we have to get a sense of merit. There’s a whole other issue. I’m not excellent, but I read on a lot I do with merit and economic strengths. I’m sure, you know, read about this. So I think it’s a complicated issue. But if kids feel they’re being evaluated the only reason they’re learning is to get a lot wrong. That stifles motivation. Motivation has to be thing I want to do is because I do it not because of external reward. I want to learn because it’s fun and I have a richer life experience. So if you are in a culture where achievement is important and it’s a meritocracy, you can have that. But you have to also remind them that part is just the joy of learning. It’s a tricky balance. I don’t mean to underestimate. You went to good schools. I went to good schools. You have to work very hard and do well known standardized tests. But you have to ask, Why am I doing this? Your parents have to take the right attitude. 

Buck: But also I think there is in some respect and I’m sure you’ve addressed this but there’s almost a little bit of a negative feedback loop sometimes when you start associating those years in your life where all you did was study stuff like that and becomes sort of rather than something of wonder becomes something of a job. 

Frank: Mark Lepper, a psychologist, a standard years ago, wrote a paper called Turning Play Into Work. And that’s what you can do. Any kind of external reinforcement, whether it be money or praise or gold stars, is really a dangerous thing to do because people say, Why am I doing this for that reward? Not because I like it. They’re paying me to do this. It must be really wretched if I do this. So it’s okay. You can get around that. But you have to take the mindset, I would do this anyway. Isn’t it great that I also get paid? And you have to kind of rethink while you’re doing it and think about, do I really love to do this? And keep reminding yourself of that. That’s a very important way of thinking about it. And parents can help. People can help remodels. 

Buck: How has technology impacted wonder? Obviously, when you’re talking about children who may not even be of reading age or whatever, that’s a big question. 

Frank: I think it’s a huge issue. I have a section of the book on this where I talk about the kids of today. The teenagers may be losing all sense of the mechanisms undergrad or reality. For example, I had a 1963 Triumph Spitfire, which was a beautiful, wonderful car but always broke down. But I know every piece of that car because you could buy a thin manual like a thin phone book and see every single part. It has no transistors because the radio is broken. Now, a Mazda Miata, which is about the same size today, has several billion transistors. Everything’s, in this case, in these blocks of silicon, you can’t see a thing. I have a class of seniors I taught this spring, Yale seniors. I think the best thing they could do in my classrooms mechanics, was change the tire. Most of them couldn’t. Change is higher than a car in my high school generation. They could take about everything. So the world is becoming a mechanism desert in terms of easy inspection. Whether it’s toasters, which are now all solid state or light bulbs or anything used to be easily transparent to how it works is all disappearing. And that’s one of the great engines of wonder having a working vocabulary, basic mechanism. If you don’t know some idea of the basic machines that even the Greeks knew about and how they make the world walk along you just skating the surface, you’re in deep trouble. Kids think they can code, and that’s what they’re doing instead. But they can’t code, most of them. You talk to people in Silicon Valley and these kids usually come out knowing sort of how to use operating systems but not the basic coding. So I think we’re losing the battle. If we’re not careful. We’re getting basically kids who can’t do very well. They say, Oh, I’ll just Google it. But they don’t know how to Google. They don’t know where to look. They don’t know how to evaluate fake news and real news. I think it is actually a very important topic, and we cannot abandon this assuming just look things up. Google is empty if you don’t know what you’re looking for. 

Buck: Yeah, it is one of those things. I think it’s curious to me because, on the other hand, obviously you have the ability to if you have access to a computer or a smartphone or whatever, you actually learn about things, all sorts of things that if you wanted to when I was in elementary school, we’d have to hit the stacks and microfiche and all that. 

Frank: The key word is all sorts of things. What happens today is you get misdirected. So much for the software, and it’s designed to send you to extremes to get you to be clickbased. So try to look up something about health. Try to look up whether vitamins are good for you, which mostly almost 95% of the vitamins people take out a section of the book on this are completely on you during your dietary they’re simply unnecessary. It’s a huge multibillion dollar economy, and people are unable to die at that because they go through Google with our sophisticated lens, without any sense of how things work, any sense of biological mechanisms, of ceiling effects, they get lost. And it’s whether it’s global warming or health is the most in case. It’s an enormous part of our economy, and most people have the most distorted or impoverished by claims. 

Buck: How can you restore Wonder? Or can you practice strengthening Wonder?

Frank: I did this with seniors and Wonder, and I made them come up with something that they haven’t thought about ever and learn about it. So how do birds sing songs? Turns out they don’t have vocal cords. They have this thing called shrinks where they have two little muscular systems. They can actually do duos and one throat, and they have a whole different way that’s evolved. And so when they learn that, they just come alive. And every week they have to make a 510 minutes presentation. That’s what they’ve never thought of before, and then talk about how it’s changed. And almost all of them fun is incredibly rewarding and fun, and then they start taking on more and more. So you just get people to practice that. You pose questions. Best of those questions you’ll be answered to. So next time you talk to you have kids? 

Buck: I do. I have three little 13, nine and seven. Very curious. 

Frank: Ask them questions at dinner. Ask some questions, but you know the answer to so many fascinating things. I have a girl who’s the granddaughter who’s extremely curious, and she’s made me learn all sorts of things I’ve done before. 

Buck: Yeah, it’s fascinating stuff. So I’m curious also in your adult, tell me a little bit about the studies that you’ve done. I’m curious if you give us some examples of since we do have sort of a scientific bend. 

Frank: I’ll start with some very young ones because this is one of the studies we did. Others have done similar studies. It just blew me away. It’s a little hard to describe, so I’ll go a little slow. I’ll give you a metaphorical case. I want to precise dimensions if you want. Imagine you come into a room and everything is strewn all over the place. It’s a complete mess. It’s like your adolescence nightmare. All the toys, all the clothes is being messed. And now you see a ball rolling to the room and the ball leaves. It’s a dynamic ball. It’s all suddenly ordered. You think that would be crazy if you saw a very newly ordered room and you saw a big huge medicine ball rolling around come out and it’s a mess. That makes sense. So you can go from order to disorder with either an animated agent or an innovative agent, but you can only go from disorder to order with an anime agent. We created those scenarios in videos with kids who couldn’t speak. Eleven months old and they would be shocked when a ball could create a totally unsurprised when intentional agent could. It’s almost like the idea about entropy. And only intentional agents can create order. And they get this at some intuitive level and replicated in some other labs before they can even speak. That’s probably the most profound example. We did a lot of work on that. We done work with three and four year olds showing their most fascinating mechanism. Not by facts, not by even function, but they want to know the clockworks. That’s what they find the most satisfying, that’s they think is the most interesting and most sustaining. They think that someone who has their knowledge has the most power to make generalization somewhere about other things. They get it. And so we do lots of studies on that. What kind of information your kids find attractive? What can they learn the most from and what context is it most problem? One of it is the social context. We’ve done work on cooperation versus competition and argument. Arguing to win versus argument to learn. In too many cultures, people think the only point of arguments is what lawyers do. We’re trying to smash the other guys, but arguments are incredibly powerful vehicles to learn. In Cooperating, I have lab meets once a week. We argue all the time, but it’s not to beat the other person, it’s to build something by stress testing each other’s ideas. I think the most successful companies and corporations, venture capital, they’re always arguing, but not to destroy each other, but to try to figure out what are the weaknesses and probe and figure out how nice things got to be done. And that’s a mindset thing that you can do. And we have data on that show that you can reduce one kind of mindset versus other make a huge difference. Does that make sense? 

Buck: Yeah, absolutely. Well, good stuff, Doctor Keil. This has been really fun. Again, the book is Wonder Childhood and the Lifelong Love of Science. I know it’s available on Amazon and I assume the rest of the usual outlets. 

Frank: Yes, it’s everywhere. Kindle and also hard copy. I give cukudos to my artist who makes an artist at the press publisher. Gorgeous cover. So I recommend the hard copy. 

Buck: Yeah, good. And it’s obviously written in a manner where you don’t have to have a significant science background, you have to have some wonder, right? I mean, that’s really what it comes down. 

Frank: I think you’ll find it rewarding if you’ve never had a word of psychology, as long as you read it with care and interest and you can learn more about the world. We all should. It’s universal. 

Buck: Thanks for coming on Wealth Formula Podcast, Dr. Keil.

Frank: Thank you very much for having me. 

Buck: We’ll be right back.