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Spinning Plates


"motivation engineering or something similar

Intrinsic interest tracks something important.

Physicist Richard Feynman liked to tell a story about a point in his career when he felt dull toward physics, despite having loved it for so long. There was a part of him that felt it was a duty—that, given his early successes, he was expected to have brilliant insight, and to tackle only important, meaningful problems.

The result was a long period of ever-decreasing momentum as he pushed himself to live up to the perceived narrative. He finally broke out of the rut by deciding to focus on things that were intrinsically interesting, even if they seemed devoid of any clear, practical purpose. One day, he saw a man toss a plate into the air, and was fascinated by the way the plate wobbled in multiple dimensions as it spun.

The spinning plate engendered a kind of “serious play” in Feynman, which eventually led to Nobel Prize-winning insights and informed much of Feynman’s later philosophy about proper approaches to science and discovery.

At any given moment, we’re only aware of a tiny fraction of what our brains are tracking about the world. When we feel driven toward or curious about something, it’s often because our System 1 has a model of the world that makes that course of action look fruitful—it’s triggering a positive rating on our progress meter for some goal or another. That doesn’t mean, though, that we get to be aware of which goal is being tracked, or even how the urge is meant to fulfill it. Much of the work of Focusing or goal factoring or internal double crux is intended to draw those bits of information up into conscious awareness, but they’ll never work for everything.

If we ignore a particular curiosity because we don’t see the point of it, or if we think our efforts are better directed elsewhere and use System 2 to override the impulse, we’re essentially pitting willpower against motivation. Not only that, but we’re also blinding ourselves to the potential information hidden inside the should. It’s an unsustainable strategy, and it robs us of some of our minds’ greatest strengths, turning a coordinated push into a tug-of-war.

Instead of fighting the urge to investigate, we encourage you to embrace it—sometimes even when your reasoning tells you it’s a waste of time. This kind of living curiosity is incredibly valuable—it regrows motivation, brightens life, and often (as in the case of Feynman’s spinning plates) ends up furthering your explicit goals anyway, despite initial apparent irrelevance. If you think that a particular drive is genuinely misaligned with your goals, there are lots of tools in the CFAR toolkit to help you straighten out the disagreement. It’s always possible that your System 1 is mistaken

But if (after trying things like goal factoring and internal double crux) you find that your interest hasn’t wavered, consider the possibility that your System 1 might be on to something, even if you can’t articulate exactly what. Consider going along for the ride–more often than not, it will be fruitful in one way or another.


Regularly ask yourself what you find interesting, and make sure it's not being ignored.