Learning to be curious, not judgmental

If you’re not watching Ted Lasso, you need to get on it. Every episode (except for that weird dream-like sequence involving Coach Beard–just skip that one) is like a meditation on leadership, vulnerability, character, and relationship. This is the only show I’ve ever watched that will literally make you a better person. Not even kidding.

In the above clip, Ted wrongly quotes Walt Whitman as saying, “Be curious, not judgmental” (honestly, Walt Whitman wishes he said that). And proceeds to wipe the floor with Rebecca’s ex in a darts game because that is a lesson his opponent never learned.

If you are curious about people, if you enter into things wanting to understand and learn and hear, it’s pretty darn hard to judge them. (Almost) every story has its logic, (almost) every character can be sympathetic, (almost) everyone gets more tolerable with understanding.

My latest project is teaching me this very needed lesson.

I’ve long wanted to be a “real” writer.

I have published an academic book that frankly pained ME to read (it was also agony to write). It’s not exactly a bestseller, and the best thing anyone can say about it is a lone reviewer who says it’s “recommended.” Like, that is all it says. “Recommended.” Colonoscopies are also “recommended,” by the way.

But then I discovered more creative forms of writing could be joyous, liberating, healing. I found that putting something down on paper or screen robbed it of its power over me and instead unleashed the power of truth out into the world. I could take control of my narrative, I could slay my dragons. Especially if I could laugh about them. I started a motherhood blog while in the trenches of having babies, trenches that grew deeper and darker and threatened to swallow me. But I came through. Writing was my friend.

Then I decided I wanted to write the scariest story of all, mine. There are a few dragons in that story, not as terrifying and vicious as those in many other people’s, but they were my dragons. They knew all my weak points and secrets. If I was going to write it, it was going to be honest. I was going to lay things bare. I poured my heart into it. It was funny and sad and weird and upsetting and comforting and sometimes just kind of boring, really. I did it for me, and it brought me great joy. And then I thought, hey, this ain’t half bad. Maybe I could publish it. Maybe it will resonate with other people.

Long story short, the non-academic traditional publishing world is like the non-Instagram version of Disneyland, in which everyone is crying and waiting in interminable lines in the heat until they want to die. Fortunately, I’m at a place in my life and career where I am not crushed by rejection, which is a good thing because that is mainly what you get. First, I got rejected by a slew of literary agents, the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. Then, by some miracle, I found a literary agent who strangely adored my work (or at least made a good showing of it). She tried her best to sell my memoir to some publishers, and when they all said No, Nobody wants to read the story of a nobody, she cushioned the blow by claiming they would all like it better if it weren’t just my story. She suggested that maybe if I could write a bigger story, not just about myself but about other missionary kids (MKs), too, then she could get me a book deal. No promises.

At first, I wasn’t thrilled. For one thing, it meant writing basically a whole other book, although my story will be featured somewhat, and with no guarantees that that would get published, either. I do have a day job. But, I told myself, if I wanted to be a “real” writer, this was probably going to be my best if not only shot. I decided to take the plunge and began setting up interviews with as many missionary kids as I could find, as well as doing a bunch of other research as well.

Honestly, I don’t know what else will come of it, but I can tell you this–it’s making me a better person (along with Ted Lasso, of course). I think that’s probably enough of a reason to keep going.

I’ve never been a good listener. I can talk for-ever. And ever. Loudly. With lots of opinions. Lots of confidence (at least outwardly). I interrupt. I mansplain, and yes, women can mansplain, or at least one woman can, and that woman would be me. Even in foreign languages, it’s listening I struggle with. I’ve studied Swahili for years and years and I speak pretty fluently, yet I still don’t hear but half of what someone else says. My brain kind of rebels and shuts down. “We like to talk,” it tells me. “We only listen with minimal effort, much less than this sh** requires. We’re going to think about redecorating the bedroom while that person prattles on in this nonsense language.” I’ve considered pretending I am hearing impaired and having people just write everything down for me.

Now I am spending hours and hours listening to the stories and thoughts of my fellow MKs. They will say things that resonate, and I’m tempted to jump in with my story. I don’t. They say things sometimes with which I strongly disagree, and I’ll have the urge to tell them why they are wrong. I don’t. They’ll muse about something I am fairly certain I have figured out and consider enlightening them. I don’t. And honestly, it’s not that hard because I have a different mindset going in. I’m not there to educate or impress or influence anyone. I’m an investigator, a detective, a researcher. I just want to understand them. I want the information they have to offer. I want to get it right. I’m taking too many notes to formulate my own thoughts beyond just the next question.

It’s less about what I think than what they have to tell.

It’s less about opining than understanding.

It’s less about me than about them.

I’m learning to be curious, rather than judgmental. And in the process, I’m experiencing the kind of human connection I too often miss out on with the suffocating egocentrism with which we all live. I’m not entering into things with a position to defend or an agenda to pursue. I instead arrive just wanting to learn. To know rather than be known.

The funny thing is, the more I get to know them, the more known I feel, too.

Maybe I will disagree with some of their opinions and views. But I’ll do it after I’ve listened to them, honestly and earnestly. I’ll do it later, after mulling it over. Or maybe I’ll disagree with them in the moment, but it won’t stop me from wanting to know why they believe what they do or why they think the way they think.

Honestly, I’m having the best time. And I hope I am learning skills and ways of being I can carry into my other interactions.

So next time you and I head into a somewhat heated exchange, don’t be surprised if I pick up a notebook and pen and start furiously taking notes and peppering you with questions.

Trust me, it’s better that way.

You try it. Be curious, not judgmental.

3 thoughts on “Learning to be curious, not judgmental

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