Buzzing in a world of wonder at Tech

Photo by Blake Israel

So, you’re reading the paper, maybe enjoying a cup of coffee. Tech Green is lush. The air is crisp. It’s going to be a great semester. 

The buzz, however, won’t last. Around mid-semester (earlier for me), lethargy will seep in. When it’s happened in the past, I’ve tried to motivate myself with rewards.  Finish an assignment, watch a show. Study for a quiz, eat a cookie. Sometimes, I’ve brought out the disciplinarian, strapping myself to a chair and delivering the 30 lashes necessary to get through a project. Both approaches may work. But here’s another tool to add to the arsenal of sugar and chains: wonder.

Consider a child. They live in a recurring state of a surprise. The world unfolds, wonder after wonder. Every fly is a monster, every butterfly a marvel. Children can be tossed in the air or play hide-and-seek or see a magic trick ten times, and they’ll squeal, “again, again!” for another ten. Sure, at some point, we must put away childish things. But there’s a part in all of us that marvels at the wetness of water, at a sky full of stars and at ants marching up a hill. That part enjoys wonder.

What happened to that wonder? Essayist G. K. Chesterton quoted an observant colleague who said on the topic of education, “So many people have wonderful children and all the grown-up people are such duds.” Of course, Chesterton hadn’t visited Tech. But there is something to be said about schools that turn the excitement of “again, again!” into the lash of do-the-exercise-booklet “again, again!” Others have observed that our current “factory-model education system” was designed in the 19th century to churn out placid, compliant workers on the assembly line. 

 In such a system, we are rewarded for giving good answers, not asking great questions. We are trained to be poor imitations of Google, drilled to regurgitate answers that can be easily found online, even though asking great questions is one of the few tasks Google cannot perform. A baseline foundation of knowledge is, of course, necessary for a well-rounded education. Yet, when’s the last time a teacher asked, “What question is burning inside you?” No, we’re mostly graded on our ability to apply the quadratic formula, to identify the role of mitochondria (spoiler alert: the powerhouse of the cell), to locate state names on a map. A few teachers might have gone so far as to stifle our curiosity. I’ve had my fair share of being chided for asking “too many questions” (though in my case, the reprimands were probably deserved). Such treatment turns inquisitive children into mice in a cage, conditioned to drink from the drip bottle of knowledge and to run laps on the taskmaster’s wheel.

But the most pernicious obstacle to experiencing wonder may not be what you expect. I only recently learned of its source. In describing Charles Dickens’ work, Chesterton (again) says that humility is the “only possible basis for enjoyment.” That what Dickens expresses so prolifically throughout his writing is “an experience of primeval innocence, which wonders at all things.” If the antidote is humility, then the poison is pride. When do I feel the most resentful, the least at awe or so “over it”? When I’m sitting upon a throne of judgment, looking down at the peons and molehills that I once so admired. It’s when I believe I inherently deserve better than my current situation that I grumble. Grumble about the food, the workload, the commute, the weather — any target works just as well.

But I recall an afternoon about one year ago when I received my admission decision from Tech. My wife and I both misread the email – I hadn’t gotten in. Upon a closer read, we both whooped and hugged and danced on our office carpet. I also remember my first steps across Tech Green. The verdant earth seemed to open before me, the sun shone on my arm and the skyline of mid-town Atlanta offered itself on a silver platter. I felt so lucky to join this elite institution among some of the brightest and most energetic students in the country. At some point, you may have felt this too. 

But when a privilege becomes a norm, it’s easier for me to fall under the temptation of entitlement, and a sense of entitlement makes all things dull. We can still reclaim our sense of wonder. Here are a few ways to get started: 

1. Change “I have to” to “I get to”: Each day, when you write your to-do list, shift your mindset from these are the things I have to do,  to these are the things I get to do. Instead of “I have to do my physics homework,” now “I get to improve my physics skills and knowledge at one of the best schools in the country.” Instead of “I have to look for internships,” consider “I get to look for dream jobs at dream companies, or at least take my first steps towards them.” It’s a small shift in language. But it’s a giant change in perspective. Once you realize that the world is full of exploitable opportunities and that you are an active participant in exploring and shaping your life at one of the world’s top training grounds, you stir up the old feelings of adventure you used to know. 

2. Favor questions over answers: No matter what I say, you’ll still predominately focus on seeking good answers. Because questions won’t help you solve your calculus problem. Or will they? I’ve found, that in tackling any difficult issue, the first step is, in fact, to write out all the questions I have about it. I give myself seven minutes to write everything that I would need to know in order to solve the puzzle. In doing so, I’ve just deconstructed complex issues into bite-size steps, which even I can follow. Notice how a paper is nothing other than a series of paragraphs that answer smaller questions (e.g., who, what, when, where, how, why) of a bigger question set
(usually the big Why). You can apply this approach to whatever field you’re in.

3. Contemplate your : Whether you subscribe to a faith system or not, you will in fact
be eternal. 

Even if you don’t believe in a spiritual afterlife, your physical body will long endure, its constituent atoms reorganized and recycled into the earth  (cue Lion King’s “Circle of Life”). 

For those that do believe in the afterlife, you know that your soul is everlasting. If this is true, then as C. S. Lewis points out, the people we interact with daily — the driver of the Stinger
shuttle, the lady at the Blue Donkey cafe who makes your delicious iced coffee, and yes, even your professors — are no mere mortals. It is immortals that we play with, study with, sneer, exploit. 

Empires will fall, constitutions will crumble and scientific revolutions will be overturned, but your soul will endure.  In that case, you may have your five- and ten-year plans. But have you considered making your 10,000-year plan? Eternity would suggest we live in a way that helps us realize our best one million-year-old self and beyond and to treat our immortal neighbors likewise. 

Do these things (among others), and before long, you’ll revive that familiar playmate of wonder. You may still have too much homework and the occasional bad professor, and look — there’s nothing we can do about the commute on I-85. But exercise wonder, and you’ll find yourself, even on long commutes, looking about the world with fresh eyes again and again.