Let Curiosity Lead | Yara Shahidi | TED
Curiosity is a powerful tool that can help us to continue to build new worlds and find our place in it. In a TED Talk by Yara Shahidi, she reflects on her childhood filled with time travel and adventures, and how her imaginative and creative forces were slowly replaced by the demands of adult life. Yara shares her experiences of being told by academic advisers and entertainment professionals that her multiple interests, passions, and jobs were incompatible, and how she almost let their words stop her.
However, Yara persevered and continued to pursue both her acting career and her college education, recognizing the importance of prioritizing her curiosity. She emphasizes the culture of expertise that often mislabels our curiosities as distractions and the need to actively prioritize curiosity in our lives.
Yara shares how curiosity has been a lifeline for her, especially in a world filled with flaws and fissures. She acknowledges that while it’s easy to feel affected by these flaws and struggle to find one’s place, embracing and recommitting to curiosity has brought her joy and lessons from unexpected places.
Through her experiences at Harvard, in entertainment, and beyond, Yara learned valuable lessons about the subjective nature of universal truths and the potential for academics and entertainment to demonstrate alternate realities. She encourages others to embrace curiosity and resist the pressure to conform to narrow expectations of expertise, ultimately advocating for curiosity as a tool for personal growth and positive change.
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Do you remember how big the world felt when we were younger? Because my childhood was filled with time travel and adventures. I sat in awe of how flowers grew from a simple seed. I remember looking up at the sky and wondering: Was the Earth moving? Was the sun moving? Or was I moving?
And I filled the rest of the time by reading books about fantasy lands. But slowly, the time travel and adventures of my youth became using my GPS to figure out how much traffic I’d inevitably be sitting in. The flowers became the screen saver to my laptop I spent way too much time on.
I only saw the sunrise when pulling all-nighters to get work done. And those fantasy lands, well, those became essays and articles from underfunded newspapers. And yes, some of this is just a part of growing up, necessary even. But I realized the imaginative and creative forces that drove me
Had less and less space to thrive in my young adult life. And in being forced to look at the world as it is, I was missing out on the opportunity to look at the world as it could be. Now more than ever, we live in a world that requires of us an imagination
So that we can envision what could be different. And while I didn’t come prepared today to answer the world’s largest problems, I would like to make a case for how one tool can help us continue to build new worlds and find our place in it. Curiosity.
I don’t have any fancy graphs to show you all today, but I would like to think that I’m sort of an expert in the field as my entire life has been a case study in following my curiosities. It started super simple. My grampy and I would reimagine and act out
The entire saga of The Odyssey with my Polly Pocket dolls, as one does at the age of four. And around the age of five, I asked for every religious book, I mean every religious book. Fast forwarding to 13, I read my first short story from the formidable James Baldwin,
And my life was forever changed. Needless to say, I was grateful to be surrounded by a community of people that honored my interests. But as I got older, I began to get confronted by a big question: Are you sure about that? Now this was a question I really could not escape.
In August of 2018, right as I was embarking on my next adventure. I was beginning my freshman year at Harvard right as my television show “Grown-ish” began filming season two. And I was at a crossroads, because acting for me has been more than a career. It’s given me permission to explore my fantasies.
I feel like I gain another level of empathy every time I step into a different character’s shoes. But my education has been equally as pivotal. Because my education has fulfilled my endless desire to know: to know places, to know the events that have shaped us, the communities that have built us,
The obstacles that have tried to stop us, the mistakes that haunt us. But selfishly, to know about myself and my place in the world. So my two lifelong passions were colliding, and I was being told by academic advisers and entertainment folk alike — although no one on my team —
That there was no symbiotic relationship between the two worlds. I was searching for an “and,” but I kept getting presented an “either-or.” And I almost let those five words — “Are you sure about that?” — stop me. But let me cut to the chase. I’m speaking to you now as a Harvard alum
With a television show going into its sixth season. It’s cool. And while my college predicament may have been unusual, I do think this experience is quite universal. Because, one, I’m far from the first person to go to school while working. But also I’d go so far as to say all of us juggle multiple interests, passions and jobs.
Yet there comes a moment on our paths where we’re expected to get serious, to find our one thing, stick to it. We’re told that our multiple areas of interest that we are equally drawn to are incompatible. And hit with that all-too-familiar “Are you sure about that?”
Suddenly we go from being expected to know math and a language, science and history, to operating in this narrow silo for the sake of becoming an expert or really good at one thing. I mean, think about how many times we ask each other the question, “What do you do?”
Which is really a proxy in my mind for a much more pressing question, “Who are you right now?” Because what we do is only a fraction of who we are. And this culture of heralding expertise means that our curiosities are often mislabeled as distractions.
I would love to think through what we could be missing out on by not actively prioritizing our curiosity. Here, let me put it this way. Curiosity has been a lifeline for me. It’s really easy to be 23 and a pessimist. It doesn’t take many observational skills
To see the deep flaws and fissures of our world, to see how close we remain to these systems of oppression we swear are behind us. And when I say I feel affected by these flaws, I’m not just talking about some existential “I have a degree in a social science” kind of way,
But in the very real way that it affects me and my family and my community every day. It’s also easy to be 23 and struggle to find your place. I remember so vividly being 16 and thinking that I could change the world. I was certain of it. I was one voting initiative away.
I was one march away, I was one panel away from real change, the kind that lasts. And I remember when that assuredness was replaced by quicksand. It felt as though the more I moved and the more I struggled, the more I sank into the overwhelm.
And I responded to feeling lost by finding comfort in my expertise, hiding behind this false sense of certainty, I really acted like I knew everything there was to know. I was suppressing my curiosity, but I realized that made it so much easier to pick apart every potential decision rather than take action.
Now while I can’t speak for everyone’s experiences, from conversations I’ve had with my peers and my mentors, I know this feeling isn’t relegated to being 23. Choosing to take on both college and entertainment at the same time, blending my two worlds, was a necessary recommitment to my curiosity.
I found such a joy in discovering just how much I didn’t know. Lessons came from everywhere: classes like hip-hop sampling, on how neo soul and blues became the basis to a new sound taught me how media can be used as a way of preserving legacy,
As a way of bringing past cultures into the present. Playing Tinker Bell gave me permission to reignite my imagination. My class on W.E.B. Du Bois is where I discovered the name for our television production company, 7th Sun. And building a television set and writers’ room gave me the ability to practice equitable hiring
Within an archaic system in real time. And in an independent study created by Dr. Cornel West, I learned my biggest lesson of all. See, there are certain elements of our society that we deem as universal, immovable truths, when they’re, in fact, subjective. Not only are they subjective,
They’re oftentimes responsible for these systems of oppression, for these dangerous misconceptions about people, for this feeling of stuckness, this feeling like nothing can change. And to me, these universal truths can range from everything as big as socioeconomic exploitation to that “Are you sure about that?”
That stops you from going off on your own and exploring. Conversely, this means academics and entertainment are most potent in their abilities to demonstrate alternate realities. This lesson reinvigorated my love for these two spaces because I realized they’d always been primed for imagination and exploration
And gave us the ability to explore what can blossom from curiosity. This perspective shift taught me that I was thinking too small because I thought the task at hand was to merely alter these systems at play rather than to imagine entirely new ways of being. Because the results of curiosity are immeasurable.
From Galileo’s reordering of the universe to how the musician Prince undefined masculinity for generations. And oftentimes these discoveries can jeopardize past ways of thinking. I like to call the change that emerges from blossomed curiosities rupture. If tradition is this result of repetition, then rupture is the introduction of something fresh.
It’s bridging together two spaces often kept separate for the sake of achieving new ends, and it’s of insisting that there are possibilities outside of the ones we’ve been presented with. But too often dreaming is relegated to the academy and to Silicon Valley, and to all of these exclusive institutions.
When it is in fact the daily curiosities of every one of us that holds the most potential for rupture. Now if you aren’t convinced just yet that you are a universe-shifting change maker, then it is my duty as a history nerd to remind you
That most of these leaders of these social change movements that we credit with giving us the world that we live in today, change was not their day job. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was a preacher paying attention to the works of Gandhi across the ocean while reading Tolstoy.
But I also think of my own papa, who used his position within education to enfranchise Black children in Madison, Wisconsin. I think of my cousin, Anousheh Ansari, who went from looking up at the stars in Iran to flying to the space station.
I think about the protesters in Iran led by women and children, putting their lives on the line because they’re curious about what a society looks like that values women, life and freedom. Now if it isn’t clear, do you know what the byproduct of curiosity is? Possibility, surprise! Now I’ve graduated from Harvard, and my television show is ending. And a couple of years ago, this really would have terrified me to leave two spaces that I know so well. But because I’ve built a life centered on honoring my interests, everything from the glockenspiel to Octavia Butler,
I walk excitedly towards what’s next because I know somewhere between the two lies my next adventure. Chasing curiosity means that my purpose is constantly unfolding in front of me. All I have to do is pay attention. And similarly, each and every one of us have a special set of interests
That are totally unique to us, like a thumbprint. So please join me in recommitting to curiosity. Because honoring your so-called distractions is an act of creating. It’s to sit in the grandeur of all of our options. It’s to acknowledge our infinite possibilities when the world tries to convince us it is indeed finite.
So refuse to let your world get smaller, and let’s build new futures together. Thank you.
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Video “Let Curiosity Lead | Yara Shahidi | TED” was uploaded on 01/16/2024 to Youtube Channel TED