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Productive Curiosity: How Passion Projects Lead to Serendipity (and Why You Should Spend Your Attention Wisely)

Mitchell Wilson


Mitchell Wilson


Sep 19, 2023

Productive Curiosity: How Passion Projects Lead to Serendipity (and Why You Should Spend Your Attention Wisely)

"Everybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves." - Adam Phillips

I love to ask people, “What are you most interested in at the moment?”.

It tends to unearth more fascinating conversations than the typical “What do you do?” because your day job doesn’t typically have much to do with what you’re deeply curious about.

Plus, people light up when they have the chance to speak about what they care for in their spare time.

The more you can lean into your interests, the more alive you feel. The more alive you feel, the more likely you are to stumble upon magic.

Who doesn’t want more magic in their life?

Cognitive Surplus

You likely have a few extra hours each day outside of your obligations.

If you don’t believe me, just go check out your screen time stats.

Similar to return on investment, we need a better return on our attention.

As the great stoic philosopher, Epictetus once said, “You become what you give your attention to.”

This cognitive surplus we each have is an incredible gift of modern times that, if not taken advantage of, can go largely untapped.

It’s so new to our species that most people don’t even know what to do with it. They let Netflix and algorithms decide. They leave it up to fate.

This is unproductive and leaves you with nothing to show for it.

2 hours a day on your phone is one full month a year!

Imagine if this time was spent wisely. Imagine if you created more than you consumed.

Imagine if you added value to society, in a way that you deeply care about.

Instead of feeling drained, it actually provides energy.

Curiosity as Fuel

If you have a pulse, you’re interested in something.

We’ve all got our rabbit holes. Those books we can’t put down, the podcasts we play on every drive, and the videos we can’t get enough of.

When you find those topics and ideas you’re curious about, there’s an endless resource of energy available to you. 

Your soul wakes up. You drop into a flow.

If you’re wanting to combine this renewable resource of curiosity with your cognitive surplus, you’ll want to choose a specific direction to move in.

You don’t want to spin your wheels and waste the precious gift of time. 

As Nietzsche puts it, “There is no drearier, sorrier creature in nature than the man who has evaded his own genius and who squints now towards the right, now towards the left, now backwards, now in any direction whatever.”

I felt a directional tug one February night when I was high and catching up on a psychedelic email listserv for graduate students.

The people were great. The content was great. But email listservs? Come on now. Email threads are already messy. Add a thousand people and you can only imagine the chaos.

I had the idea of improving upon this crucial component of the psychedelic research space. “There’s got to be a better way to do this”, I told myself.

And so it began, my passion project of Psychedelic Grad - a community for up-and-coming psychedelic professionals to share resources, give advice, & connect with colleagues.

Ideas are Easy

There’s no shortage of good ideas in the world. The hard part is bringing them into reality and making them real. 

Thomas Edison nailed it on the head when he said, “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

For the Psychedelic Grad project, I had to throw on my Maker hat and get to moving.

It’s productive curiosity at its finest.

Since I care so deeply, it feels like there’s no limit to the amount of energy I can dedicate to the project.

You just need to follow your interests long enough until you find a specific project you can pour the fuel of curiosity onto.

Serendipity Pending

Continue to use your cognitive surplus wisely while applying your curiosity and it’s only a matter of time before the magic begins.

Stick with it long enough and you’ll start to witness serendipity.

You’ll meet super interesting people that you otherwise would have never crossed paths with.

Psychedelic Grad has connected me to almost a thousand people around the planet who share the same interest as me.

Not only that, but a few individuals have even joined the team with the hands-on effort of building this passion project.

By giving your attention to what gives you energy, you get rewarded in the most surprising of ways.

I’ve picked up countless skills that I otherwise wouldn’t have learned if it weren’t for this specific cause.

The most rewarding part of creating a passion project is the stories you hear of how it positively affected someone’s life. It made a difference for them and their trajectory.

All from a bit of spare attention compounded across time!

If you want serendipitous bonus points, you can turn up your luck by reframing the risks of opportunity with something I call the No Spot.

A year into the Psychedelic Grad, I asked Rick Doblin from MAPS (one of the biggest names of the renaissance), to sponsor the project. He was already not sponsoring it (No Spot). He agreed and now the community is taking off!

5 years into this project and the team and I will be going to psychedelic conferences around the world for free. Thousands of community members are assisting each other in their career journeys.

10 years in and my life doesn’t even look the same. 

This sort of magic is possible for you too. 

Using your cognitive surplus with applied curiosity will help you find serendipity and begin your passion project.

What better return on attention is there?

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