1. Everything is interesting.
You just have to look at it the right way. At the beginning of QI, we set ourselves the Quite Boring challenge, to see if we could turn up anything that was intrinsically dull. We failed. Allow yourselves the luxury of looking closely and patiently at anything – a turnip, the history of Chelmsford, a letter from an insurance company - and new layers of detail come into focus.
2. Ask more questions.
QI is one long string of questions. Six year-olds are full of questions, before school and busy parents teach them that you get on quicker by pretending to know things. Socrates asked lots of difficult questions. He might have ended up dead (who doesn’t) but he was never bored and he never bored anyone else.
3. We all know less than we think we know.
That’s what ‘general ignorance’ means. Cultivate humility and a sense of mystery. ‘The wise man knows that he knows nothing’ (Socrates, again). Despite what some scientific fundamentalists tell us, we still don’t know how or why the universe began, what consciousness or light are, or even the best way to bring up our children.
4. Look for new connections.
We always tell our researchers to only write down things they don’t already know. They find this hard, because formal education is all about recycling and repeating other people’s knowledge (some wag once defined education as the process by which the notes of the professor appear in the notebooks of the student, without passing through the mind of either). Interestingness is a lot like humour – it can’t be defined or taught, it’s a spark which arcs between two previously unconnected things.
5. If it’s worth writing down, it’s worth writing down clearly.
Technical terms, jargon and mumbo jumbo might give you the fleeting warmth of belonging to an exclusive club, but they are the enemies of truth. As the anthropologist Margaret Mead once wrote, if you can’t explain yourself to a twelve-year-old child, stay inside the university or lab until you have a better grasp of your subject matter.
6. What you leave out is as important as what you leave in.
Too many of our knowledge institutions base their authority on spurious claims of ‘comprehensiveness’. We prefer storytellers to panels of faceless academics.
7. Digressions are the point.
QI isn’t about lists of trivial facts, as we’ve said, it’s about making connections. We’re burrowers not grazers. What might start out as a question from the back seat of the car: why do pigeons not fly away sooner might lead to an investigation into how the brain processes visual information; the truth about carrots and night vision; the history of pigeons as a communication device; the Dickin Medal for Animal Bravery; how migratory animals navigate; the chemical constitution of bird dung; the design and ornamentation of medieval dovecotes…
8. Take your time.
The interesting stuff doesn’t just roll over and ask to have its tummy tickled. We reckon it takes three hours of reading, thinking and researching to get into the QI zone, when you might notice the unseen link, the mind-altering fact, the life- changing insight, lurking in the fireplace.
9. Walk towards the sound of gunfire.
Fear is what stops us, everywhere in our lives, particularly the pointless fear of what other people will think. We know when something isn’t right. We should trust our instincts and risk saying so. It’s surprising how often things turn out for the best, when you do.
10. You already have everything you need.
The most interesting thing you have is you: your instincts, your curiosity, and your own ignorance. But the great paradox is that, in order to be most yourself, you have to shut up about how much you know. The great American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote that the greatest poets carry ‘us to such a lofty strain of intelligent activity, as to suggest a wealth which beggars his own’. We all have this lofty strain; we just have to find our frequency.