“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” ~ Einstein
Curiosity, our impulse to ask why, our desire to understand, to explore, to venture out beyond our horizons, is one of the unique features of being human. As John Lloyd remarked, “pure curiosity is unique to human beings… It’s only people, as far as we know, who look up at the stars and wonder what they are.”
Given how central curiosity is to humanity, it is interesting to note that our views on it have shifted greatly throughout history. For a good portion of our history, many cultures have seen it as a threat or a destructive force and thought it must be squelched. This is not too surprising, as it can lead to questioning rules, traditions, beliefs - well, everything! As Ian Leslie says in his book, Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, "for most of Western history, it has been regarded as at best a distraction, at worst, a poison, corrosive to the soul and to society." In the 17th Century curiosity flourished. Ian Leslie calls this era "the great unlocking of curiosity," and says, "the result was the biggest explosion of new ideas and scientific advances in history."
Today, while some people say we are experiencing a curiosity deficit, in many ways it might be in more demand than ever before. “In a world where technology is rapidly replacing humans even in white-collar jobs, it’s no longer enough to merely be smart. Computers are smart. But no computer, however sophisticated, can yet be said to be curious," says Leslie.
Brian Grazer, the Academy Award-winning director of A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, and many other hit movies, sees curiosity as such a central part of his life that he wrote a book on it called, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life. In it, he shares insights from what he calls his "curiosity conversations," weekly discussions he arranges with some of the most interesting people in the world from many different backgrounds and sectors, all with the aim of broadening his worldview.
“For me, curiosity infuses everything with a sense of possibility," Grazer says, "Curiosity has, quite literally, been the key to my success, and also the key to my happiness… Curiosity has been the most valuable quality, the most important resource, the central motivation of my life. I think curiosity should be as much a part of our culture, our educational system, our workplaces, as concepts like ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation.’”
He continues in his book, saying,
Curiosity is hiding like that almost everywhere you look - its presence or its absence proving to be the magic ingredient in a whole range of surprising places. The key to unlocking the genetic history of humanity: curiosity. The key to providing decent customer service: curiosity. If you're at a boring business dinner, curiosity can save you. If you're bored with your career, curiosity can rescue you. If you're feeling uncreative or unmotivated, curiosity can be the cure... Curiosity can add zest to your life and it can take you way beyond zest - it can enrich your whole sense of security, confidence and well-being.
Curiosity enriches our lives in so many ways. Not only can it help us in our careers, our relationships, with our creations, and our understanding of the world, but there is also something about it that is core to who we are as a species. If not cultivated, it can wither, and this directly affects our ability to flourish. Leslie says, “we are part biological organism, part cultural; we need both sunlight and knowledge to thrive.” John Lloyd would agree: “If human curiosity isn’t fed, then you die inside… a quarter of your desire to be alive is cut away.”
Curiosity is vulnerable to benign neglect. As we grow older we tend to become less active explorers of our mental environment, relying on what we’ve learned so far to see us through the rest of the journey. We can also become too preoccupied with the daily skirmishes of existence to take the time to pursue our interests. If you allow yourself to become incurious, your life will be drained of colour, interest and pleasure. You will be less likely to achieve your potential at work or in your creative life. While barely noticing it, you'll become a little duller, a little dimmer. You may not think it could happen to you, but it can. It can happen to any of us.
For those of you feeling worried that it might be too late for you, curiosity can be cultivated and strengthened throughout one's entire life. Luckily, says Ian Leslie, “the scientific literature on curiosity, while it disagrees on many things, agrees on this: a person’s curiosity is more state than trait. That is, our curiosity is highly responsive to the situation or environment we’re in. It follows that we can arrange our lives to stoke our curiosity or squash it.”
So how do we become more curious? While there is a great deal that could be changed about our education systems, cultural views, and structural incentives to help foster curiosity on a large scale, there are many things that we can personally do to foster and develop our own sense of curiosity. The following are a number of specific exercises you can do today.
1. Write a Curiosity List
"All my life I’ve been harassed by questions: Why is something this way and not another? How do you account for that? ...If we could only find the courage to leave our destiny to chance, to accept the fundamental mystery of our lives, then we might be closer to the sort of happiness that comes with innocence. " ~ Luis Buñuel
What fascinates you? What are you interested in? What would you like to learn more about? What are the questions that you've always wondered about? Write all of this all down. There are infinite amounts of things to learn about, research, study, explore, and discover in this vast and beautiful universe!
Whether it is learning about sharks, the migration paths of monarch butterflies, how to play the flute, what types of plants grow natively in your area, how black holes work, how to paint, or the nature of consciousness, there are infinite amounts of things to explore! The world is your oyster!
You could form your list as a series of questions. Asking more questions is an excellent way to increase curiosity. They don't have to be big and profound questions... but they could be!
Write down all the topics you would like to learn about or the places you'd like to explore or the experiences you'd like to have. Just start writing and once you get some ideas flowing, you might be surprised how many more ideas pop into your head.
2. Follow the Curiosity Thread
“Just look around and ask yourself if there’s absolutely anything you can find in the world that you feel even 1% curious about and then follow it. You will be amazed at where that leads you." ~ Thomas Oppong
Once you have your curiosity list started, follow those threads. Seek out people and ask them about the topics that fascinate you. Go to bookstores, spend some time perusing the sample sections of books on Amazon, or go to wikipedia and follow a thread of curiosity where it leads you. Investigate how things work. Perhaps do experiments or take things apart. You could even set up "curiosity conversations," like Brian Grazer.
When I was in high school, I decided that I wanted to increase my reading speed, so I took a speed reading program. I don’t recall it increasing my reading speed at all, however, it did leave me with something I consider far more important. One of the exercises in the program was to write a list of things we wanted to learn more about and then go to the library and borrow out a dozen books in that category. We were then allowed only one week to breeze through all 12 of those books. At the end of each week, to be sure we were retaining the information, we were told to reflect on what we'd learned.
The first week I rather reluctantly dragged myself to the library with a vague curiosity about dreams. I remember standing in front of the library shelf, the musty smell of books pungent in the air, looking at all the book titles. I didn’t know they had entire shelves dedicated just to dream books! I poured through the pages that week, and soon enough, I was chomping at the bit to go back to the library with my next topic to explore!
I learned that there were certain teas that would help induce different dream states. I learned about the subconscious and wanted to explore archetypes and myths and Jung’s musings on the collective unconscious. I learned how some people practice “dream yoga” and what a healing tool using dreams and creative art therapy could be. I learned about different states of consciousness and couldn’t wait to learn more about EEG machines and the specific neurochemicals released in the different states. This one week had opened up worlds! I didn't even know how much I didn’t know! It gave me a glimpse into the endless worlds that were awaiting my discovery!
So I went back, week after week, giant stacks of books nearly sliding out from my arms. No one else was telling me to study these subjects; I wasn’t doing it for teachers or acknowledgement. My curiosity had been piqued and the more I learned, the more I realized how much more there was out there to learn. My curiosity was insatiable!
3. Keep an Idea Journal
During these library binge days, I also started keeping an idea journal to try to capture and jot down some of the many ideas and insights that were arising. The more I was reading, the more I started to make connections between different fields. Ian Leslie calls this process “building the database.” He says the more we know about a lot of subjects, the greater our database of knowledge becomes to pull from, allowing the truly novel and influential ideas to emerge forth from our subconscious. Csikszentmihalyi agrees that in his many decades of studying flow states and creativity, the truly creative ideas that have the potential to transform humanity often come from people having a deep and vast knowledge of their subject while also having a broad knowledge of other subjects. It is in the connecting of pieces of knowledge across disciplines that we often find the greatest and most influential insights.
So as you start following your curiosities and questions, I invite you to capture and write down the ideas that will start emerging. It doesn't matter how silly they may seem. Who knows, this might become your next curiosity list to explore.
4. Be a Noticer
“The thing that has driven my whole life, and I have always maintained this, is curiosity. I am incredibly curious about things, little things I see around me… I am a noticer." ~ Brenda Milner
Developing attention is a powerful way to increase curiosity. Csikszentmihalyi, in his book, Creativity, says curiosity and sustained attention are directly connected:
So the first step toward a more creative life is the cultivation of curiosity and interest, that is, the allocation of attention to things for their own sake. On this score, children tend to have the advantage over adults; their curiosity is like a constant beam that highlights and invests with interest anything in range. The object need not be useful, attractive, or precious; as long as it is mysterious it is worthy of attention. With age most of us lose the sense of wonder, the feeling of awe in confronting the majesty and variety of the world. Yet without awe life becomes routine. Creative individuals are childlike in that their curiosity remains fresh even at ninety years of age; they delight in the strange and the unknown. And because there is no end to the unknown, their delight is also endless.
How can you be a better "noticer?" What can you notice that is around you in this moment? And what about it captures your attention and makes you want to learn more about it?
5. Change Your Routines
“Enjoy every step you take. If you're curious, there is always something new to be discovered in the backdrop of your daily life.” ~ Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart
If you're looking for more ways to foster curiosity, you could try switching up your routines. Sometimes we get so caught up in the monotony of routine that when sitting down to write a curiosity list, we may draw a blank.
In this case, switching up routine can often help change our states and thus open our minds in new ways. So take a different route home from work, eat at a new restaurant, see a movie that you’d never expect to see, talk with random strangers on your next outing, wear something out of your "style," or go to the opera or an art show. Go on an adventure. Seek out the unknown. Novelty is a great way to take us out of the banal mundane routine life that so many of us lead and open up our senses to the moment.
“The wish to travel seems to me characteristically human: the desire to move, to satisfy your curiosity or ease your fears, to change the circumstances of your life, to be a stranger, to make a friend, to experience an exotic landscape, to risk the unknown.” ~ Paul Theroux
One of the great ways of switching up routine is to travel. Even an afternoon adventure will suffice! Getting out of routine, going to new places, and seeing the world with fresh eyes can do wonders to spark curiosity.
If travel isn't on the current agenda, try spending an afternoon sitting on a bench in a bustling city center or at an airport, any place that's good for watching people. Allow yourself to absorb the scene. Pick a person and ask yourself, what is this person's story? What are their dreams, hopes, passions? What do they fear? What do they long for? Every one of us is deeply fascinating in our own right.
You could take a similar afternoon in nature and get really curious about all the things around you. Notice all the life around you. Notice how all the different plants, flowers, trees, soil and sunlight work together in a living, dancing ecosystem. Get curious about it. There is so much to take in!
If you are able to go a little farther on your travel adventure, by all means, go out and find yourself in a new city. You could even try exploring new places without a map or a phone if you're up for some extra adventure. This will also push you to step outside your comfort zone and start talking with new people.
Openness is an important quality in cultivating curiosity. How can you be more open to the moment, to the world, to the people, to ideas, to life? It doesn’t take travel by any means to open us up, but sometimes it can really help.
7. Find the Curious Ones
“Curiosity is contagious. So is incuriosity.” - Ian Leslie
There is an amazing section in Curious, where Ian Leslie summarizes much of the recent research on how children develop curiosity. It is easy to romanticize childhood as being solely about wonder, and yet, he points out that while humans are naturally curious, that impulse can be fostered or hindered, depending how caregivers responses to their child. If a child points at something and their caretaker responds, then the child continues, but if it gets no response time after time, even a child's curiosity can be dimmed.
Adults are also greatly influenced by our environment and social interactions in a similar way. Curiosity is contagious. And Ian Leslie says, so too is incuriosity. So surround yourself with people that are in awe of the mystery of existence and it might just start to influence you.
8. Surprise Yourself
"Each day holds a surprise. But only if we expect it can we see, hear, or feel it when it comes to us. Let's not be afraid to receive each day's surprise, whether it comes to us as sorrow or as joy. It will open a new place in our hearts, a place where we can welcome new friends and celebrate more fully our shared humanity." ~ Henri Nouwen
In Csikszentmihalyi's book, Creativity, he says, "the first step toward a more creative life is the cultivation of curiosity and interest." To cultivate a greater sense of curiosity and interest, he suggests these actions:
First, he says to try to be surprised every day, to really look at things, to ask, what is this thing's essence?
Second, he says to try to surprise someone else every day. This could include not always being your predicable self, breaking your routines with others, taking friends to new places, or playing with your appearance. Experiment. Explore. Lighten up.
Third, he says to write down both how you surprised yourself and how you surprised others each day.
And finally, when something sparks your interest, follow it.
All in all, to cultivate curiosity, make time for it. Go outside, explore, take up a new class, attend meetups, mix up your routine, see new landscapes, listen to new music, try new and different food, and ask endless questions. Write out your curiosity list, schedule a curiosity conversation or two, and see where it takes you. Adventures await! Bring your explorer's hat!
“The important thing is not to stop questioning… Never lose a holy curiosity.”