And yet curiosity is powerful. It adds color, vibrancy, passion and pleasure to our lives. It helps us solve stubborn problems. It helps us do better in school and work. And even more so, it is our birthright, as Ian Leslie writes in his book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It.
“The true beauty of learning stuff, including apparently useless stuff, is that it takes us out of ourselves, reminds us that we are part of a far greater project, one that has been under way for at least as long as human beings have been talking to each other. Other animals don’t share or store their knowledge like we do. Orangutans do not reflect on the history of the orangutan; London’s pigeons have not adopted ideas on navigation from pigeons in Rio de Janeiro. We should all feel privileged to have access to a deep well of species memory. As comedian Stephen Fry suggests, it’s foolish not to take advantage of it.”
Leslie, a London-based author and speaker, separates curiosity into three categories in his book:
- Diversive curiosity is attraction to novelty. It’s what encourages us to explore new places, people and things. There is no method or process. This curiosity is just the beginning. (It’s also not always benign curiosity: High diversive curiosity is a risk factor for drug addiction and arson.)
- Epistemic curiosity is a deeper quest for knowledge. It “represents the deepening of a simple seeking of newness into a directed attempt to build understanding. It’s what happens when diversive curiosity grows up.” This kind of curiosity requires effort. It’s hard work, but also more rewarding.
- Empathic curiosity is putting yourself in another person’s shoes, curious about their thoughts and feelings. “Diversive curiosity might make you wonder what a person does for a living; empathic curiosity makes you wonder why they do it.”
Strategies for Staying Curious
In Curious Leslie shares seven strategies for staying curious. Here are three of my favorites from his interesting book.
1. Ask why.
Sometimes we don’t ask why because we simply assume we know the answer. Or we worry about coming across as stupid. Plus, in our culture, asking questions may be viewed as having bad manners.
But asking the small — yet big — question of “Why?” can have powerful results.
Leslie cites an example from the book Negotiation Genius, which speaks to the power of asking why. An American firm was negotiating with a European company to buy a new ingredient to create a healthcare product. They had already agreed on the price but were at a standstill on exclusivity.
The American corporation didn’t want the European company to sell the ingredient to their competitors. Even after the American negotiators offered more money, the European company refused to change their stance.
As a last ditch effort, the American company called in “Chris,” another negotiator at the firm. After listening to both sides, Chris asked “why.” That is, he wanted to know why the European supplier wasn’t budging on exclusivity when the American company wanted to buy as much as they were producing.
The supplier explained that giving the American company exclusive rights to the product meant breaking a pact with his cousin, who was using 250 pounds for a local product.
Ultimately, they decided that the American firm would get exclusive rights with the exception of the several hundred pounds for the supplier’s cousin.
Asking why helps us move from standstills to solutions. It helps us meet our own and others’ needs, whether it’s in a company or marriage. It takes us from the obvious and superficial, and opens us to deeper truths.
2. Be a thinkerer.
Leslie created this term by mixing “think” and “tinker,” to mean “a style of cognitive investigation that mixes the concrete and the abstract, toggling between the details and the big picture, zooming out to see the wood and back in again to examine the bark on the tree.”
A thinkerer thinks and does; analyzes and manufactures. According to Leslie, both Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs were thinkerers. They had big ideas, and they focused on the implementation of those ideas. They also focused on the minute, the nitty gritty.
As Jobs said, “…there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product.”
In our digital age, where any information is just a click away, we have to be careful not to remain complacent and stay in shallow waters. Because the Internet makes it all too easy for us to learn new things superficially. But curiosity is deep sea diving.
According to Leslie: “The Web allows us to skim and skip along the top line of everything, scooping out the gist without delving into details. Unless we make an effort to be thinkerers — to sweat the small stuff while thinking big, to get interested in processes and outcomes, tiny details and grand visions, we’ll never recapture the spirit of the age of Franklin.”
3. Embrace boring.
There is an annual conference called Boring Conference, which is devoted, aptly, to boring things. Talks have included everything from paint catalogs to IBM cash registers to ties to toast. The conference, founded by James Ward, is devoted to “the mundane, the ordinary, and the overlooked.”
According to Ward, boring things only seem boring, because we’re not paying attention. Take a closer look, and you’ll find that what’s boring is actually fascinating.
He quotes artist and composer John Cage: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”
For instance, in her talk about IBM cash registers, Leila Johnston weaved a captivating story about a childhood in a small town in Scotland, close to an IBM plant, where the train station was named IBM Halt, everyone’s parents worked and their kids used IBM components as toys.
Curiosity is making the choice to look deeper into everyday things and seeing their true significance.
Curiosity is a gift given exclusively to humans. As British TV producer and writer John Lloyd has said, “It’s only people, as far as we know, who look up at the stars and wonder what they are.”
It’s a gift not to be taken for granted. Because doing so would truly be boring.
Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons / James Jordan