“Curiosity pleases me,” said the physicist Alan Lightman, who taught us to be curious about the endless symmetry in our universe. “It evokes . . . a readiness to find strange and singular what surrounds us; a certain restlessness to break up our familiarities.”
Breaking apart our familiarities is like violently opening window shades and scaring the darkness away. Allowing in more light enables us to see the details of our environment and our selves. That is the pressing challenge of our lives: being conscious of our own ignorance and being willing (or even giddy with excitement) to fill in those missing gaps with knowledge.
Just how curious are you and what do you do about it? The answer to that question is a reflection of how we’re nurturing—or not nurturing—our minds, and it turns out it has an impact on the quality of our lives. As TV producer and director John Lloyd said in pitching a show called QI to BBC,
Ever since Darwin, we have had to come to terms with the fact that we share with our primate cousins the same three basic drives: food, sex, and shelter. But humans possess something else: a fourth drive. Pure curiosity is unique to human beings. When animals sniff around in bushes, it’s because they’re looking for the three other things. It’s only people, as far as we know, who look up at the stars and wonder what they are.
Ian Leslie, author of Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, explains the cultural thinking and history around curiosity:
Our oldest stories about curiosity are warnings: Adam and Eve and the apple of knowledge, Icarus and the Sun, Pandora’s Box. Early Christian theologians railed against curiosity: Saint Augustine claimed that “God fashioned hell for the inquisitive.” Even humanist philosopher Erasmus suggested that curiosity was greed by a different name. 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.
A society that values order above all else will seek to suppress curiosity. But a society that believes in progress, innovation, and creativity will cultivate it, recognizing that the inquiring minds of its people constitute its most valuable asset.”
The Industrial Age gave our society the foundation to continuously innovate and progress. To create a better future, we need to imagine the possibilities, integrate existing knowledge from history, and have the courage to create.
Three kinds of curiosity
According to Leslie, diversive curiosity is the attraction to the new and the next. “The modern world seems designed to stimulate our diversive curiosity. Every tweet, headline, ad, blog post, and app at once promises and denies a satisfaction for which we are ever more impatient,” said Leslie.
This curiosity is essential to an inquisitive mind; it opens our eyes to the undiscovered and this realization compels us to want to meet new people and gain new experiences. However, this curiosity, if immature and untamed, can turn into the scrolling of a Twitter or Instagram feed where we simply switch our attention from one thing to another, learning nothing along the way.
When diversive curiosity turns into a quest for knowledge and a desire to understand, it evolves into epistemic curiosity. It’s harder work than diversive curiosity, requiring attention and cognitive effort. According to Leslie, “It’s what happens when diversive curiosity grows up.”
Finally, there is empathic curiosity. This curiosity makes us wonder about the thoughts and feelings of other people. Empathic curiosity is a conscious practice. As Leslie said, “Diversive curiosity might make you wonder what a person does for a living; empathic curiosity makes you wonder why they do it.”
How curiosity champions adaptability
Our ability to adapt to change is the lifeblood of our nature. If we couldn’t move on from heartbreak or the passing of a loved one, we would be forever stuck in our ruins. Adversity breeds character only when we use it as a catalyst to learn, and learning entails the lifting of one’s foot and putting it in front of the other.
According to Leslie, our hardwiring for curiosity in seeking novel experiences and curiosity about others is what championed culture. Culture allowed us to learn from one another, and this dynamic is what bred our adaptive nature and pushed the human race forward. Leslie explains:
What makes us so adaptable? In one word, culture—our ability to learn from others, to copy, imitate, share, and improve. When humans learned to communicate using oral and, later, written language, ideas, knowledge, and practices—how to make a fishhook, build a boat, fashion a spear, sing a song, carve a god—could replicate and combine like genes. But unlike genes, they could jump from one mind to another across distances of time and space. Culture freed humans from the limitations of their biology; according to evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel, when humans discovered culture, they achieved a momentous shift in the balance of power ‘between our genes and our minds.’
How to be curious
To stay curious, we must be fascinated by our own ignorance. We must realize and admit all that we don’t know and be eager to fill the missing gaps with knowledge.
I think of it this way:
Knowledge is like a constellation of stars. When we don’t know much about, say, philosophy or personal finance, it’s like looking into empty space. When we learn and acquire knowledge, a bright star appears that emits a warm glow. By connecting the dots between different bodies of knowledge, the constellation becomes more complex and beautiful. What was once a dark and empty space is now taken over by a bright constellation that helps us navigate the seemingly endless galaxy in what we call life.
The turning point in my life and career was when I became obsessed with learning; when I realized how dark my mind was and how this ignorance was like trying to find my phone in a dark room. This was also when I realized I had stopped doing the most important thing: asking questions.
Leslie provides a simple yet useful framework for this:
We’re so used to the idea of being able to ask questions that we’ve forgotten what an amazing skill, or set of skills, it is. First, you have to know that you don’t know—to conceive of your ignorance.
Second, you have to be able to imagine different, competing possibilities; when a child asks whether ghosts are real or made-up, she is already imagining alternative explanations.
Third, you have to understand that you can learn from other people. None of these abilities is shared by other primates, and neither is their development in human children simple or inevitable; under different conditions, they can flourish or atrophy.”
To say out loud or to a friend, “I know nothing about personal finance and this lack of knowledge is hurting me,” is a sign of courage. “What is a 401k? Why is it important?” are two simple questions that pierce the darkness of ignorance. The knowledge that you obtain and digest creates light, which creates more possibilities and more awareness, and in turn, helps create the change you need.
Curious by Ian Leslie is a must-read. Beautifully written, empathetic, and nurturing, it’s a book that will make you appreciate our species’ greatest trait and how you can start harnessing its power to lead a fuller life.