Cultivating curiosity - where did it go? And how do you get it back?
Curiosity is defined as a strong desire to know or learn something and is a key element to a rich and exciting life of learning.
Curiosity implores someone to ask why something is the way it is, how a piece of technology works or to challenge the status quo. You’ll often find when meeting intelligent people, they often ask ‘why?’. Albert Einstein reportedly said, “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious” and many other writers, artists, entrepreneurs and people who changed their corner of the world often cite curiosity as a trait that helped their life’s work.
It’s curiosity that has pushed humankind forward for thousands of years discovering art, music, science - curiosity shaped the world we exist in. As Maria Popovic observed, ‘despite the proliferation of access to knowledge, we seem to have lost our appetite for this singular human faculty that propels us forward. We’ve lulled ourselves into a kind of complacency, where too often we’d rather be right than uncertain or — worse yet — wrong, forgetting that “useful ignorance,” to borrow Thoreau’s beautiful term, is precisely what helps us transcend the limits of our knowledge and stretch our ability.’ Curiosity provokes thought, discovery and lifelong learning. And too often, we let it die.
Children are inherently curious, asking an endless stream of questions a day. At some point along the way many lose that inquisitive nature, wonder and questioning. Once we reach young adulthood, it can be easier to accept the status quo. Once you stop asking why, how or become lazy in thought, the world can become a dull place. When your curiosity dies you stop growing and learning. Economist and writer Tyler Cowan believes that more than ever, we have become complacent and pacified having decisions made by algorithms instead of out exploring, trying and innovating.
Where did our curiosity go? Is it the 9-5 office job?
As we enter adult life working the monotonous 9-5 many are focused on bedding down a routine, sleeping enough, being present, effective in our jobs and maintaining healthy relationships. As if there is time for learning a new language or how to paint.
Is our curiosity one of the first things we shed to lighten the mental load? Cultivating curiosity takes time and for many, it’s a choice not an ingrained trait or automatic behaviour. For most young adults, developing (or re-developing) a sense of childlike wonder can be a difficult task (unless you work in a creative role where curiosity is important to foster).
After years of corporate life with competing opinions, group think and assimilating into political cultures, do young professionals dull their edges to fit in for society whilst trying to maintain work life balance?
Is there actually enough time to dive into learning about a philosophical theory or to spend hours learning photoshop so you can play with creating digital designs? Illustrator Mari Andrews had to become temporarily paralysed to find the time to dive into an online history course, learn about wine and the flags of countries around the world. How do you find the time to explore in a life that has no time for play and curious discoveries?
Do our beliefs of 'who we are' solidify?
As we cement our place in the world our ideas solidify and we cement an identity of 'who we are'. Does that make us more accepting and less curious? Keyzurbur Alas believes that to cultivate curiosity you must allow yourself to be interested in all things;
Are we giving ourselves permission and brain space to be curious daily? Weekly? Monthly?
Personally I’ve been curious about certain topics (businesses, food, blogging, marketing, film) that allowed me to explore and learn new skills over my adult life. And that is who I 'was' - a marketing/foodie person. But I found myself losing interest in things that once fascinated me. I stopped my side hustle in October '17, and stopped doing anything exciting or challenging in my spare time. I did nothing new, only continued easy things I was already doing (mainly social media marketing). Identity crises guaranteed.
There was no internal push to learn new things, no new technical skills or concepts I had to master or ideas that challenged me or inspired me to explore in my personal life. The world got boring pretty fast and felt very same-same. All my books were from the same genre - female Entrepreneurs (not a bad thing, but only one view and topic).
Instead of standing still for too long, this state of bleh only lasted 2 months before I realised I was bored and stagnant. Luckily I was challenged (directly and indirectly) by a small handful of people around me to be curious again. A book of a completely different genre landed on my desk that was difficult to read compared to the Lean Ins and Thrives I had been sinking into. A feminist theory was introduced by a friend, another invited me to a community festival that wasn't a marketing event - huzzah. That was enough to reignite the desire to learn, broaden my knowledge and sparked a curiosity I'm still fostering today.
How to develop curiosity.
So, life is busy and there’s no time, but cultivating more curiosity in your life is important for self-growth and to become a life long learner. You may find a new passion or interest along the way. Here’s some ways to spark that journey again:
1. Read new books of new genres
Reading a new genre of book sucks you out of the ‘easy reading’ comfort zone, requiring focus and a new way of thinking. New writing styles, ideas, experiences, knowledge and perspectives will be introduced. Reading can expand your perspective, create empathy and spark new ideas. Pick up a new genre, ask a friend for a recommendation and embed a reading routine into your day.
Start with 10 minutes a day.
2. Ask the people around you what they are interested in
We’re surrounded by interesting people with diverse life experiences, rich interests and opposing perspectives. By asking your friends, family, colleagues or people that inspire you what they are reading, listening to, thinking about - you’ll uncover some really interesting topics. One friend recently dove into the Rwandan genocide, another is exploring how to communicate mental health through visual design whilst a colleague is tackling cultural stereotypes through food writing.
Talking to others about what’s piqued their interest, or what they do with their spare time could broaden your mind and inspire your own curiosities to explore what’s interesting to you. One way to have more curious conversations is to ask those what's on their mind at the moment - a tip from conversation curator Fanny Auger from The School Of Life in Paris.
3. Ask if you don’t know something
If you feel like anyone at work has judged you for asking someone in a meeting to elaborate on an acronym or a word you don’t know, screw them. Not asking questions, afraid of looking silly can dampen our curiosity in a professional environment and may have a knock on effect on our personal lives. However, asking something to be clarified is a trait of curiosity not unintelligence and those who don’t ask will never know. As Socrates says, "The only thing I know is that I know nothing". Awareness that we do not, and should not know everything coupled with the confidence in our own intelligence to ask means our curiosity will push us forward in what we learn and explore.
4. Celebrate ‘failure’
Being curious leads to trying new things which comes with taking risks. Sometimes things won’t work out, and that’s okay. When that failure is punished or framed negatively it can hinder the motivation to try again. Using the growth mindset, celebrate all experiences positive (traditionally a ‘win’ or ‘success’) and negative (traditionally ‘failure’ or ‘losing’) as learning experiences where your curiosity got you new skills and experiences along the way. Develop a resilience to trying new things that don’t work out. If you don’t enjoy the political podcasts you are trying to listen to to become more socially aware, stop and find something else. Actually hate painting after trying it for a few months? That's totally okay - sell that easel and explore something else. Be able to let go of what doesn’t serve you and continue to explore new things builds resilience and gets you closer to what you enjoy learning.
5. Get out of your daily life/circle
Breaking the daily routine and enriching ourselves in a new environment can open you up to take notice of new sights, sounds, smells, experiences and discoveries. Attend industry events that are outside your profession. Walk somewhere without Google Maps and find the way yourself. Walk a new way to work or have breakfast in a new suburb. Our brains have evolved to ignore common things once we feel safe (otherwise we'd be in information overload) so on the usual routines our brains actively block out stimuli. When we break our routine we notice new things as we are less on auto pilot, more present and aware.
Another way to get out of your daily funk is to do activities like going to a gallery and seeing art, listening to a new band or trying a new physical activity (hello ecstatic dance!).
6. Create time for curiosity and prioritise it, but start small
It takes time to be curious. Books don’t read themselves and you can’t outsource your curiosity, so you must carve out time and prioritise it. Put a new book next to your bed and make it a non-negotiable that you read for 20 minutes before bed. Allow extra travel time to walk the long way or take the beach road. Block out 2 hours on a weekend morning for writing, trying a new exercise, making ceramics or learning how to underwater knit. It doesn’t matter what you choose to do - what matters is you give yourself the time and space required to allow you to follow your curiosities.
Feeling disconnected from curiosity can leave life a little grey, repetitive and it seems like there is no space for creativity. Curiosity is a muscle and it’s been said to ‘use it or lose it’. Starting small can reignite that intuitive thought and the more you discover the more discovery you crave. Ian Leslie, Author of Curious writes: 'The more you know, the more you want to know. Not only that, but the more you know, the more connections you can make between the different bits of knowledge that you have in your head and therefore the more ideas you have, which is why curiosity is really the wellspring of creativity.'
7. Surround yourself with curious people
If it wasn’t for a small handful of people in my life I may have spent more time being bored and complacent before I found a way to spark that inherent curious desire. Jim Rohn famously said 'you are the average sum of the five people you spend the most time with'. If those people are curious, you will no doubt find yourself having interesting conversations with passionate curious people.
Whether we have lost our curious natures due to fitting the mould of what is expected for an adult in a modern world, have no time for discovery or no desire - cultivating a diverse curiosity leads to a knowledge rich and exciting life. What comes from a more curious life could be innovation, understanding, creative ways of working or new passions.
The road to new ideas
By reading wider and deeper, asking the people closest to us what they are currently curious about, speaking up when there is something you don’t understand, celebrating failure and trying new things constantly, shaking up your daily routine, carving out time to follow your curiosities and surrounding yourself with curious people, doors to new ideas will be opened and knowledge obtained to make for a richer, more colourful life.
As polar explorer Ernest Shackleton says “The only true failure would be not to explore at all.”