Curiosity, according to Ian Leslie, is a combination of intelligence, persistence, and hunger for novelty, all wrapped up in one. It is what psychologists might call a trait cluster. Leslie, in his new book Curious: The Desire To Know And Why Your Future Depends On It explores the power of curiosity through a combination of entertaining anecdotes and summaries of pertinent research across many fields. He makes a compelling case for why it is more vital than ever, as we grow older and more demands are put on our time, that we stay intellectually curious. In the spirit of that pursuit, I have distilled some insights from his book on how we can all improve our curiosity and wonder.
1. Read widely and follow your interests
John Lloyd was a hugely successful TV producer and director until one day he started to encounter a string of failures. This led him to depression. He dealt with it by taking time off work, going on long walks, and reading voraciously. He read about “Socrates and ancient Athens. He read about light and magnetism. He read about the Renaissance and the French impressionists. He had no method or plan, but simply followed his curiosity, wherever it took him.” All this reading eventually led to his idea for the BBC quiz show QI, which is loved by millions for its “ability to make anything—from quantum physics to Aztec architecture—entertaining.”
Take away lesson: B. F. Skinner said “When you run into something interesting, drop everything else and study it.” “The feeling of being interested can act as a kind of neurological signal, directing us to fruitful areas of inquiry.”
2. Polish your mind with the minds of others
On a page from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks is a to-do list:
- Calculate the measurement of Milan and its suburbs
- Find a book that treats of Milan its churches, which is to be had at the stationer’s on the way to Cordusio.
- Discover the measurement of the Corte Vecchio [courtyard of the duke’s palace].
- Get the Master of Arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle.
- Ask Bendetto Portinari [a Florentine merchant] by what means they go on ice at Flanders?
- Draw Milan.
- Ask Maestro Antonio how mortars are positioned on bastions by day or night.
- Examine the crossbow of Maestro Gianetto.
- Find a Master of Hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill, in the Lombard manner.
- Ask about the measurement of the sun, promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese
Take away lesson: Not only are Leonardo’s interests wide ranging, but out of the fifteen tasks on his list, at least eight involve consulting with others, and two involve others’ books. “Montaigne wrote of how travel to different regions and countries allows us to ‘rub and polish our brains’ against others, and Leonardo seems keen to polish his brain against as many others as possible.”
3. Visit a physical bookstore or library and browse the shelves
In the era of Google searches, we have no problem finding the exact answer to our question, but we may be less likely to serendipitously encounter information that is not specific to our question. Visiting a bookstore or a library allows us to encounter other information in a way that is not dictated by the structure of the algorithm. “A serendipity deficit makes innovation harder, because innovation relies on unexpected collisions of knowledge and ideas.” Curiosity is also about discrimination. It is about which knowledge we want to explore.
But, “A truly curious person knows that she doesn’t always know what she wants to know about. Discussing the future of his company, Larry Page described the ‘perfect search engine’ as one that would ‘understand exactly what I mean and give me back exactly what I want.’ But what if I don’t know what I want?”
Take away lesson: Get out from behind your computer and explore. “Economist John Maynard Keynes once offered advice on how to conduct oneself in a bookstore: ‘A bookshop is not like a railway booking-office which one approaches knowing what one wants. One should enter it vaguely, almost in a dream, and allow what is there freely to attract and influence the eye. To walk the rounds of the bookshops, dipping in as curiosity dictates, should be an afternoon’s entertainment.’”
4. Be willing to ask dumb questions
Says Mike Parker, CEO of Dow Chemical:
“A lot of bad leadership comes from an inability or unwillingness to ask questions. I have watched talented people—people with much higher IQs than mine—who have failed as leaders. They can talk brilliantly, with a great breadth of knowledge, but they’re not very good at asking questions. So while they know a lot at a high level, they don’t know what’s going on way down in the system. Sometimes they are afraid of asking questions, but what they don’t realize is that the dumbest questions can be very powerful. They can unlock a conversation.”
Take away lesson: Be willing to ask all sorts of questions, even what may seem to be dumb ones.
5. Put a lot of ideas and facts in your head: Don’t rely on Google
Sir Ken Robinson’s TED video “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” has been viewed over 4 million times. But Leslie argues that “Robinson has it precisely the wrong way around when he says that a natural appetite for learning begins to dissipate once children start to be educated.” “Progressive educationalists like Robinson frame existing knowledge as the enemy of new ideas. But at the most basic level, all of our new ideas are made up of old ones…to create a smartphone, you need to know about computers and phones.”
“We romanticize the curiosity of children because we love their innocence. But creativity doesn’t happen in a void. Successful innovators and artists amass vast stores of knowledge which they can then draw on unthinkingly. Having mastered the rules of their domain, they can concentrate on rewriting them. They mix and remix ideas and themes, making new analogies and spotting unusual patterns, until a creative breakthrough is achieved.”
“Anyone who stops learning facts for himself because he can Google them later is literally making himself stupid. Children who aren’t encouraged by adults to commit information to their long-term memories are having their potential damaged and their desire to learn stymied.”
Take away lesson: Facts don’t kill creativity. Rather, they make creativity possible. Human memory may still be better for creativity. “Digital databases cannot yet replicate the kind of serendipity that enables the unconscious human mind to make novel patterns and see powerful new analogies, of the kind that lead to our most creative breakthroughs. The more we outsource our memories to Google, the less we are nourishing the wonderfully accidental creativity of our unconscious.”
6. Be an expert who is interested in everything
“In the marketplace for talent, the people most in demand will always be those who offer an expertise few others possess. But having a breadth of knowledge is increasingly valuable, too. These two trends exist in tension with each other. Should you focus on learning more about your own niche or on widening your knowledge base?”
“The thinkers best positioned to thrive today and in the future will be a hybrid…In a highly competitive, high-information world, it’s crucial to know one or two big things and to know them in more depth and detail than most of your contemporaries. But to really ignite that knowledge, you need the ability to think about it from a variety of eclectic perspectives and to be able to collaborate fruitfully with people who have different specializations.”
Take away lesson: Leslie writes: “I don’t agree with those who claim the Internet is making us stupid. The only person or thing that can make you stupid, or incurious, is you.” Don’t blame the Internet for your lack of curiosity. Use it in a way that helps you gain both depth and breadth.
7. Don’t just focus on puzzles but on mysteries
“Security and intelligence expert Gregory Treverton once made a very useful distinction between puzzles and mysteries. Puzzles have definite answers…Once the missing information is found, it’s not a puzzle anymore. The frustration you felt when you were searching for the answer is replaced by satisfaction…Mysteries are murkier, less neat. They pose questions that can’t be answered definitively, because the answers often depend on a highly complex and interrelated set of factors, both known and unknown.”
“Puzzles offer us the satisfaction of answering a question even while you’re missing the point completely. A society or organization that thinks only in terms of puzzles is one that is too focused on the goals it has set, rather than on the possibilities it can’t yet see.”
Take away lesson: Leslie argues that mysteries have a longer half-life than puzzles, giving the example of Shakespeare, who commonly adapted story lines to his own ends up until the mid-1590’s. Around this time, his son passed away, and Shakespeare began to remove “crucial planks” from these older narrative structures, which created a greater sense of mystery because not everything in the narrative could be logically explained, in the way a puzzle can. This is also true in science. As Einstein remarked: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious…It is the source of all true art and science.”
© 2014 by Jonathan Wai