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Curiosity: The Top Trait Among Those Who Succeed

How passionate curiosity helps us thrive

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In his book Corner Office, author Adam Bryant interviewed 700 CEOs and asked them, “What qualities do you see most often in those who succeed?” Number one on their collective lists—passionate curiosity—is more than a recipe for success. It's a survival mechanism, because our involvement in life depends on our interest in it—our willingness to cultivate the sense of wonder that Buddhists call beginner's mind.

This mindset views life with the eyes of children, who unabashedly let their tails wag and eagerly sit in the splash zone at the dolphin show, keep all sensors and receptors in the ON position—a runway cleared at all times for incoming adventure and mystery—and who haven't yet learned the grossly overrated art of being cool and nonchalant and of being the knower rather than the wonderer.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow, who popularized the term “self-actualization,” didn't generally believe in a big bang theory of it, in which peak experiences suddenly bring us into being as the people we've always imagined ourselves to be. Toward the end of his life, he talked about a kind of time-release version of the peak experience that he called the plateau experience.

This is a sort of ongoing peak experience that's more calm and less climactic, more a discipline than an event, and something we only slowly and painstakingly teach ourselves to experience by choosing to sacralize life. To witness it in the deepest and most mindful ways by paying exquisite attention to it, exposing ourselves to inspiring people and places, great music and art, and the raptures of nature—by living in a more or less permanent state of fascination. Malsow called it “holding classes in miraculousness.”

And Isaac Asimov once said that “The most exciting phrase in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, isn’t “Eureka!” but rather “Hmm.....that’s funny.....” -

With beginner's mind, we're well on our way to becoming lifelong learners, always poking into things and wondering what makes it all tick. We're on intimate terms with search engines, consider ignorance bliss because it's the beginning of discovery, and continually remind ourselves that the world is dynamic, not static, and that we're a part of the world.

It not only helps keep us engaged with life over the long haul, but makes us more likely to have a long haul, since we're more likely to want to stick around if we take a keen interest in life.

I myself learned the value of passionate curiosity, and the beginner's mind that sustains it, at the altar of my father knee, and I consider it the greatest gift he ever gave me. His favorite game to play with me and my two brothers while we were growing up was something he invented called The Alien Game. In it, he was an alien from another planet (which we had suspected all along), and we were his guides on Earth. We would go out into the neighborhood, down by the shore, or into the city, and he would ask questions about the planet he saw, and we had to try to answer them. He'd point up into the sky, for instance, and ask, “What are the white formations that move through your atmosphere?”

We'd all say “Clouds!”

And he'd ask, “What are they made of?”

And we'd all say “Water!”

Then he'd ask, “How does the water get up there, and what holds it up, and what makes it move?”

In no time at all it would become apparent to us Earthlings that clouds weren't only things over our heads.

What the Alien Game taught me—and what I keep trying to remember—is to see life with the eyes of a child, who, after all, is in most ways an alien to this world. In A Private History of Awe, Scott Russell Sanders says that we enter the world empty of ideas and full of sensation, and if we live long enough to lose memory and language, we'll leave the world the same way—but in between we should aspire to be like small children who, when they aren't asleep, are utterly awake, all instruments turned on.

Trying to sustain beginner's mind past the beginner stage of life, though, is like trying to live each day as if it could be our last. True, the mundane is miraculous and we could die today—and they're both excellent meditations that would undoubtedly enrich our lives—but they're both hard to pull off for more than a little while at a time. We're habituated to take things for granted. They don't call it the force of habit for nothing. Forgetfulness, on the other hand, is no discipline at all.

The Alien Game has shown me that the more we persist with our questions about life, the more marvels and mysteries open themselves to our curiosity and confusion, and the more vistas open before us, both in the outer world and the inner.

The word mirror and the word miracle share the same Latin root meaning to wonder at, and it's important to locate wonder and fascination, not just out there, but in here—within ourselves. By turning exclamatory wonder in our own direction—toward the questions that animate our days, toward our passions, even toward the fact that we're here at all—we help wonder condense into wisdom and bloom into gratitude.

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