Curiosity: What Happened to that Cat?

I was first up among ten speakers, presenting to an audience of about 80 community leaders. As with so many things, my nervous anticipation was much worse than the presentation’s reality and I genuinely enjoyed my eight minutes of modest stardom.

Once I got rolling, I was rolling. It was fun.

Speaking notes don’t always make for the best reading, but this is pretty close to what I actually had to say:

[my background slides are included as featured quotes]

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One of the things I’m about to tell you isn’t true. Can you guess which?

I am one of twelve children, six of whom were adopted.

I once slid 1,000 feet down the face of a glacier.

I have performed as a belly dancer.

And last year, I sat where you are now, thinking: I want to do that. I want to give a LEAD Talk. I was curious what I might want to talk about.

aliceAnd there it was: I was curious about curiosity.

So I set about making myself a student of curiosity. I’m no expert, but I want to share some of what I’ve learned.

As luck would have it, curiosity was in the news right then. Researchers had found that when people were curious to learn the answer to a question they were better at learning that information — and they had greater recall of completely unrelated information they were exposed to at the same time.

The same study showed that when curiosity is stimulated, there’s increased activity in both the hippocampus, where the brain works on memory, and the regions of the brain associated with reward.

For teachers, this is huge. Pique your students’ curiosity on one thing, and they will learn and remember more about anything. And that’s true across the lifespan.

(This is why I wanted to keep you guessing about my introduction – if you are curious, maybe you’ll remember something I say today!)

~ ~ ~

People have been wondering about curiosity for a long time. Piaget viewed curiosity as a function of surprise – that incongruity between expectation and what actually happens. Too little or too much surprise and we aren’t curious – we’re either bored or overwhelmed. Think of it as a bell-shaped curve, an inverted U, filled with curiosity, maximized at that midpoint between none and too much. Call it the “curiosity zone”.

More recently, George Loewenstein at Carnegie Mellon described curiosity as being about “cognitive incongruitythe knowledge gapbetween what we know and what we want to know. The same inverted U…

When we’re tempted to be disappointed and judgmental about someone lacking curiosity, we might want to reflect on whether they have enough information to begin with.

Loewenstein and Todd Kashdan, of George Mason, then went on to describe curiosity as a function of confidence. Again, the inverted U. On the one hand, over-confidence means you don’t bother to be curious because you are just so sure of yourself. On the other: fear kills curiosity. Think of kids growing up in extreme physical or emotional uncertainty – or workers who fear their jobs are in jeopardy. Who has bandwidth for curiosity?

The good news in all of these models is that curiosity can be cultivated — but it can also be squashed.

Babies show curiosity or readiness to learn by babbling and pointing. They will do more of it if parents engage and reinforce the behavior – and will stop entirely if no one responds. Research has shown that when parents model questioning, especially in response to the kids’ own questions, the children learn to ask more and better questions.

But we’ve not always done a lot to reinforce curiosity.

God fashioned Hell for the inquisitive ~ Saint Augustine.

Think of Eve, Pandora, Icarus, that poor long-suffering cat…We’re steeped in stories that warn of the perils of curiosity – not only to ourselves, but to everyone around us. We have tended to think of curiosity as high stakes, deviant behavior that messes with accepted norms and authority.

Which, of course, is exactly what it does….

Curiosity is insubordination in its highest form. ~ Vladimir Nabokov

Curiosity may be insubordinate, but it’s essential to growth. Leadership gurus are all over this stuff. No less than John Maxwell has said “Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it will build the leader.” And that premier consulting group, Bain and Company, specifically seeks to hire really curious employees, believing they can deliver better results for their clients if they are “compulsiveabout asking questions.

Curiosity is a willing, a proud, an eager confession of ignorance. ~  S. Leonard Rubinstein

The great thing about curiosity is that it is not about being the smartest person in the room. It is about being open to new information….

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious. ~ Albert Einstein

As Einstein put it: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

So, the real question is: how to be more like Einstein?

First, be more like da Vinci.

Dimmi. Dimmi. ~ Leonardo da Vinci

Our friend Leonardo was known for his pleading “Dimmi. Dimmi.” (“Tell me. Tell me.”) He wanted to know about everything. The man was voracious. We should be too. We should ask endless questions, embrace what Carol Dweck would call a “growth mindset”. Be ignorant and proud of it!

Second: get a baseline – and then build on it. Kashdan has created an assessment tool to measure curiosity. In ten easy questions, we can get a sense of just how curious we may be. Do we ask a lot of questions? Do we like uncertainty? What’s our tolerance for complexity?

If I were back in the workplace, I think I would make this inventory a part of my interviewing and supervision. I would be looking to hire, cultivate and reward curious people.

Number Three: go deep and go wide. We should be collecting all manner of information and data – both on things that really, really interest us (“deep”) but also on totally random stuff (“wide”).

Brain Grazer, who has produced a string of blockbuster movies, credits curiosity as the secret to his success. He has what he calls “curiosity conversations”. He seeks out people from every imaginable domain – astrophysicists, police chiefs, political prisoners, you name it – just to learn from them.

We can all do this. We could do it in this room right now.

One of Kashdan’s most interesting findings is that couples report much more lasting marital satisfaction after undertaking novel, exciting activities together – spending time together in that “curiosity zone”. So Number Four on my list is Tango!

We should be getting out there with our loved one and doing the unfamiliar, the challenging, the silly, the new — just doing it and doing it together.

Kashdan’s work also suggests that even more than discord, boredom is the best predictor of a relationship’s demise. Don’t let it happen to you!

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. ~ Dorothy Parker

One of the most entertaining things I ran across in my reading on curiosity was the Boring Conference – an actual conference with papers and presentations on “boring” stuff like one guy’s necktie collection and a careful study of teaspoons.

The secret to the conference is in what’s called the “transformative power of attention” — things get interesting if you just look at them closely enough. The research is compelling: people who can sustain interest, even in the mundane, tend to be happier.

So – Number Five: Consider your teaspoons. Or, as Henry James put it, “Try to be the kind of person upon whom nothing is lost.”

~ ~ ~

marsI’m not one of twelve kids. But I have fallen down the face of a glacier, I’ve belly danced before a live audience, and I’ve tried to follow my curiosity.

I hope you will too.

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Want to Know More?

Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything – Phillip Ball, 2014.

A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life – Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman, 2015.

Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life Todd Kashdan, 2010.

Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on ItIan Leslie, 2014.

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