This I Believe: Curiosity
“Go look it up.” One of the most indispensable lessons my parents taught me. Curiosity was its own reward, and it is in curiosity that I believe.
People are sometimes described as having “natural curiosity,” as though they are born with something that others lack. The truth is, we all started out naturally curious. It’s the inspiration for babies to crawl and toddlers to toddle.
Curiosity drove us then and, if coupled with nurturing and reward, continues to drive us now, as individuals and as a society.
Being a college administrator for many years, I have become partial to those who ask “why.” Faculty are driven to know how the climate in South America has an impact on ice caps in Antarctica, or why the structure of that particular DNA molecule is the way it is, or how to help today’s students learn. Staff members who ask, “Why have we always done it that way?” Students who don’t just learn to live, but live to learn. Innovation isn’t just the stuff of the laboratory; it’s the stuff of camaraderie and coffee breaks, search engines and study groups.
Sure, there’s a dark side to curiosity, compelling us to peek into our neighbor’s medicine cabinet and towards the wreck on the other side of the highway. It tunes us in by the millions to reality TV. And rumor has it that curiosity has killed at least one cat.
To that rumor, however, I present my own cat as evidence to the contrary. He has overcome many a dubious moment employing investigative trial and error and all of his nine lives appear to be firmly intact.
With only one life to spend on pursuits, I see curiosity as the improbable intersection of ambition and humility. I want to know what I want to know enough to admit that I don’t know it. Yet.
Curiosity is also the complement to creativity. Author Roger von Oech* identifies the act of looking beyond the obvious – he calls it the ‘second right answer’ – as fundamental to creativity.
I believe that anyone at any time in their lives can experience the reward of curiosity satisfied. Questions that lead to answers. That lead to more questions. The American writer and poet Dorothy Parker once said, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” This perpetual cycle can literally change a person’s focus from passive (Why me?) to engaged (Why?).
One of curiosity’s greatest prodigies, Albert Einstein, suggested his muse was of a sublime – even consecrated – nature. “Holy curiosity” he called it. I like this idea. If God gave us free will, He clearly intended for us to make something of it. Specifically, to love one another enough to make an effort: What makes us different and how are we the same? How can we use our differences to solve problems and use our similarities to, well, solve problems? What does our past tell us about our future?
Let’s start by looking it up.
* A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.