The Curious Case for Cultivating Curiosity

On Thursday evening, I flew into New York City.  At LaGuardia airport, I met a man who’d recently come from the West Coast.  His name is Manmohan Pooni.

Earlier in the week, Monmohan had been in California presenting at a national conference on Indian History and Literature.  His specific area of expertise is the Indian Freedom Fighters during the 1940’s.

I’ll be honest.  Before last Thursday, I knew next to nothing about the Indian Freedom Fighters of the 40’s. Monmohan shared a fascinating overview with me, and also explained how this movement directly influenced the American Civil Rights movement.

As we talked, I learned that the conference in California had been attended by 300 people: mainly researchers and academics.  Before his presentation, Monhannan was asked by one of the professors where he worked and lived.Manmohan told me,

At first I didn’t know what to say.  Then, I figured, might as well tell him.  I told him.  I said “I drive a taxicab in New York City.”   You should have that professor’s face!  His jaw practically hit the floor.Surprised?

Yes, Monmohan was my cab driver on Thursday.

Let’s be honest: on another day, on another ride, this conversation never would have happened.Instead, I would have hopped in the back seat, and blurted out an address.  To me, Monmohan would have been a nameless, faceless entity: cabdriver.  Once we got rolling, I would have pulled out my phone and spent the whole ride catching up on emails, texts, and if I had some free time, surfing the internet.  All I’d care about is getting to where I wanted to go.  Quickly.

But on Thursday, something was different.  I was curious.

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.

Albert Einstein

Curiosity is defined as “a strong desire to know or learn something”.Research has shown there are many health benefits to being a curious person:

  • Increased happiness

  • Reduced anxiety

  • Improved brain functioning

  • Improved memory

Given these benefits, you’d think we’d all be more curious more of the time.But we’re not.  That’s because curiosity comes with two costs:  control and time.

Curiosity Cost #1: Control

More people are afraid of flying on a plane than driving in a car, even though flying has been proven to be massively safer.  Why?   Behind the wheel of a car, holding on to that steering wheel, you think you’re in control.Control is the feeling that you’re in charge of your fate.  It’s the belief you have the freedom to direct your actions.  Control satisfies a basic human need: the need for certainty.

Certainty brings comfort.   A certain level of comfort is good.  However, too much time in the comfort zone brings stagnation and boredom.  It’s only when we stretch beyond the comfort zone that we’re growing – and feel most alive.

To be curious, you have to be willing to give up control.  You’ve got to let go of that death grip on the steering wheel.  You’ve got to allow for not knowing where something is going to wind up.  You have to be okay with “let’s explore”.

There’s a reason diehard controllers are known as ‘control freaks’.  Not having control freaks them out.  They’d rather stick with the tried and true than venture out into new terrain.  (Maybe this explains why lots of Americans eat at McDonald’s when they travel overseas.)

Are you a closet control freak?  If so, you already know what the cost is to your curiosity.

But do you recognize how a need to control hampers your ability to innovate? Curiosity is the seed from which innovation springs.

Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have.

Emile Chartier

Next time your stuck in your controlling patterns, try these options:

  1. Start practicing patience. Breathing often helps with this.

  2. Seek out multiple alternatives before making decisions.

  3. Use the 10/10/10 rule. Ask “How will I feel about this 10 minutes from now? Ten months from now? Ten years from now?” This experiment will make your thinking less rigid.

Curiosity Cost #2: Time

You don’t need convincing that time is in short supply.  You only get 168 hours of it every week.In our fast-paced, plugged in, 24/7 world, it’s easy to feel that you’ve always got more to do and never enough time to do it.  Every day can feel like a race: check off the box on the to-do list.  Onto the next box…go!

To be curious means jumping off the hamster wheel of constant activity.  To discover something fresh, you’ve got to believe there’s enough time to find it.  Then, you’ve got to have the courage to veer off the beaten path and seek it out.

If you feel too trapped in busy mode to cultivate curiosity, try this simple exercise:

  • Next time you find yourself waiting in a line, flying on a plane, or in a taxicab, notice the person next to you.

  • Strike up a conversation.

  • Learn something new about someone else.

This simple practice will strengthen your ‘curiosity muscles’.

What other ways do you strengthen your skill at being curious?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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