Cats Aren't Curious, They're Hungry

Yesterday, someone asked me, ‘How do you stay curious?’ That’s a surprisingly difficult question. While I was able to respond with some thoughts in the moment, it’s a sticky idea that kept popping back into my head throughout the day. How do you stay curious? Is it a transferable skill or an innate personality trait? Why are some people more curious than others? Could you help others to become more curious? Is it even measurable on a scale? What are all the emotions that are curious adjacent? What does curiosity really feel like… is it a need, a want, a passion project? In addition to being difficult to answer, it feels important to do so. Curiosity as a motivator for growth, learning, change resiliency, and adaptation is tremendously valuable commodity. Unlocking the secret sauce to increasing the motivational spur of curiosity could be a competent of building change capability, capacity and resiliency.

As usual, I want to start with a definition:

curiosity, noun

1.         a strong desire to know or learn something.
synonyms: inquisitiveness, interest, spirit of inquiry; informal nosiness
2.         an unusual or interesting object or fact.
synonyms: peculiarity, oddity, strangeness, oddness, idiosyncrasy, unusualness, novelty

Obviously, the connection between curiosity and a growth mindset is that someone who has a ‘strong desire’ is by definition going to want to change. A person with this curiosity attribute will find a way to prioritise growth and learning in their life, remove obstacles to the achievement of new goals, spur the acquisition of new experiences. Curiosity provides an intrinsic motivator for change, immediately and easily establishing “What’s in it for me?”, the elusive WIIFM which all change influencers and leaders want our people to find. In fact, since a purely curious person would seek out change simply for the novelty of the experience without any real need for additional material or social benefit, this employee would be the cheapest and easiest one to lead through change.

I also think we conflate curiosity with happiness. Probably, this association stems from our experience of children who appear endlessly curious while simultaneously seem so much happier than adults. But let me remind you that correlation does not prove causality. If that person was trying to ask me, “How do you stay happy, Toast?” and said curious instead, that was just a category error. You can have naturally pessimistic curious people (my husband) and really self-satisfied, happy non-curious people (spinning my chair in circle in any given venue I can point to a half dozen in this bucket).

You know, I’m not all that certain I actually am a curious person, at least not like DrC who invests so much time and energy in learning more about the world. I think what I do – how I behave and talk and express myself – gives the illusion of curious. It looks like I’m all about self-improvement and newness and flexibility. However, this ‘strong desire to know or learn something’ doesn’t describe me nearly so well as the phrase ‘nitwit with the attention span of a housefly’. I possess a more or less constant, restless inability to mentally sit still. I get bored easily. I am highly distractible, difficult to motivate toward a single objective, and loathe long form non-fiction. I’m an information omnivore, sampling the buffet of the life in little bits and bites but failing to master any subject beyond the most superficial. Even my college degrees were both the most open ended, non-specific, multi-disciplinary programmes I could opt into. But effectively, you could argue that DrC’s tremendous curiosity for how things work in the world and my inability to focus have resulted in similar outcomes. We are both intellectually in a constant stretch, pushing ourselves to the point where it’s a bit painful but doesn’t do any real harm and thus retaining our mental flexibility and resilience to new ideas well into our middle age.

What we really need and want for ourselves and the people around us is to be able to grow, improve and adapt to an ever-changing world; We’d like to have a growth mindset.  So let’s posit for the moment that a ‘growth mindset’ -- wherein someone has a positive attitude about learning, believes that it is possible through effort to increase their intelligence, and as a result works proactively to improve themselves – requires a motivator. You could be motivated by curiosity or boredom. You could also be motivated by a desire to: make a larger salary, gain increased respect from peers, family, or community, escape a challenging personal situation, or improve the world or the lives of the people in it. I like this framing better, because it shifts the challenge from ‘how do you stay curious’ to ‘how can you identify your motivator and use it to move forward?’

Sadly, the answer is clearly that there is no magic formula. There is no fairy dust. The secret sauce is always going to be this: find your own motivator. Why do you want to do “X”? If you can’t find a reason – if that reason doesn’t immediately spring to mind – don’t spend the energy on the attempt. I mean it. First start with why. Also, figure out why not. Virtually always, the first instinctive response is “I’m too busy,” but I suspect this hides the bigger problem. Why not is so often a fear of the unknown, the risk, the challenge, the discomfort, the loss of something, the absence or reduction or embarrassment. To do a new thing, we’re going to have to be vulnerable to the notion that we’re going to suck for a while at the newness. I want to learn flute, but I’m afraid to fail. I want to listen to KPop, but I’m afraid my daughters will make fun of me. I want to eat Korean food, but I’m afraid of fish sauce… because like that shit is nasty. Everything you try for the first time should be strange and weird and slightly uncomfortable. You’re only going to acquire the new thing, incorporate it into the changed you, by stretching slightly beyond your comfort zone over and over and over again.

BTW, we finally we have the answer to the original question, “Toast, how do you stay curious?” My friend, the only thing that really terrifies me is boredom.

Oh. It also answers a completely separate question, “Toast, why haven’t you mastered meditation?”

The concept of boredom entails an inability to use up present moments in a personally fulfilling way.” ~ Wayne Dyer