“Curiosity is the essence of human existence. “Who are we? Where are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?” I don’t know. I don’t have any answers to those questions. I don’t know what’s over there and around that corner. But I want to find out.”
—Eugene Cernan – American astronaut
Curiosity is a fascinating, even magical behavior that’s relevant to each and every one of us. It defines our natural inquisitiveness as humans, without curiosity we wouldn’t have moved beyond being cave dwellers. Exploiting our curiosity has enabled us to reach the advanced scientific and technological world of the twenty-first century.
We most commonly associate curiosity with children and their raw, hungry desire to understand the world around them and their place in it. While research suggests that as we age our inquisitiveness tends to fade, curiosity is just as relevant in adulthood, not only helping you discover more about who you are, but providing a basis on which to build better relationships, unlock creativity and innovation, grow your intellect, and boost your general health and well-being.
In his book Curious, Ian Leslie describes the process of curiosity in childhood. This is a useful framework from which to see the how to approach your own self-awareness and exploration. In a sense, it’s very like that of a detective. Whether it’s Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Morse, or Maigret, there are connections and parallels between their work and effectively exploring your own story: their resolute approach and insistent need never to take anything at face value. These masters of curiosity see things from every angle until they find the clues that unlock the mystery.
Leslie describes the three steps of curiosity as follows.
1 KNOWING WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW
You approach a situation accepting your own inexperience. You’re not presuming you know the answer, but rather asking questions with an open mind and really considering the answers. This is known as empathic curiosity: an interest in the thoughts and feelings of other people, and remaining ready to encounter the unexpected.
When I’m profiling clients as a psychologist I meet everyone from a position of naivety: no expectations and no presumptions. This way I can really connect with them, putting my own presuppositions aside in order to understand their personal experiences and how those have affected who they are.
It’s good you to use this approach when working on your self-awareness. Rather than answering questions with your habitual response, think about what you really think, feel, and want. Don’t assume you know the answers until you’ve looked at things from every angle, dig beneath the surface, and ask yourself why you feel the way you do about certain things, how the beliefs you have formed came about, what led you to take certain decisions. Doing this will provide far richer insights to work with in working out who you are and what you want from life.
2 IMAGINING DIFFERENT, COMPETING POSSIBILITIES
You hold more than one possibility in mind at any given time and explore which one is right. For example, when meeting someone shy, consider “Is this person shy when they meet new people?” or “Are they quiet in this situation because they’re nervous?” This element of curiosity is essential when it comes to the line of questioning we psychologists take in profiles, drawing inferences about a client’s mental state, judgments, and actions while recognizing that nothing is a foregone conclusion. Any thought or idea needs to be explored and tested.
When you’re reflecting on your own journey, try to remember that the first decision you come to about yourself may not be the right one. It’s essential always to consider more than one inference and thoroughly explore it before jumping to a conclusion. Try to suspend judgment until you have explored all the options. It may help you find out something about yourself you’d never considered before.
3 UNDERSTAND THAT YOU CAN LEARN FROM OTHER PEOPLE
Keep an open mind to others’ thoughts, attitudes, and experiences. In social situations, we have a natural tendency to show other people what we know about a familiar subject, rather than listening to what they can tell us. Yet pausing to learn about them and asking questions inevitably provide information that we can reapply to ourselves. For example, you may find a different way of seeing things, a means of overcoming an issue that you hadn’t thought of, an opportunity that you didn’t know about.
Extract adapted from my book Defining You which is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.com, amazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.
Photograph courtesy of Liz Waight – http://www.elizabethwaight.com