The Curious Case of Curiosity
How curious are you about curiosity?
Aristotle believed that curiosity separates us from the lesser creatures. He believed the very essence of being human is our desire to know, to be curious.
Aristotle, as usual, may be onto something here. After all, curiosity has given us rocket ships and lightbulbs. It has caused us to walk across land bridges, to discover new lands, and to rise to the top of the food chain. Curiosity is even the name of NASA's Mars rover, which at this very moment is trundling along on the surface of Mars collecting data that might answer a few of the most tantalizing questions in the universe.
But if curiosity is so damn important, why does it fade in most of us when we become adults?
Think about it. How often are you truly curious anymore? When was the last time that you spent hours consumed by a meaningful question?
The excuses for neglecting curiosity are easy and plentiful, but is it possible that we ignore curiosity at our own peril?
I became more curious about curiosity a few years ago. It started with a newspaper article.
The story went something like this: A man fell while waterskiing. As he fell, his wedding ring tangled in the ski rope, which caused his finger to pop off. A few days later, a fisherman found the man's finger inside a lake trout, wedding ring and all.
It sounds implausible, I know, but don't let that distract you. Here's the detail that matters: When my son, Toby, heard this fish story, he was eight-years-old. For an eight-year-old, a story about a finger-munching trout is like a witch's spell. It's not just a fish story, it's a bottomless rabbit hole for curiosity.
I read the story, but that was all. He cared about the story.
Curiosity comes from the Latin word cura, to care, which is Aristotle's point. We humans fight wars and wear clothes and do plenty of things that animals don't do, but the thing that makes us truly different is our capacity to care about answers.
When you care about finding answers, the results are profound.
Case in point: Curiosity made Toby watch videos on catching lake trout. Curiosity made him read and research the lake trout's habits and origins. Curiosity made him consult strange men in sporting goods stores whom he hoped might have answers to his lake trout questions. On weekends, when we visited our family lake cabin, curiosity made Toby go fishing. It made him pay attention to the weather, and wake up early, and spritz his lures with foul-smelling attractants. There was a ferocity to his curiosity-fueled routine, which caused his little brother and his cousins to join in. They became curious too.
Thanks to a severed finger and curiosity, fishing inevitably became catching.
Evenings during that summer culminated with a dockside ritual—a tan and shirtless gaggle of boys armed with fillet knives gathered around a stringer of lake trout. If this sounds grim or like Lord of the Flies to you, then you haven't spent much time in Idaho and you're misunderstanding my point.
Toby was catching lake trout in the name of science and discovery, seeking Aristotelian answers to questions relating to the fundamental relationship between man and beast. He was curious. And curiosity is a powerful master.
"He was curious. And curiosity is a powerful master."
He had heard the story of a finger-eating trout and wanted to know how, and why, and what for. He had questions about a fish and he wanted answers.
Toby never said it, but we all suspected he half-hoped to find a finger inside one of those trout.
In the end, though fingers, proved hard to come by.
The boys and their knives, however, did confirm one thing: The appetite of the lake trout is remarkable. The boys found bird legs, half-digested minnows, rusted lures, shrimp, and dragonflies. One trout had BBs in its stomach. Another contained a slimy, partially-eaten piece of paper. Over time, the list grew: Pinecones, leeches, clam shells, leaves, bones, moths. You get the idea.
All summer Toby dredged up treasures from the deep depths of the lake and the voracious craw of his muse: The inimitable finger-eating lake trout.
Collectively, it made me wonder: Was Toby’s curiosity exceptional or did he merely find himself at the perfect convergence of time, place, and circumstance? An eight-year-old boy, a fish-filled lake, and a compliant family willing to play Queequeg to his Captain Ahab.
And what about his talent for catching trout? Was it innate or was it the by-product of perseverance?
As a father and long-time teacher, I found these questions compelling. What is success? What is talent? How much can be taught? What is the truest path to achievement?
I thought about what Aristotle said about our innate thirst for understanding. I thought about the students I had been teaching for over twenty years. I thought about something that I’d read in a book by Malcolm Gladwell in which he claimed that achievement, boiled down, is merely talent plus lots of preparation.
Gladwell's equation looked like this:
I liked Gladwell's “practice-make-perfect” idea. It’s attractive because it suggests, to a certain degree, that we can all succeed if we are willing to work hard.
But the teacher in me was suspicious. Practice, even thousands of hours of it, only goes so far if you don’t have curiosity. Toby had taught me that. So had my many years in the classroom.
Take long division as an example. Practicing long division will eventually make most people proficient at long division, but practicing in general, whether it's long division, piano scales, or trout fishing doesn't make any meaningful difference without curiosity.
If you're looking for proficiency, practice away, be my guest—maybe you'll become proficient, and, yes, sometimes proficiency is enough. But proficiency doesn’t invent the light bulb or discover a theory of relativity. It will catch a fish or two but it won't keep you fishing.
If you're looking for real learning, the kind of learning that inspired Aristotle and Tesla and Curie and Armstrong, you'll need curiosity.
There's no way around it.
"If you're looking for real learning, the kind of learning that inspired Aristotle and Tesla and Curie and Armstrong, you'll need curiosity. There's no way around it"
Achievement, in my experience, is a nuanced cocktail of many components: Grit, intelligence, connections, upbringing, assertiveness, social conditions, self-confidence, and, yes, as Gladwell rightly points out, talent and practice.
But achievement’s principle component is curiosity.
If Gladwell practiced hard enough, who knows, maybe even he could become a passable trout fisherman, possibly even a talented one. But a great fisherman? I doubt it—not without adding curiosity to his calculus:
Success born of hard work is one thing. Success born of curiosity is another thing altogether.
Toby's fishing success, for example, is more than the sum total of lake trout caught. In his curiosity-driven quest to understand a trout, he became an accomplished biologist, surgeon, naturalist, meteorologist, and sportsman.
Toby and his lake trout convinced me that if we don't kindle curiosity, we begin to gravitate towards the things we’ve already done. We stagnate.
We come to want what we know, which isn't always what we like. We end up going on the same vacations. We end up eating at the same two or three restaurants. We end up reading the same types of books, if we even read at all. We put curiosity on the back burner, find our comfort zone, and settle in.
In other words, we stop fishing for answers.
For the curious, life is an adventure. For the incurious, it falls somewhere between routine, self-deception, and dreary obligation.
Curiosity leads to investigation. Investigation leads to discovery. Discovery ignites wonder. And wonder leads to self-awareness.
And, let's not forget, curiosity has humbler powers too. It makes any job less boring. It's the spark that makes us want to wake up in the morning.
We live in a world in which surface answers come easily and quickly. We’re taught to be efficient, consistent, and to play it safe. Our politicians, more and more, are incurious people, drowning in dogma, incapable of dialogue.
I doubt this is a new trend. I'm sure Aristotle dealt with it too.
When we're curious, we think more deeply, we travel more broadly, and we ask more probing questions. We're reminded that discovery is itself its own reward and that the status quo doesn’t have to be our status quo.
When curiosity catches hold of us, it brings us into the present moment and into a state of awareness the Zen Buddhists call “the beginner mind. ” To return to this state, monks meditate and chant and shave their heads and ponder koans.
All Toby had to do was go fishing.
Still, it makes me wonder: Are the monks right, at least in spirit? Is it possible that curiosity doesn't go away; it just becomes harder to come by?
I know full well that curiosity isn't easy: I still have no idea how electricity works, though I pretend I do and wish I did. I only speak one language, which is disappointing and embarrassing. I’ve never been to India or the Middle east, yet I keep talking about visiting both. Of course the list goes on.
The point is, there’s plenty of room for curiosity in my life and there’s room for it in your life too. There’s still time to arm ourselves against decline and boredom and predictability.
We need to remind ourselves to turn over stones. We need to take on challenges. We need to tell ourselves that even the familiar, when viewed correctly, can sometimes be surprising. We need to surround ourselves with interesting people. We need to think deeply about the things that inspire us and then find ways to pursue them.
A freezer full of lake trout fillets gets a guy thinking. For me it led to a simple question: What, after all, was my lake trout? Which leads to another question: What’s yours?
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