Why. Three letters. Great power. As any parent will tell you the question “why?” is one that you both love and hate. Children have a natural curiosity from birth. They explore. They push at boundaries. Children have no preconceived ideas about what is acceptable. If they want to know about something they will ask why. If it doesn’t make sense to them they’ll ask why. At some point, the why questions become too much and the retort is “because I said so”. As a parent, we know this is more about our limits (patience, knowledge) than it is because the question doesn’t warrant being asked.
At some point in life, for many people, this natural curiosity seems to fade into the background. We stop prodding and probing at things. The temptation to take apart a toy to see how it is made up goes away. We learn to accept things as they’re given to us. Perhaps we become lazy. Perhaps we work out what matters to us and accept the things that don’t. Either way, with it, comes a loss of curiosity and this is a dangerous path to tread.
One of the potentially dangerous things with search engines autocompleting the search term is that we reduce curiosity further. The diversity of questions will reduce over time. There is an increased risk of increasing perception bias. If I hold the view that having a beard (as I do) makes you more intelligent than a search “Does having a beard make you more intelligent?” will get me lots of evidence to support this view. Whereas a search “What evidence is there for facial hair being linked to intelligence” is likely to bring a much more balanced set of results. If I have become so dependent on the search engine to form my question then not only is curiosity diminished but so is my ability to ask good questions.
I believe that being curious is integral to being able to develop new ideas, to make better (and different) use of technology, to create a fairer society and a better future. It also makes us more interesting people and that’s got to be a good thing.
There is no magic formula to being curious but if you treat it like a muscle then that’s a good start. You need to exercise your curiosity. Develop the practice. Give time to doing things because of what it might lead to rather than only because you need to get an answer. I appreciate that this sounds like something that goes against a view of being deliberate and intentional in the way we spend our time. Accepting that can be the case, I don’t think the two things are mutually exclusive. Part of the approach that Cal Newport sets out in Deep Work is about taking the time to get stuck into something. Go beyond the initial search results. Be prepared to develop a broader or deeper understanding of something.
Here are a few things that you can do to start bringing your curiosity muscle back into play:
- Read something that you wouldn’t normally pick up. If someone recommends a book, even if I see someone on a train reading something, it nearly always gets added to my list of things to read.
- Listen to other voices as often as you can. That may be a podcast, TV or radio show that is different to normal. Search out something that sits beyond your normal set on influences.
- Stop using auto-complete for your search terms. It might not be easy to disable it (though there are options available) but just because it’s there doesn’t mean you have to use it.
- Let other people make choices for you. If you’re meeting someone for a drink then let them choose what you have. Or allow the other person to order your meal. Part of being curious is about letting go of having to know the answers and letting others influence you.
- Whenever you’re asked for an opinion or faced with a decision, force yourself to come up with three or four alternatives. Ask why they could work, what would it take for them to succeed, what are the barriers that are created. You don’t have to pursue any of these options but by going through the motion of thinking of alternatives will be useful.
- Finally, ask why and don’t be prepared to accept the answer “because I told you so!” We need to know the time and the place to explore things and, at the moment, won’t always be possible but find the time to follow up. Be comfortable with not knowing, don’t be comfortable with not finding out.
Like so many things we were once able to do, curiosity is something that fades over time and so we have a choice. We either accept this or decide to not let that happen. Start now, be curious about what it will take to increase your curiosity in the rest of today.