In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. He enjoyed a calm life somewhere in the Shire on the edges of Middle-earth. All the other hobbits lived equally content and peaceful lives and every day seemed to be only a slightly different variation of the day before.
However, our hobbit wanted more. He had itchy feet. Wanderlust. He felt the strong desire to leave his village and find out what else is out there. One day, the occasion arose when a magician and some quarrelsome dwarves paid him an unexpected visit and took him on an epic adventure miles away from his home.
Of course, this is the story of Bilbo Beutlin in Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
Without a hero’s curiosity, there wouldn’t be a story
Heroes try new things. They embark on spontaneous adventures, explore new places and people and generally wander through the world with their eyes wide open. In short, heroes are curious. If they weren’t curious, if they avoided the call to adventure, they wouldn’t embark on their hero’s journey and there wouldn’t be much of a story.
Being curious means that you are actively interested in a wide variety of things and genuinely want to know more about the world around you. Curiosity, at its core, is about recognizing and seizing the pleasures that new experiences offer us. It is about finding novelty and meaning even in ordinary matters that look familiar from the outside.
Curiosity finds meaning
Are there any advantages of curiosity?
Many. There has been much academic research on this topic, and we are blessed with science-backed studies which prove that curiosity can drastically improve your quality of life.
Firstly, curiosity makes your brain and mind more active.
When you are in a state of curiosity, you proactively ask questions and try to find answers. Your mind becomes more observant and inquisitive. Being open to new experiences keeps your brain and mind active and alert and anticipates new ideas related to the subject you are curious about. So that all makes your mind more active. Since your brain is a muscle, it becomes stronger the more often we activate and train it with curiosity.
Studies have shown that staying curious also helps you preserving your mental activity later in life. The urge and need to find novelty keeps the world around us exciting and ever-changing.
Curiosity pushes us to complete knowledge gaps about topics and thus is a basis for intellectual achievement. Being curious is an excellent way to expand and foster our knowledge. Studies showed that we tend to learn faster if we are genuinely interested in the subject matter.
Also, if you have creative ambitions, I have good news: curiosity fosters creativity as it creates an openness to the unfamiliar and allows to find things that are usually not visible on first sight. Curious people tend to generate many original ideas which are counter-intuitive.
Some studies showed that curiosity also helps us finding better purpose and meaning in life. Why? Because the curious mind is always looking for new ideas and concepts to explore. If we are curious, we often stop on our journey called life and look around to see what else is out there. Thus, we are more receptive and more likely to find something that triggers our passion as curiosity is most often the starting point for life-long interests and hobbies.
Curiosity is also helpful on a social level. Curious people are often better listeners and more empathic as they are genuinely interested and, of course, curious about other people. That can be beneficial for relationships as we keep being involved in our partner’s life and its continuous changes. Also, let’s be honest, who would want to be with somebody who is not interested in your life?
Similarly, being curious is also advantageous for leadership. Having a leader with a hungry mind will enable their teams to navigate complexity by continually looking for new things. They find novelty exciting and are quickly bored with routine. Uncurious leaders will most likely hold on to old methods they know and thus create stagnation.
Beware of the Pandora’s Box
Hopefully, I could convince you about the advantages of being curious by now; but are there any disadvantages to curiosity?
Well, generally no, but one perk that could come with it is that curious people are more prone to embark on ill-fated adventures.
The need to satisfy our curiosity can be so strong that we disregard potential harmful consequences. Think of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, think about the tale of Icarus or on a slightly more mundane level, think of somebody who wakes up every morning and is super curious about all new videos of puppies and kittens on youtube. I bet he could make better use of his time.
“The Pandora Effect” describes doing unfortunate things that are driven by boundless curiosity. One sad example of this phenomenon is “rubbernecking,” which describes turning your head to gawk at a car crash as you drive past the accident.
Thus, a bit of cost-benefit analysis at times can help us using our curiosity for things that are worth pursuing with our precious time.
However, generally, having a curious mind is a blessing and can enrich your life on many levels.
Be amazed by everyday things
One question remains: can we learn curiosity?
The good news is, yes, we can.
Firstly, be humble. Enter everything you do with a clear mind and do not assume that you already know how everything works. Asking Questions helps. What, why, when, who, where, and how are the best friends of curious people. Do not take things at face value but instead dig deeper. Ultimately that helps you to overcome prejudices and see things how they are, not how you expect them to be.
As Neil DeGrasse Tyson wisely puts it: “the people who don’t ask questions remain clueless throughout their lives.”
Write the words “Don’t assume” in big friendly letters on your wall. Assuming something is the single biggest killer to curiosity as it stops us from exploring further.
Also, never label something as dull but instead allow yourself to dive in and be surprised and amazed at everyday things. If you dig a little deeper, you will find exciting details in almost anything. If you label something as not interesting from the start, you already closed the door of potentially finding something novel and exciting.
Even if you have to do something as mundane as waiting in a queue in a theme park, sharpen your observation skills and give more attention to your environment. Look for small details others might miss. The stain on the ground that resembles an octopus, the lady with this strangely pink overcoat or a meaningful conversation people behind you in the queue have. The goal is to find the unfamiliar in the familiar. Hidden gems are everywhere.
Listen to artist and composer John Cage: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”
Another useful method to foster curiosity is to vary your sources of information and use resources which represent other viewpoints than yours. Also, listen to people from a wide variety of backgrounds and beliefs. Mingle with people you usually wouldn’t hang out with. Mentoring and volunteering are always good in that respect as it gives you access to people you often wouldn’t meet.
Oh, and in case you lost it on your long journey into adulthood I highly recommend reconnecting with play. Adding some grains of playfulness to your daily tasks naturally builds interest and curiosity.
Curiosity leads to Wonderland
Heroes are generally curious.
Think of all the heroes in adventure movies for a start.
It was curiosity that made Alice fell down the rabbit hole and straight into a wonderland where she lived through her memorable adventures. It was curiosity that made the Darlings following Peter Pan all the way to Neverland and Jim Hawkins sailing all the way to treasure island. Those characters were all driven by a curious and open mind.
Please think of the hobbits whose insatiable curiosity lead their journey through Mirkwood, the mines of Moria and all the way to Mordor and gave them a lifetime filled with adventures.
As J.R.R. Tolkien describes in The Hobbit: “Still round the corner, there may wait a new road or a secret gate. And though I often have passed them by a day will come at last when I shall take the hidden paths that run west of the moon, east of the sun.”
The life of curious heroes is far from boring. It’s neither dull nor routine. There are always new things that attract their attention, new paths they can journey on and new people they can meet.
The entire movie “Amelie” is driven by its eponymous main character’s curiosity. It is Amelie’s unusual approach which makes brings some good chaos to the world around her and that makes her neighbours eventually happier. Has anybody seen Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window? Only when the James Stewart character starts being curious in his neighbor’s life does this fascinating crime story unfold.
Curiosity also can be introspective. We are curious about finding ourselves which triggers the adventure in the first place. Think about all the movies about self-discovery. For example, in the film Wildwhere the Reese Witherspoon character hikes from Mexico to Oregon and learns about redemption and experiences her mental rebirth.
Similar, albeit more tragic, is the movie Into the Wild in which the main character curiously exposes himself to the wild which allows him to see him and the world in a whole new way.
A lighter version is Eat Pray Love, in which the Julia Roberts character embarks on a journey of self-discovery and mental happiness.
Their characters` curiosity drives all the great love stories for each other. One prominent example is the wonderful “Before Sunrise.” This beautiful story of love, destiny, and soulmates is driven by their two main characters’ curiosity to get to know the other person more intimately. After one night roaming through Vienna and deep conversations, they have finally found their soulmates.
Even a surreal war movie like Apocalypse Now is driven by its main character’s curiosity. True, he is an army captain who gets sent on a mission at first, but only his mysterious fascination and interest for the elusive Colonel Kurtz makes this dark tale a true masterpiece.
Ok, admittedly, there is one movie genre in which curiosity rarely gets rewarded: Horror. Think of the teenagers who go curiously into an old Victorian building by night or the young filmmakers who try to find a witch in the forests of Pennsylvania. However, then…well, you know what happens then. You have to agree though: without any curious characters, Horror movies would be a pretty boring genre.
Stay a little scientist throughout your life
Curiosity is important. For heroes and for each one of us. Think about it; how can you possibly have a fulfilling life without experiencing and learning new things?
The world is full of hidden treasures. Knowing that makes us curious and eager to explore the world and find these treasures.
Instead of desperately trying to control our world, we can embrace uncertainty instead, and be curious. That gives us a chance to see our lives as an enjoyable quest to discover, learn and grow.
Always remember that new experiences with uncertain outcome often are the most exciting and memorable moments in our lives: blind dates, sports events or challenging business presentations. Imagine you always had known a certain outcome for those events beforehand. Not very exciting, isn`t it?
Uncertainty and surprise bring more thrills and excitement into our lives than most people realize. It is curiosity that makes us seek and experience those moments.
On a more universal note, intellectual curiosity is the critical driver for human progress. We see that most clearly in how it manifests itself in geniuses who are always curious. For example, Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman are all curious characters. Curiosity pushed them to explore their subjects and the world around them and continuously fostered progress.
One of the crucial ingredients of curiosity is remaining fascinated by what we don’t know. Curiosity keeps us open to learn, unlearn, and relearn.
Unfortunately, many of us tend to stop asking questions when we grow older because we fear it might make us look stupid. We don’t put us in situations of uncertainty anymore as we are then more vulnerable. By avoiding the unknown and any potential distress, we become less open, and there is a real threat of stagnating and growing anxious.
Just think of the most curious beings on this planet: children. They are like empty canvasses, eagerly waiting to be filled with knowledge and experiences without any fixed expectations. The famous psychologist Jean Piaget described children as “little scientists” because they are always wondering and making their own theories about how the world around them works.
So, go out there and release your inner child. Listen to Albert Einstein who remained eager to learn new things throughout his life: “The important thing is not to stop questioning… Never lose your holy curiosity.”
Be a child, be daring, be alive! Be curious. Go and discover something new every day.