The other day, I wrote about why curiosity is important—why learning how to ask good questions is how people can make their world better. Everyone is naturally curious—it’s just a matter of exercising it.
Today, I get into the nitty-gritty of how to nurture and stoke your curiosity.
#1: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions You Can’t Answer Yet
Asking questions is a way of aiming our learning—the questions you ask will shape how you think. It will also shape the sort of answers you’ll create.
Consider two similar but distinct questions:
“How do I find the one thing I’m best at?”
“What can I do to make the biggest impact?”
At some point, all of us ask ourselves a variation of this question, but consider where each of them leads. They might lead to the same answer but would take us there by vastly different routes.
Asking “what am I best at” is ultimately asking what can I do to develop my skills or gifts—irrespective of what other people need. Seeking the answer to that question might take me somewhere good, but it could just as likely take me somewhere meaningless or of no worth to anyone else.
If that’s what someone is looking for, more power to them. But when someone asks “How do I find my special talent/gift/calling,” what they usually want is significance. And developing a talent is not the same as finding meaning.
But that second question—”what can I do to make the biggest impact”—immediately frames our lives in the needs of other people. Making an impact forces us to think about our actions or talents in the context of community. It changes the way we find the answer.
Maybe both of those questions are impossible to answer in the short-term, but that’s not the point. The point is that which question you ask could mean the difference between years of developing a useless talent and years chasing down a calling that betters other people’s lives.
#2: Take Nothing for Granted, Especially ‘Common Sense’
The nature of curiosity requires us to get comfortable challenging our own assumptions. Why do buildings in Boston always seem to be made of brick? Why do so many people who lack housing also have drug addictions? Why do Los Angeles apartments have such expensive rent, even in the suburbs?
Questions with ‘obvious’ answers are good candidates for taking a second look. For instance, taking substance abuse.
Most folks think that substance abuse is what causes homelessness—and in some studies, that is the case. Researchers have found a high correlation between substance abuse and homelessness. Most people stop there. They fill in the blanks with memories of their relatives who burned bridges and lost jobs while struggling with the disease of addiction, and they think to themselves, “Ah, well, that makes sense. Substance abuse leads to homelessness.”
But that’s not always the case.
For instance, one 2007 study found it was housing insecurity that caused a person to use drugs, not the other way around. People who lost their homes or lost their jobs were more likely to use drugs or alcohol to cope—which made their situations even harder to manage.
In light of that information, preventing drug abuse not only becomes a psychological or social issue but an economic one as well. Creating accessible housing could quite possibly change the number of people who are susceptible to abuse. Mental health and housing could be more closely tied than we might think.
It’s at least an idea worth exploring—and that’s the point of challenging our grasp of the world around us.
Hint: if a piece of ‘knowledge’ requires someone to defend it with “well, everyone knows X,” that’s a perfect place to start.
#3: Be Tentatively Complete in Your Knowledge
One of the theologians I recently read said that a person’s understanding of the Bible needs to be “tentatively final”—always open to refinement. While we need to act on what we know right now, our learning ought to remain ongoing.
I think that’s powerful advice for every discipline, every area of learning. Our understanding needs to always be in a state of refinement. We have to be willing to let our understanding be challenged by new evidence, new facts, and ongoing investigation.
That takes two character traits: humility and discipline.
Discipline equips us to seek out new sources of information, evaluate and investigate every assertion. Discipline keeps us from “sitting on our laurels” and prevents us from assuming we know everything while the world is learning and growing beyond us.
Humility is what allows us to change our thinking in response to new information. Learning new things means nothing if it doesn’t change how we think. Reading is way too much work to allow ourselves to remain the same. Might as well binge watch The Office instead. Humility is what allows us to grow in our curiosity.
In conclusion, curiosity, real curiosity, is a powerful thing. It makes us people who are eternal learners—people who don’t mind being wrong because the point isn’t to be right. The point is to always be growing, shifting, learning, and deepening. I mean, yes, the idea is to be accurate too, but accuracy will come naturally to you if you’re always asking good questions.
One more thing: your curiosity is a tender thing. Don’t judge it. Don’t shush it. Let your mind wander and explore a little. As Congressman John Lewis likes to say, get into some “good trouble.”