What are the qualities that make people happy, able to find joy and delight in the smallest of things? In this series of posts, we explore qualities displayed by people that we admire, who exude an endless stream of fascination and embody the hallmarks of a satisfying life. In this post, we begin by exploring curiosity, investigating the social pressures that cause us to hide our questions and the reasons we benefit from asking them.
Curiosity is a trait that manifests early on in life. Children are notorious for their endless stream of wonderings, musings, and questions: Where does the snow come from? (The sky, we say.) How far away is the sky? (Very far away.) Is it ninety-nine hundred-hundred ninety miles away? (Probably, we say, because that isn’t a number, but it’s the general gist.) How long does it take to get there? To that, you might answer something about airplanes, or spaceships, and soon the questions deviate from inquiries about the sky and move into the realm of space travel, in which case you might begin to reach for Siri, or Alexa, or Google. We indulge their bright young minds, giving those sponges oodles to soak up as an investment in their futures.
Language of the Birds
Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn, 2008
Art Installation, North Beach and Chinatown neighborhoods, San Francisco
“I sat with my understanding of the site, while watching swallows move through the air, they came together to create fleeting compositions. The image of flying books emerged from the idea of culture and nature interconnecting in unexpected ways.” Brian Goggin
As we grow older, however, such questions are tolerated with sour looks, harrumphs, and gestures of exasperation. Why is our department’s budget so small when the other department’s is three times the size? Can we make it bigger? Who should I ask? What’s the best time and place to ask them? We might receive no answer, or the unsatisfying statement, “That’s just the way it is.” And so we learn through repeated discouragement to stop asking and do as we are told, accepting certain things as weary facts of life.
Why are questions from adults so unwelcome in many situations in daily life? Why is our curiosity met with disapproval?
For one, there exists a preconceived (but probably incorrect) notion that adults are people who have reached a stage in life where they know what they want, where things are, and exert a high level of control over their lives. Adults are meant to be knowledgeable, responsible, and self-assured. Even simple questions, like, “Which flavor should I get, the cinnamon chocolate or the strawberry balsamic?” can be haltingly stuttered with hesitation and embarrassment, as if we should already understand our own preferences, despite the fact that this is a perfectly acceptable question in the downstairs gelato store. We might be curious about a new taste or experience, but surrounded by the impatient foot tapping in line behind you, the tired face of the server awaiting your flavor choice, and the certainty with which your friend boldly ordered that three-flavor-combination-in-a-waffle-cup-with-mangoes-on-top, you forgo the inconvenience of questions and blurt out a choice.
This example, simple and mundane as it is, also brings us to another point about why we deny ourselves the opportunities to be curious and ask questions, and this point is that society values efficiency and application. Find that file, answer this email, fill out that spreadsheet, you mentally note. Catch that train, buy that coffee, don’t forget to stop by the drugstore, you chide yourself. In the speedy rhythm of daily life, we find something that works and then we stick stubbornly to it, faithfully believing that it will work this time, as it always has, yielding the predictable result so we can move on to the next task at hand. This way, we avoid unnecessary stress and satisfy our bosses, family, and friends, receiving that paycheck or the constant comfort of that relationship without fail. Questions, we are warned, can be dangerous. Curiosity involves risk and uncertainty, a frightening combination.
On the edge of our social orbit, however, there is sometimes a story of curiosity, creativity, and enviable success. We all know someone who seems to have that spark, the kind that makes questions tumble from their lips when we don’t know what to say and leads them on crazy adventures. Often, they are surrounded by others, eager to talk and share, and delighted to find a genuinely interested listener who is as engaged in the conversation as they are.
To many of us, curiosity and innovation are qualities in other people: the creatives, small business owners, start-up CEO’s—never ourselves.
After all, didn’t curiosity kill the cat? And doesn’t a cat have nine lives? Either curiosity is the sign that you’re on your last life, or curiosity kills so completely that the other eight lives cease to exist at all.
Top: Ice cream offerings at a cart in the Netherlands
Bottom: Sandwiches and crepes at a small cafe in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris
The carousel at the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris
Is it possible to harbor curiosity without the catastrophic consequences? The answer, of course, is yes. Curiosity has long been the motivating factor behind worldwide exploration, scientific breakthroughs, and classroom enlightenment. Curiosity about new lands beyond the sea and the riches they offered tempted Christopher Columbus and his patrons, the king and queen of Spain, sending him on far-flung treks across the oceans. Decades later, curiosity about new species of flora and fauna enticed the naturalist Charles Darwin to venture to the Galapagos Islands.
In a world where it feels like every nook and cranny has been explored and documented, it might feel like the only place left to discover lies in outer space. However, curiosity is also a trait suited to everyday life on Earth; it is not limited to life-changing decisions or matters of worldwide importance. People, as emotional, intelligent, and thoughtful beings, host feelings of wonder about an array of experiences and ideas. We exhibit curiosity about stories, from histories of ancient Rome to the more recent family accounts of grandfathers and grandmothers growing up in an era before cell phones, personal computers, and Wonder Bread. We indulge our curiosity about cultures around the world, from their crafts to their cooking to their religious practices; hence, we travel, immersing ourselves in new sights and experiences that create a larger context from which to understand our own life stories.
Curiosity is especially useful in that it helps us perceive things differently. In essence, it is a way of showing interest in your surroundings, and in other people, rather than yourself. Keeping a curious mindset means that you are aware that there is more to see and learn, and that you realize that the way you think about a concept or an idea is not the only way to think about it. You are receptive to the thoughts and voices of others, and accept that they can influence your actions and beliefs.
Allowing a moment of curiosity in your everyday comings and goings can have a small, but important, effect on how you perceive the events of the day. The act of discovering something new, whether it’s the bright taste of pickled herring or the feeling of a hamster’s tiny claws scampering across your palm, establishes new memories that are clear and definitive in the blur of day-to-day rituals. It’s like having a jolt that startles you out of the monotony of the daily grind.
Indulging your curiosity can sometimes feel like taking a plunge off of the deep end. More often than not, we fear the consequences and think too much, trying to calculate every possible outcome. However, rather than stalling and deliberating, try and trust your gut instincts every once in a while. As a friend once told me, “If not now, when?”