When I was a child, curiosity had a bad rep.
“Curiosity killed the cat.”
How often did you hear this proverb growing up? I heard it pretty often, particularly in situations where I was prying into things that I wasn’t supposed to pry into.
But think about what this proverb is really saying to us? It is saying, to be inquisitive is deadly, or in the very least, will get you into trouble. What did it mean to grow up with this mantra ringing in the back of our minds? It meant be cautious of curiosity. Be cautious of too much interest. Don’t ask too many questions. Stay in your lane.
It wasn’t until this week, as I was thinking about learning, growth, and relationships which are each propelled by curiosity (and I will dive deeper into this later), did I think back to this proverb. In addition to this proverbial warning against curiosity, our traditional views of leaders, those in charge, center around people (let’s face it, predominantly white men) who are, among other things, certain. We have put certainty on the pedestal and relegated “indecision” to a negative (often associated with women) trait. But let’s take moment to rethink this. Let’s be less certain…
So, obviously I am trying to make a point by ignoring that there are different kinds of curiosity; there is the kind where you are simply being nosy, wanting to know simply for judgement or gossip or even entertainment (I would call this an ego-based curiosity), and the other, which is an openness, deep interest, and seeking for knowledge and understanding (I would call this authentic curiosity). I think we all understand the difference between these two, however, I do think the two sometimes get confused. I often have people who seem genuinely interested in me ask me questions, only to hear them step back saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to intrude or pry.” Having lived several years of my life as a psychologist, I seem to have no such boundary and find myself often asking prying questions without apology. I’m sorry, by the way, if I ever offended anyone.
But here is the thing, I am never insulted or offended when someone asks me a question out of authentic curiosity. It actually makes me feel seen and makes me feel like I matter to the person asking.
Remember what it was like to date someone in the early stages of a relationship? Remember what was so nice about that? Wasn’t part of it the discovery of each other? Emotionally, spiritually, and yes, physically? Learning each other’s stories? Remember what it felt like to be discovered? To have someone be curious about you? Truly curious? Authentically curious? Can you feel it? Now add to that picture certainty. A certainty that you know all there is to know about this person, and their certainty they know all there is to know about you. What happens to a relationship then?
If you have been in a relationship for many years you may have experienced the sense of discovery, novelty, and as a result, passion in your long-term relationship fizzle. It is not curiosity that kills things, its certainty. Explained further by Todd Kashdan (2019):
“It is far easier to form and maintain satisfying, significant relationships when you demonstrate an attitude of openness and genuine interest. One of the top reasons why couples seek counseling or therapy is because they’ve become bored with each other. This often sparks resentment, hostility, communication breakdowns and a lack of interest in spending timen together (only adding to the initial problem). Curious people report more satisfying relationships and marriages. Happy couples describe their partners as interested and responsive.”
Certainty of knowing is not only the death of passion in a relationship, but it is the death of learning and growing. The moment we decide we already know, that is when we stop learning.
“Certainty is a closing of the mind. To create something new you must have doubt” – Milton Glasser (Visual Artist, Icon Designer, New York Magazine Founder)
According to Glasser, doubt is far more essential to creativity, discovery, and learning. Psychologist and author Erich Fromm wrote,
“The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.”
The mechanism through which uncertainty and doubt yield their power, however, is curiosity. Certainty blocks curiosity, uncertainty unleashes it. If you think you know all there is to know about a thing (or about someone) there would be no interest in learning more. You would never ask why?
In fact, studies have shown that adults who display high levels of curiosity also demonstrate greater analytic skills, problem-solving ability, and overall intelligence. Also, highly curious toddlers (those high in novelty-seeking behaviors) were found to have higher IQs when tested as older children. Albert Einstein, famously said:
“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”
According to Kashdan, curiosity has also been connected to numerous other benefits, including health; a 1996 study published in Psychology and Aging, followed adults aged 60-86 over a period of 5 years, and found those who rated higher on curiosity at the beginning of the study, were more likely to be alive at the end of the study. Doses of novelty, new experiences and challenges, has been associated with increased mental acuity later in life. Other health benefits such as decreased levels of hypertension and diabetes have also been connected to higher levels of curiosity.
Curiosity is also powerfully tied to happiness. In a large survey conducted by The Gallop Organization, including over 130,000 people from 130 nations, the two strongest correlates of how much joy a person experienced in a given day were: “being able to count on someone for help” (i.e., good relationships and connection), and “learned something yesterday” (i.e., growth), both of which are fueled by curiosity. In addition, in one of the greatest efforts to classify and measure human character strengths, the VIA (see viacharacter.org), Martin Seligman, PhD, and Chris Peterson, PhD, discovered 24 basic character strengths, but of those 24, curiosity was one of the five most highly associated with overall life happiness and fulfillment.
I would take this a step further; my belief is curiosity is a key ingredient in our relationship with ourselves. The more we can invoke a truly genuine, open, and non-judgmental curiosity towards our internal lives, our deepest values, wishes, and fears, and the more we are able to explore our hurts and pain, the more compassion and understanding we will be able to bring to ourselves. It is only from this authentically curious place that we will be able to get in touch with our authentic selves. And only from there, with compassion, can we hold ourselves as we heal, and open to discover our deeper meaning and purpose.
Don’t believe me? Why not try it.
Curiosity is not a have it or don’t have it trait. Curiosity can be developed. Like so much else, it is a frame of mind and it is something we all have power over. It is about approaching things, people, ideas, activities, all without built in assumptions and expectations. Approaching the familiar as unfamiliar. Assuming there are things to discover and learn. I believe our tendency to move toward certainty is really a defensive armor against the discomfort of uncertainty. Uncertainty triggers anxiety. We want the comfort of the familiar, of knowing exactly what to expect. Certainty is control. But this is all armor. And armor does not let anything in; Not what hurts us, but also not what allows us to experience the joy, passion, and expansiveness that comes with learning and growing, and letting in. So, risk the uncertainty, maybe just a little at a time, and see what develops.
Curiosity is the way to unlock what is possible.
“When nothing is sure, everything is possible.” – Margaret Drabble
As we dive into this month of celebrating relationships, try this:
Approach your partners with curiosity. If we have been in long-term relationships, we tend to assume we know each other’s thoughts, intentions, and emotions. Don’t assume. Life constantly changes. People grow and learn and change. The person you started with is not the same person they were when you first met them. There is so much to discover about the person in front of you: Their wishes, joys, sadness, desires, vulnerabilities, insecurities, experiences, hopes, and it can go on. Take this opportunity this month to become curious again. Look with new eyes and ask questions. Asking more than speaking is perhaps a good formula for a successful relationship; it allows the other to feel they matter, that you are interested in them, that they are worthy of your attention. If they start to speak faster and become more animated, you are asking the right questions.
But also try this:
Become authentically curious about yourself. Take out the judgment, the expectations, the “shoulds”. In quiet moments, open your awareness to your thoughts, then what’s below those thoughts, then what’s underneath those. What does it feel like to be you? What drives you? What are moments you feel the most content and at peace with yourself? What makes you feel expansive and connected? All of these things will guide you to your wishes, needs, values and aspirations. Become your own curious and interested non-judgy friend in this journey toward yourself.
Curiosity, I believe, is one of our greatest tools to grow our lives in beautiful and fulfilling ways. I have always hated my inability to make a decision. I saw it as a flaw, a weakness, maybe because we live in a world that values certainty. But seeing it differently now, being uncertain has allowed me the capacity and space to be curious, to ask questions, to open up to different possibilities, and deliberate multiple sides. It is an open approach to life; an understanding of the complexity of things, the complexity of beings, and a willingness to risk staying open. Add to that curiosity, a thirst for exploring and learning, and you can already begin to taste the potential in life. It can even make the mundane fascinating; the way a cat finds joy in a piece of yarn. To end, I leave you with this:
"Curiosity is the very basis of education and if you tell me that curiosity killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly." -- Arnold Edinborough