Curiosity is a good thing, right? But what is it? Wikipedia defines curiosity thus: a quality related to inquisitive thinking such as exploration, investigation, and learning, evident by observation in human and animal species.
What, exactly, does this mean? What’s ‘inquisitive thinking’? Does it matter that everyone’s inquisitiveness is subjective, unique, and limited by their biases? ‘Evident by observation’? Evident to whom? And by what/whose standards? And ‘observation’? Really? We all see, hear, feel the world through our subjectivity – so what standards, what criteria, are the observer using – or doesn’t it matter? And what makes one piece of information the correct answer – or a wrong answer?
The problem is that our natural curiosity restricts our ability to acquire a complete data set to little more than an extension of our current knowledge and beliefs: the way we seek, accept or dismiss incoming information may glean only a subset of the knowledge available due to
- the nature of our subjective viewpoint, biases, and intractable Status Quo,
- our own conscious/unconscious existing beliefs and existing knowledge about the subject,
- the direction, word choice, hidden agenda and prejudice built into our queries.
Sure, we’re told to ‘be curious.’ But how do we know that the information we seek, find and retrieve is accurate, complete, or the most useful data available? How do we know that found learning is important, even though it ‘feels’ uncomfortable and we dismiss it? How do we know the best source to use to get answers? Who or what to believe? Can we supersede our biased judgments (or intuition, as some would call it) that restrict/influence the standard all is compared against?
The limits of our curiosity define our results: the broader the range of possible answers the higher the likelihood of an accurate outcome. And herein lie the problem: we unwittingly severely restrict the range of possible, acceptable answers because of our existing beliefs while continuing to believe we’re Intuitive, Investigative, and Clever. Hence, I pose the question: can we really ever be entirely curious?
Once during a conversation with a colleague, he complained that he had just gotten a cold, and that now he’d be ‘down’ for 2 weeks. How did he know it would be 2 weeks? As a doctor himself, he’d been to doctors over the years and followed protocol: lots of rest and liquids, and wait two weeks. The following conversation ensued:
SD: I hear your conclusions about a cold cure come from parameters set by your medical colleagues and that you’re comfortable restricting the full set of possible treatments accordingly. What would you need to believe differently to be willing to expand your parameters to some that may be outside your current comfort zone, in case there might alternate, reliable cures you’re not aware of?
H: Hm… I’ve always used the medical model as my choice criteria. Well, I guess I’d need to believe that the source of the new data was trustworthy.
SD: I have useful data that has helped me and my family cure a cold in 2 days, but it’s very far outside the conventional model. How would you know it would be worth trying, given it doesn’t fit within your medical criteria?
H: That’s sort of easy, but scary. I’ve known you a long time. I trust you. If you have a different cure, I’d love to hear it.
I offered him a simple vitamin-based remedy (large quantities of Vitamin C and simultaneous Zinc lozenges). He used it; he called 2 days later to tell me his cold was gone. And, btw: this man is a famous Harvard McArthur Genius. See? Even geniuses restrict their curiosity according to their biases.
WHY ARE WE CURIOUS
There are several different reasons for curiosity:
- Need to know something we don’t know. Sometimes we need to know something we have no, or skimpy, knowledge about. How do we know the difference between the ‘right’ or the ‘wrong’ answer? How do we know the most effective resources? How do we know that the way we position our query will lead to the broadest range of answers?
- Desire to expand current knowledge. We need more data than we possess. How will we recognize when the available, additional data is the appropriate data set? How do we pose an inquiry that offers the broadest range of relevant knowledge? How can we keep from resisting new data if it runs counter to our beliefs (given that any new data gets compared against our unconscious judgments)?
- Achieving a goal. Our brain is missing data to achieve a goal. How can we know the extent of what we’re missing if we can’t be certain of the full range of possibilities?
- Interest in another person’s knowledge. We suspect someone has knowledge we need, yet it’s not possible to find data we don’t know how to look for. How do we know it’s accurate data? Or how to adopt/adapt it so it doesn’t face internal resistance? How can we position our inquiry to avoid limiting any possibilities?
- Complete internal reference points. Influencers (coaches, leaders, consultants, sellers) seek to understand the Other’s Status Quo so the Influencer can formulate action points. How can we know if our ‘intuition’ (biased judgment) is broad enough to encompass all possibilities – and be able to go beyond it when necessary?
- Comparator. We want to know if our current knowledge is accurate, or we’re ‘right’. But we pit our query and accept responses against our subjective experiences, running the risk of acquiring partial data or blocking important data.
We just can’t seek, find, or receive what we don’t know how to consider:
- Resistance: By the time we’re adults, our subjective beliefs are pretty much built in and determine how we organize our worlds. When we hear something that goes against our beliefs – whether or not it’s accurate; whether it’s conscious or unconscious – we resist. That means whatever answers we find will be accepted in relation to what we already know and believe, potentially omitting important data.
- Restricting data: What we’re curious about is automatically biased and limited by our subjective experience, ego needs, history, and current data set. We have no way to know if we’re posing our search query in a way that will include the full range of possible answers.
- Restricting knowledge. Because our subjectivity limits the acceptance of new knowledge to what fits with our current knowledge and acceptable expectations (we’re only curious about stuff that is tangential to current knowledge), we automatically defend against anything that threatens what we know. So we choose answers according to comfort or habit rather than according to accuracy.
- Intuitive ‘Red Flag’. When our egos and professional identity causes us to ‘intuitively’ have curiosity about answers we assume or expect, we’re limiting possibility by our biases. How do we know if there aren’t a broader range of solutions that we’re not noticing or eliciting?
I just had an incident that simply exemplifies some of the above. I’ve begun attending life drawing classes as an exercise to broaden my observation skills. I took classes 30 years ago, so I have a very tiny range of skills that obviously need enhancing. Last session I had a horrific time trying to draw a model’s shoulder. I asked the man next to me – a real artist – for help. Here was our conversation:
SDM: Hey, Ron. Can you help me please? Can you tell me how to think about drawing his shoulder?
Ron: Sure. Let’s see… So what is it about your current sketch that you like?
Ron: If I put a gun to your head, what part would you like?
Ron: You’ve done a great job here, on his lower leg. Good line. Good proportion. That means you know how to do a lot of what you need on the shoulder.
SDM: I do? I didn’t know what I was doing. So how can I duplicate what I did unconsciously? I’m having an eye-hand-translation problem.
Ron: Let’s figure out how you drew that leg. Then we’ll break that down to mini actions, and see what you can use from what you already know. And I’ll teach you whatever you’re missing.
Ron’s brand of curiosity enabled me to make some unconscious skills conscious, and add new expertise where I was missing it. His curiosity had different biases from mine. He:
- entered our discussion assuming I already had all of the answers I needed;
- only added information specifically where I was missing some;
- helped me find my own answers and be available to add knowledge in the exact place I was missing it.
My own curiosity would have gotten me nowhere. Here was my Internal Dialogue:
How the hell do I draw a twisted shoulder? This sucks. Is this an eye/hand problem? Should I be looking differently? I need an anatomy class. Should I be holding my charcoal differently? Is it too big a piece? I can’t see a shadow near his shoulder. Should I put in a false shadow to help me get the proportions right?
Ron’s curiosity – based on me possessing skills – opened a wide range of possibilities for me. I never, ever would have found that solution on my own because my biases would have limited my curiosity to little more than an extension of my current knowledge and beliefs.
HOW TO EXPAND YOUR CURIOSITY
In order to widen curiosity to the full range of knowledge and allow our unconscious to accept the full data set available, we must evolve beyond our biases. Here’s how to have a full range of choice:
- Frame the query: Create a generic series of questions to pose for yourself about your curiosity. Ask yourself how you’ll know
- your tolerance for non-expected, surprising answers,
- what a full range of knowledge could include,
- if your answers need to be within the range of what you already know or something wildly different,
- if you’re willing/able to put aside your ‘intuition’, bias, and annoyance and seek and consider all possible answers regardless of comfort,
- if you need to stay within a specific set of criteria and what the consequences are.
- Frame the parameters: Do some Google research. Before spending time accumulating data, recognize the parameters of possibility whether or not they match your comfortable criteria.
- Recognize your foundational beliefs: Understand what you believe to be true, and consider how important it is for you to maintain that data set regardless of potentially conflicting, new information.
- Willingness to change: Understand your willingness to adopt challenging data if it doesn’t fit within your current data set or beliefs.
- Make your unconscious conscious: Put your conscious mind onto the ceiling and look down on yourself (and whoever is with you) from the Observer position.
- Listen analytically: Listen to your self-talk. Compare it with the questions above. Note restrictions and decide if they can be overlooked.
- Analyze: Should you shift your parameters? Search options? What do you need to shift internally?
Curiosity effects every element of our lives. It can enhance, or restrict, growth, change, and professional skills. It limits and expands health, relationships, lifestyles and relationships. Without challenging our curiosity or intuition, we limit ourselves to maintaining our current assumptions.
What do you need to believe differently to be willing to forego comfort and ego-identity for the pursuit of the broadest range of possible answers? How will you know when, specifically, it would be important to have greater choice? We’ll never have all the answers, but we certainly can expand our choices.