What is curiosity? A new book provides rich insights

There is an interesting relationship between questioning and curiosity; the latter tends to inspire the former.

So when I learned of a new book by author Ian Leslie titled Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, I was naturally intrigued, interested, wanted to learn more about it… yes, I was curious.


Author Ian Leslie

I recently finished reading the book and it did not disappoint. Leslie has written a fascinating and important work that stands on its own, though I also happen to think it makes for an excellent companion piece to A More Beautiful Question. There is some small amount of overlap between the two books: we both talked to a few of the same experts, for example. But for the most part, the books are very different, which makes sense because the subjects, though related, are separate and distinct. After all, questioning is an action, whereas curiosity is a condition or state.

But I believe if you want to be a better questioner—or if you want to inspire more questioning in your organization, your students, or your own children—it’s important to understand the uniquely-human condition that causes us to wonder and inquire. And Leslie does a great job of explaining that condition—what it is, why it’s so important, what nourishes it (or stifles it).

I’ll just share a few quick highlights here:

Owl head1Early in the book, Leslie makes a good point about how curiosity (like questioning) has sometimes gotten a bad rap through the years. “Our oldest stories about curiosity are warnings; Adam & Eve, Icarus and the sun, Pandora’s box,” Leslie writes. “There’s a reason for this: Curiosity is unruly… Pursuing it is liable to bring you into conflict with authority at some point, as everyone from Galileo to Charles Darwin to Steve Jobs could have attested.” He adds: “A society that values order above all else will seek to suppress curiosity. But a society that believes in progress, innovation, and creativity will cultivate it, recognizing that the inquiring minds of its people constitute its most valuable asset.”

Owl head3The author explains that there is an important difference between unfocused curiosity—think of a young child showing a passing interest in anything and everything that’s unfamiliar—and the kind of deeper curiosity that makes us want to dig into something of specific interest. The first kind is diversive curiosity and can have the effect of dragging us “from one object of attention to another, without reaping insight from any,” Leslie writes. However, “when diversive curiosity is entrained—when it is transformed into a quest for knowledge and understanding—it nourishes us.” This deeper, more effortful type is called epistemic curiosity.

Owl head2As to what causes us to be curious, Leslie (drawing from the research of several social scientists) posits that curiosity rises when there is an “information gap” between what we know and what we want to know. This is important, because it suggests that at least “a little bit of knowledge” is required to kick-start our curiosity (if you’re completely ignorant about something, you’re not likely to be curious about it). Leslie points out that “Children and adults who are often dismissed as incurious may be suffering from a different problem—a lack of basic information about the subject at hand.” Then, too, there is the problem of “thinking we know everything” already, which smothers curiosity. Most of us “are not very good at spotting our own information gaps,” Leslie writes.

Owl head1Parents can have a very large impact on the curiosity levels of their kids. Leslie cites a number of studies which show that if a parent pays attention to a young child’s questions—and responds not only with answers but also by asking questions of the child—it seems to help that child to become even more curious and inquisitive. “Curiosity is a feedback loop,” Leslie writes.

There’s lots more good stuff in the book, beyond what I’ve mentioned here. I did have a couple of minor quibbles with Leslie, one being that I think he overstates the threat of Google and the Internet on curiosity. Leslie contends that when we get answers too quickly and easily, we don’t learn things as deeply (which is probably true) and that it could, over time, end up killing off our curiosity (which seems more debatable). I do share the view that we shouldn’t be content with superficial Google answers and Wikipedia wisdom, but having ready access to all of that information can also provide a great starting point for a deeper journey of inquiry. As the author himself acknowledges at one point, it’s really all about how one uses this vast amount of information at our fingertips—whether you settle for the easy answer or choose to keep searching. And this brings us round to my subject, questioning—because I think one of the keys to helping people to make the most of the info-glut is to arm them with a handy tool that can be used to navigate, evaluate, understand, and dig deeper into all that data.

I recommend Curious without reservation. It’s a smart, well-researched, and highly-readable book, on a subject that should matter deeply to all of us.

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About the Author

Innovation expert and questionologist Warren Berger has studied hundreds of the world’s foremost innovators, entrepreneurs, and creative thinkers to learn how they ask questions, generate original ideas, and solve problems. He is the author or co-author of 12 books, including his three books about the power of questioning: BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS IN THE CLASSROOM: Transforming Classrooms Into Cultures of Curiosity and Inquiry, THE BOOK OF BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead, and A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. Warren’s writing appears regularly in Psychology Today, Fast CompanyHarvard Business Review, and The New York Times. He lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @GlimmerGuy and subscribe to his blog posts.

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