Sometime around the 7th grade, I developed an intense fascination with fire. I was burning anything I could get my hands on. Playing with fire was my first exposure to the power of curiosity.
Igniting the Power of Curiosity
Children vibrate with diversive curiosity; it powers their unceasing explorations. It’s the desire to see what happens when I put my hand in this flame, dirt in my mouth or a gun in my hand. – Ian Leslie, Curious: The Desire to Know And Why Your Future Depends on It
My fascination with fire led to some interesting extra-curricular activities.
- In an effort to recreate special effects from movies, I doused matchbox cars in lighter fluid and zipped them across the concrete.
- A friend and I melted the faces off his G.I. Joe guys. His dad found them while mowing the lawn and I couldn’t sleepover at his house again.
- Then, At another friend’s house, I threw pieces of fruitcake in the fireplace (which I still think is where they belong) and burned the heads of E.L. Fudge cookies to recreate the Michael Jackson hair debacle.
Needless to say, my curiosity was causing a lot of problems.
The Boy Who Should Have Been an Arsonist
Finally, there was the sandbox incident. When a friend slept over, we bought a dozen boxes of wooden matches. We lined them up all around the sandbox to see if we could create a domino effect. After my sister came back from playing, she said, “Oh my God, these older kids filled the sandbox with matches.” Now she knows who they were.
That friend’s mother found the matches in his duffel bag and told him I would become an arsonist when I grew up. He could never spend the night again.
After talking to many of my male friends, it turns out that this brief flirtation with arson is common to most boys while growing up. If you have pre-teen boys, just be prepared.
I never had any interest in becoming an arsonist or hurting anyone. I was just curious. And that same curiosity has been instrumental to my creative work. At the heart of nearly every successful creative endeavor is the desire to answer one’s own questions and the power of curiosity.
Why the Fire of Curiosity Goes Out
The child wants to know more about something and expects their parent to tell them about it. Before they are able to speak, they are asking a question with their finger. – Ian Leslie
A few nights ago, my roommate and I were watching It’s a Beautiful Day in Neighborhood. We were talking about how Mr. Rogers could hold us spellbound with a sense of wonder, regardless of what he was talking about. As kids, our eyes were glued to the television, while we had thoughts like “Wow, that’s how they make cheese?”
All of us are born intensely curious about the world. The power of curiosity is something we don’t even think about. We ask ‘why’ over and over until our parents throw their arms up in frustration.
Indian People Don’t Get Their Hair Cut on Tuesday
As a 41-year-old, I still drive my parents crazy with questions. Take the following conversation with my dad about a very strange Indian tradition.
“Why don’t we get our haircuts on Tuesdays?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you ever get your hair cut on a Tuesday?”
“Yes, I was busy that week. It was the only time I could go.”
“Did anything bad happen?”
When I asked my friends in India, they said, “Barbershops are closed on Tuesdays in India.” But we live in America, so that’s nonsense. After a few Google searches, I found some answers that were absurd.
- Barbers are tired after cutting so much hair. They need a day off
- They need to sharpen their tools
- Nobody really knows
For all millions of Indians know, some villager said this as a joke to mess with his friend. And for thousands of years, we’ve used a superstition as a religious belief. Our culture is full of traditions that nobody ever questions. This isn’t just an Indian thing. It’s universal.
From Creative Thinkers to Compliant Factory Workers
With age, we lose our curiosity. The person who keeps raising their hand and asking ‘why’ disrupts the class, annoys everyone else, and eventually keeps quiet. As Naval Ravikant said, schools replace curiosity with compliance and instead of a creative thinker we we get an obedient factory worker.
We discourage curiosity also because it requires an admission of ignorance. Asking a question or posing a thought experiment means that we don’t know the answer and that’s an admission that few of us are willing to make. For fear of sounding stupid, we assume most questions are too basic to ask, so we don’t ask them. – Ozan Varol
And most modern working environments ensure we continue this behavior. Curiosity is actively discouraged rather than rewarded.
The good news is that we can reclaim or retain the power of curiosity while walking through the world with a sense of wonder instead of worry.
The Decline of Curiosity in Adulthood
During my freshman year of college, a counselor gave me some terrible advice about what classes to take. He suggested that I enroll in Intro to Archaeology because it would be easy to get in.
Whether it’s with our education or our professional lives, we can follow our curiosity or the advice of people who will never live with the outcomes of our decisions.
Many people never find passion because they are rigid instead of flexible, compliant instead of curious. They are unaware of the greatest lie they’ve ever been told.
This is the college you should attend, the career you should have and the definition of success
They believe they must choose from the options in front of them and are blind to all of the possibilities surrounding them. Sadly, this causes them to lose their curiosity and puts an end to what could be a lifelong voyage of discovery.
With age, our tolerance for risk naturally goes down. We have more to lose.
- There’s a higher risk of injury with our physical activity
- Financial risk is more significant when we have kids and a mortgage
It’s important to understand the difference between risk and recklessness. But as we get older we equate the two. And our tolerance for risk declines along with our curiosity.
Curiosity and uncertainty are birds of a feather. Following your curiosity is by definition a journey into the unknown. But in every part of life certainty is an illusion. Nothing is guaranteed and anything is possible.
Two Types of Curiosity
In his book, Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, Ian Leslie says there are two types of curiosity.
“Diversive curiosity is essential to an exploring mind; it opens our eyes to the new and undiscovered, encouraging us to seek out new experiences and meet new people. But unless it’s allowed to deepen and mature, it can become a futile waste of energy and time, dragging us from one object to another without repeating insight from any,” says Leslie.
Diversive curiosity is why teenage boys play with fire and adults find themselves going down internet rabbit holes. It’s what sparks our initial interest in learning something new. But without follow through, it’s the equivalent of chasing shiny objects. That’s where epistemic curiosity comes in.
“Epistemic curiosity represents the deepening of a simple seeking of newness into a directed attempt to build understanding. It’s what happens when diversive curiosity grows up, “says Leslie.
Say for example that you want to start a blog or write a book. Reading books about writing, signing up for courses or hiring a coach or all examples of epistemic curiosity.
In other words diversive curiosity helps you come up with ideas. Epistemic curiosity enables you to bring them to life.
Natural Curiosity and Curious People
If you ask Ryan Holiday about his books, he’ll tell you he’s trying to answer his own questions.
If there’s one thing that has been instrumental to whatever degree of success I’ve had with Unmistakable Creative, it’s curiosity. It’s the filter by which I choose every podcast guest and creative project.
When somebody submits a guest pitch to the podcast, the first question I ask myself is, “Does this person make me curious?” If the answer is no, they don’t make the cut. It doesn’t matter how famous or well known they are.
I’ve said no to people who have been on the covers of magazines and far more well known than our podcast. The power of curiosity has led to a line up of bank robbers, drug dealers, billionaires, artists, and entrepreneurs.
This is why people who work with me will joke that every guest is a reflection of some problem I’m trying to solve for myself. Lucky for me, some of the people who listen have those same problems.
A person who is curious approaches everything like a scientist. They aren’t afraid to keep tinkering, trying things and adjusting to get better results. Other people settle for good enough. When they do, they lose what makes them powerful. As a result, they fail at everything.
How the Power of Curiosity Fuels Billion-Dollar Ideas
As we move forward, this obedience is going to be useless and obsolete. Consider the innovations from the last decade, all of which emerged from questions that Warren Berger wrote a book about and Julien Smith asks himself all the time.
- What if?
- What does this make possible that wasn’t before?
Let’s run a well known billion-dollar startup through this framework.
- Why are hotels the only place you can stay when you go to a city?
- What if you could sleep at someone’s house instead?
- How can we let people rent rooms in their apartment for the night and let people book them the same way we book hotels?
As you’ve figured out by now, these questions are behind the formation of Airbnb. Perhaps Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky didn’t consciously ask these questions. But they were willing to question the status quo of what’s never been done before. The result was a billion-dollar startup.
“Discovery is predicated on curiosity,” says Tina Seelig. There’s one thing I’ve noticed about the most successful people I’ve worked with and interviewed. They are intensely curious.
Take someone like our community manager Milena. If you looked at her resume, you’d think she was unqualified to do this job. She’s a civil engineer with a PhD. Her background doesn’t even come close to the job description our investors had me write.
But a few years ago, I noticed she would write 10 key takeaways from each of our episodes and post them in our Facebook group. Nobody was asking her to do that. It was a way of satisfying her curiosity and distilling that information for own benefit.
Fast forward to years later and those summaries have led to:
- An increase in the email open rates of our newsletter
- Listeners becoming more curious about interviews
- People who don’t like to listen engaging more with the material
There’s no way she could have known that it was going to lead to all this.
Passion follows engagement. But curiosity is the precursor to both.
Disciplined Epistemic Curiosity
While I was in India, a young boy followed me on my walk. But the moment he saw some balloons he lost interest in me. While children are naturally curious, they lack the discipline to follow their curiosity for long enough for it to lead somewhere.
As adults, we can cultivate the practice of disciplined curiosity. This will lead some of our most valuable insights and breakthroughs.
One of my favorite forms of disciplined curiosity is creative cross-training. Most creators have a primary art form. Most people know me as a podcast host and writer. But some of my most useful insights have come from creative projects that have nothing to do with my work.
In 2013, I completed a 30-day drawing project. As you’ll see from the images below, I’m no Picasso. But the project had a profound impact on my way of seeing the world. It made me realize that I could work with people like Mars Dorian to bring my ideas to life.
This project, which on the surface seemed like a waste of time, was instrumental in coming up with the brand aesthetic for Unmistakable Creative.
A more rigorous method of disciplined curiosity is what Scott Young calls an ultra-learning project. Ultra-learning projects are designed to help you master difficult skills in a short amount of time. In his article about how to design your own ultra-learning project, he offers the following framework.
- Figure out what you want to learn deeply, intensely, and quickly
- Choose which format you want for your project
- Prepare to start Learning
With disciplined curiosity, you work more like a scientist than a kid chasing shiny objects.
Retaining the Power of Curiosity
Even though our journey to adulthood might stifle our curiosity, we can reclaim and retain it.
Few things get in the way of our curiosity like hubris. When we develop expertise or deep knowledge of a domain, it’s tempting to conclude that we know everything there is to know. But when we maintain a beginner’s mind, we retain the power of curiosity. The master is an eternal student.
Diversify your Mental Ecosystem
When he explained the process of mastery to me, Robert Greene likened it to biodiversity. The more species you have in an ecosystem, the richer it is. By seeking knowledge in diverse areas of interest, we increase our creative capacity.
Creativity has been described as connecting dots. But you have to collect dots before you can connect them.
The best thing I ever did for my blog was to stop reading books and blogs about online marketing. The moment I did, my audience started to grow. By diversifying my consumption habits, I was able to connect dots in ways I never had before.
Capture your Ideas
Nobody has a shortage of ideas. But unless you capture your ideas, you’ll never capitalize on them. You might resist capturing an idea because you think it sounds stupid or insane. Many ideas sound insane until they work.
When the venture capitalist Chris Sacca heard the pitch for Airbnb, he declined to invest. He thought people would get murdered. The rest is history.
The key is to capture ideas without judgement. As you accumulate a large database of ideas and knowledge, you’ll start to see patterns emerge and dots connect.
Throughout school, we were led to believe that answers were more valuable than questions. Getting the right answer meant good grades, approval, etc. But in life, questions are more valuable than answers. Questions prompt deeper exploration. They lead to unexpected outcomes, creative breakthroughs, and innovation.
If there’s one thing I’d attribute what I’ve accomplished over the past 10 years to, it’s the power of curiosity. Curiosity is a beautiful compass for navigating the geography of a creative life. It gives an opportunity to take the scenic route through life and ensures we are exposed to the widest possible spectrum of the human experience.
Stay humble. Stay curious.