Curiosity can be defined as “the desire to learn or know about anything.” When I think of curious individuals, I think of people who are not just interested in learning facts and knowledge, but as those who are hungry for new interpretations and perspectives – even if they think they might already know about something. They question everything and yearn to know how things work, how they can work better, how others think, and wonder constantly if… what… when… why… how…
Curious individuals get excited to ask questions and hear different answers. Anything from A to Z. If you’re a particularly curious person, you’ve probably asked yourself (and others) questions like these:
- If you could be any animal, what would you be?
- Why do you fail to do the things you know you should be doing?
- How do people live in Ecuador, Tunisia, or Malaysia?
- If you had no fear in life, what would you be doing?
- How do magnets work?
- If you had three wishes, what would they be?
- What would happen if you didn’t have to worry about money for the rest of your life?
Being curious has its benefits. For example, when you’re curious, problem solving becomes easier because you see more options, paths, and ways of solving a problem than your non-curious counterparts. You question more; you gather more opinions; you don’t stop at the first solution – which can lead to greater possibilities.
I’d be remiss to mention that curiosity can have drawbacks, too. As the saying goes, “curiosity killed the cat,” there are some things that are just not your business, and your curiosity may lead you to want to find out anyway. Use your judgment, always, as being curious about other people’s personal affairs can get you into trouble.
An Attitude of Curiosity
To truly embrace an attitude of curiosity means you begin to question things in your life and the world around you with no attachment to the answer. This last part is the key. Even if the subject at hand is something you know a lot about – yourself, for example – pretend like you are getting to know it (in this example, “it” being yourself) for the first time and with wonder, begin to inquire, observe and learn. To do this without judgment requires an incredibly high degree of openness.
With practice, you may find that it is really difficult to remain closed off to other people or ideas when you’re in a state of curiosity. If you’re genuinely curious about something, you really want to explore it from all angles – not just explore with the hope of proving yourself right in the end. You explore, simply to learn.
The important thing to remember is that you don’t have to be innately curious to adopt an attitude of curiosity. Here are three exercises to practice developing your curiosity muscles.
Curiosity Exercise 1: Observe Someone Who’s Curious
Identify someone in your life who embodies curiosity, and plan to spend a few hours with them observing their behavior and language. It could be an adult you consider particularly open-minded and inquisitive, or it could be a child. Some of the best role models of curiosity are between the ages of 2 and 5 – they are typically curious about anything and everything, without any ideas or knowing about it beforehand. They ask questions, smell, taste, try on, experiment, and play with things to discover how they work and whether or not they like them.
As you are with your curiosity role model, observe their way of being and ask yourself:
- What can I learn from the way they hold themselves?
- How do they speak?
- How do they react to others and the world around them?
- How can I apply some of my findings to my own attitude of curiosity?
When you are done, try to emulate some of their behavior and language and see how it feels.
Curiosity Exercise 2: Embrace Beginner’s Mind
In Buddhism, the term “Beginner’s Mind” refers to stepping into a state of unknowing. Whether you know how to do something or not, you are unattached to your way of doing it.
“In the Beginner’s Mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.”
In his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice, Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki said, “In the Beginner’s Mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.” Meaning, if you are an expert at something, you likely do it the same way every time. But if you are a beginner, you try, test, and experiment with different strategies. If you can step into this attitude of “not knowing,” you will be pleasantly surprised by what you might ask – and what you might discover. Even if you are already good at the task at hand, pretend like you aren’t and be inquisitive.
The idea of Beginner’s Mind works especially well in matters of self-inquiry. If you are trying to solve a problem in your life, pretend like you know nothing about it, and take an objective look. Notice if you are resisting a sense of openness or feeling tied to certain strategies or outcomes in your life. Notice when the voice in your head is saying “I already know I’m best at X.” or “I’ve always been a night owl, so that’s how I plan to be moving forward.” Or “My dad always said my biggest weakness was my sensitivity.” Pretend like you have no preconceived notions about yourself or this issue – and see what you can learn.
Being curious about yourself means you get to know yourself again – your strengths, weaknesses, passions, and talents. You will discover things about yourself you didn’t already know, or thought you knew. The perspective you discover may be different than what you previously thought, or what your parents, teachers, previous bosses, or friends may have thought. You get to decide what you’ll do with your new awareness – and see how it fits in with your values and goals.
Curiosity Exercise 3: Try Something New
Choose a new activity or subject you are curious about, but have no experience with. Then … set aside some time to figure it out. If it’s a type of dance you’ve always wanted to learn, sign up for a class. If you’ve always wanted to know about a culture or country, plan a trip. If it’s a language or subject you’ve always found intriguing, enroll in a course.
As you learn about the new subject or activity, study the way you are as a beginner and learn from the style of questions you ask and the mood you bring to the new activity. Often when you are a curious beginner, you bring a sense of wonder and awe that is harder to bring to conversations where you are experienced. And you may notice that sense of wonder can be really fun.
Give yourself permission to enjoy these exercises. Embracing curiosity involves playfulness, lightness, and openness – all fun qualities to practice. You may also find that it’s difficult to be in a bad mood and be in a curious mood at the same time. So not only is it fun to practice, you’ll be delightful to be around when you’re embodying curiosity.
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As an ICF Certified Executive Coach, Melissa partners with leaders to develop their executive presence, strategic and systems thinking, resilience, communication skills, and influence in order to reach their goals. Melissa is passionate about supporting leaders and teams on their growth journeys toward greater impact, more collaborative teams, and stronger results.