Why Be Curious?

by Bob Schwartz


In his latest book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, Ian Leslie has found an essential key to the way things are and the way they—and we—might be much better.

Social observers are always looking for that one thing, that overriding concept, which succinctly explains how we got where we are, and how, if we are interested, we can use it as a way to move forward. Think Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan. Think Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point. Sometimes these concepts are interesting and useful, sometimes faddish and fatuous.

It’s impossible not to notice that something is fundamentally different about—or missing from—these times. It’s too facile just to inventory the innovative tools and techniques we enjoy, though that’s more than enough for the businesses making billions on them. We want an explanation.

Leslie explains:

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. In medieval Europe, the inquiring mind—especially if it inquired too closely into the edicts of church or state—was stigmatized. During the Renaissance and Reformation, received wisdoms began to be interrogated, and by the time of the Enlightenment, European societies started to see that their future lay with the curious and encouraged probing questions rather than stamping on them. The result was the biggest explosion of new ideas and scientific advances in history.

The great unlocking of curiosity translated into a cascade of prosperity for the nations that precipitated it. Today, we cannot know for sure if we are in the middle of this golden period or at the end of it. But we are, at the very least, in a lull. With the important exception of the Internet, the innovations that catapulted Western societies ahead of the global pack are thin on the ground, while the rapid growth of Asian and South American economies has not yet been accompanied by a comparable run of indigenous innovation. Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia, has termed the current period the Great Stagnation….

Our educational system is increasingly focused on preparing students for specific jobs. To teach someone to be an engineer or a lawyer or a programmer is not the same as teaching them to be a curious learner—yet the people who make the best engineers, lawyers, and programmers tend to be the most curious learners. So we find ourselves stuck in a self-defeating cycle: we ask schools to focus on preparing students for the world of work rather than on inspiring them, and we end up with uninspired students and mediocre professionals. The more we chase the goal of efficient education, the further it recedes.

The rewards of curiosity have never been higher, but our ideas about how curiosity works are muddled and misguided. We romanticize the natural curiosity of children and worry that it will be contaminated by knowledge, when the opposite is true. We confuse the practice of curiosity with ease of access to information and forget that real curiosity requires the exercise of effort. We focus on the goals of learning rather than valuing learning for itself. Epistemic curiosity is in danger of becoming the province of cognitive elites, with far too many of us losing or never learning the capacity to think deeply about a subject or a person. In a world where vast inequalities in access to information are finally being leveled, a new divide is emerging—between the curious and the incurious.

Curious is much more than just valuable diagnosis and description. After fascinating sections on How Curiosity Works and The Curiosity Divide, Leslie proposes a practical prescription, Seven Ways to Stay Curious:

Stay Foolish
Build the Database
Forage Like a Foxhog
Ask the Big Why
Be a Thinkerer
Question Your Teaspoons
Turn Puzzles into Mysteries

No summary or series of excerpts can do this book justice. Well-written and compelling, it is, to repeat, an essential. Read it. Even if you don’t want to apply it to yourself or your children or your colleagues, it is a book to keep handy as we try to remake what isn’t working and navigate unsteadily to a newer world.

See more from Ian Leslie here.