How can we be more curious? I mean, specifically how. Do we read more books? Do we look up more stuff on our devices? Do we travel the world? Do we take greater risks or more classes? Do we taste different foods, date more people, or try new things? Sure, doing these things can make us more curious, but what if the real way to affect curiosity is different than this? What if it’s actually easier than doing these things?
Do we really want be more curious? Are there times when we should not be more curious? Are there times when we want to stifle curiosity – our own and others’? It can leave us stuck on a mental spin cycle. Let’s face it, curiosity’s reputation is complicated. Perhaps that’s what makes it interesting.
Research shows that curiosity is a driving force in scientific discovery, creativity, problem solving, decision making, idea generation, adventure, and fulfillment. Phew, that’s a long-ass list, but it is a testament to the importance of curiosity. Studies also show that we can train our brains to be more curious.
Poor curiosity. Curiosity is rarely given credit as its own discipline, but it should be. It’s usually an ingredient in studies about novelty, discovery, creativity, innovation, anxiety, motivation, and risk-taking. Curiosity has been found to play a starring role in memory. This makes curiosity hard to tease out and hard to measure. Neuroscience has recently been able to contribute to this research by showing our brains “light up” or produce dopamine and opiates as a result of curiousness. However, after all these years there is still not excellent way to measure curiosity. We’re working on it.
Is there a way to dial in the just-right level of curiosity? Can we learn to move ourselves, at will, along a curiosity curve? If so, can that same “dial” be used to help move others along this curiosity curve? After combing through years of research, late one night I found an answer.
A delirious discovery. Not long before I wrapped up the final details for my book, Living Curiously, I was up late into the wee hours of the morning pouring over research. I wanted to take one last stab at simplifying the science of curiosity, and mushing it into one image that was understandable and actionable. I suspected that there was a specific way to train our brains to dial up or down curiosity. It needed to be rooted in science. It needed a visual representation. As the night wore on and the caffeine wore off, something interesting was starting to emerge.
The clock ticked past 1am. My desk and floor of my office were nowhere to be seen beneath the clutter of research and my chicken-scratch notes. But I sensed that I was getting closer.
Again and again, two driving forces appeared in the curiosity literature strewn throughout my office: familiarity and the need for certainty. I started to piece it together. Focusing on familiarity and certainty, a way to dial in peak curiosity had finally become clear.
Introducing, Peak Curiosity. Initially I planned to introduce this peak curiosity finding in, Living Curiously, but I didn’t because I wasn’t yet convinced that it worked. I am now. Peak Curiosity is how to train yourself and help others be more (or less) curious. It’s how to pique peak curiosity.
At 2:09 am I sketched an ugly version of this:
Explaining Peak Curiosity.
When we are totally unfamiliar with something, we’re not curious. How could we be? We don’t know to be curious. That’s not profound, that’s obvious. However, perhaps less obvious is that when we’re totally familiar with something, we are also less curious. For example, when one knows nothing about a corporate recruiting process, and is not looking to land a job, there is no curiosity about the job process. On the other end of the familiarity spectrum is the experienced human resource manager, who is extremely familiar with the process of identifying and vetting candidates. She will also be less curious about the corporate recruiting process due to familiarity, expert bias, and the importance of giving off the perception of “knowing.”
We see this familiarity effect everywhere. I remember traveling to Thailand and seeing an amazing, golden Buddha. I became slightly familiar with and highly curious about these Buddhas. I wanted to see and know more and more. As I encountered several other golden Buddha statues, I was lazy and allowed myself to become too familiar – seen one, seen them all. I became less curious, and later found that I missed many cool lessons.
Cathedral after cathedral in Europe? Same. I met friend in Paris who knew a lot about cathedrals, but she still remained very curious about them. I asked her how she maintained curiosity when she encountered cathedrals every day (my dissection of curiosity was getting annoying by then). She explained that she doesn’t allow herself to become too familiar. She does this by making an effort to find things about each cathedral that she doesn’t know. She knows that there is new stuff to learn about each cathedral so she never becomes too familiar to not remain curious.
I’m guilty of over familiarity. I have to fight the urge to be too familiar with places and people I see all the time if I don’t want to miss opportunities to find the mystique in the mundane. There appears to be a Goldilocks “just right” zone of familiarity that can be adjusted, for yourself and for others, to move along the curiosity curve. It requires finding tidbits of the unfamiliar, often hidden like coins under a cushion, within something familiar. Test it and let me know what you think.
What about expected outcomes? I admit that this is a bit of a mouthful, but stick with me here. Expected outcomes are influenced by certainty. If you are certain of an expected outcome and your outcome matches that expectation, there is very little curiosity. For example, if you know with certainty that you will ace a test and you do ace the test, there is no deviation from your expected outcome. There will be little to no curiosity about your result. However, if you know with certainty that you will ace the test and you completely fail, this is a huge deviation from expected outcome. This is when judgment, criticism, justification, fear, and even complacency replace curiosity. In both cases – no deviation and huge deviation from expected outcome – certainty in the expected outcome is a factor. Certainty can be a curiosity killer. If you think you’ll ace the test and you get a B on the test, your curiosity will be heightened by a slight deviation from expected outcome. You can always effect your expectation of outcome so that any deviation, or lack of, isn’t in the extreme. By reducing certainty in order to be open to expect different outcomes, you can pique peak curiosity.
I hope this Peak Curiosity graph becomes a useful tool for you, making it easier to elevate curiosity ahead of criticism, judgment, fear, and complacency. Finesse your familiarity and recalibrate your certainty about expectations and you can train your brain (and the brains of others) to be more (or less) curious and achieve peak curiosity at will.
Please share your insights. If you think this is worthy of sharing, please share this post. It may be time to usher in the Age of Curiosity, and this may help…but I’m keeping my expectations in check.
Are you familiar with this stuff ↓
In case you’re curious, Living Curiously: How to Use Curiosity to Be Remarkable and Do Good Stuff is out! Lots of nice people have said nice things about the book. It’s not for everyone, nor is curiosity. Is it for you? Discover it at Amazon and other fine and adequate places where books wait to be discovered.
Join the Tribe of the Curious. We’re free. We don’t bite. You can break up with us anytime. Your choice.
Check out the book trailer. It’s fun and it will give you a vibe of what Living Curiously is all about.