90% of wisdom is cultivating the habit of persistent and deep curiosity.
This is something that small children intuitively understand, even though they can’t articulate it. If you’ve been a parent, you know the frustration of your child’s incessant questions. What is this? Why that? How come? Why, Daddy? Why, why, why?
Generally by the time they enter high school, we’ve successfully beaten it out of them, just as it was beaten out of us.
Not consciously, of course. We don’t even realize the damage we’re inflicting on them. We just get exasperated with the neverendingness of the queries. Largely because of our own fatigue, but also because, if we’re honest, we don’t know the answers!
And that’s really the mistake.
Because the answers don’t count nearly as much as the questions.
Here’s a piece of wisdom that’s worth learning by heart:
The quality of your life depends directly on the quality of the questions you ask.
Asking good questions has great mental health benefits.
They force you to step outside yourself, even if just for a moment.
Psychiatrist-turned-comedian Murray Banks (I was raised listening to his recording Just in Case You Think You’re Normal) once stated:
“It is impossible to be angry and laugh at the same time.”
Not being a psychiatrist, I can’t prove it, but I strongly suspect the same is true of being angry and curious.
Curiosity requires you to step outside yourself. To forget who you are, where you are, what you were doing a moment ago . . . . and issue a challenge to the universe.
For the sheer joy and wonder of increasing your own understanding. Of finding an answer, or better yet, a better question.
Stuck in a moment, and you can’t get out of it . . . . but you don’t want to escape this moment. Where’s Bono when you need him?
Every time I managed to answer one of my kids’ questions, the response was always a delighted, “Oh!” She’d learned something. She’d made sense of one more little mystery of the universe. Sheer joy and delight. (Also generally the catalyst for another question.)
There is something pseudo-regal about that experience.
At the beginning of Proverbs ch 25, Solomon writes, It is the glory of God to conceal a matter. To search out a matter is the glory of kings.
Not people. Kings.
It’s almost as if God created the earth like a maze, a great cosmic game that his children could have fun playing and learning in.
Picture a huge spherical playground, stretching out to the horizon. There you go, kids! Go get lost and explore! I’ll call you when lunch is ready. You can tell me what you’ve discovered.
When you engage in the game with everything you’ve got, you’re rising to the pinnacle of humanity. You’re becoming a king. You’re living up to the greatest of your potential, at the top of the heap.
You can’t be self-conscious when you’re really curious. Not even when you are the object of your own curiosity. You’re too preoccupied being a king.
What knocks it out of us?
What makes us abandon that childlike curiosity and wonder?
Curiosity and imagination are close soulmates. Both can get you into trouble.
Marketing guru Perry Marshall talks about how as a newly-married 20-year-old, he got fired from three, count ’em, three jobs in two months. Just by asking innocent questions of new employers.
Sheer bad luck had led to his working for three less-than-honest employers who had long ago given up any sense of curious wonder and were just trying to survive and pay the mortgage.
The un-curious do not like being exposed by the curious.
Emperor? New clothes?
As you grow older, you become aware that you can lose. It’s fundamental to human existence. We enter life gaining, with nothing to lose. We leave it losing everything, with nothing left to gain.
By asking me a question, you stand to gain. And I, depending on what you ask me, might stand to lose. So choose your words carefully, Bucko.
And thereby, we learn, fairly early, to stop asking questions. Unless we’re absolutely sure it’s not a zero-sum game. Check your curiosity at the door next time, Perry.
Un-curiosity is an easy trap to fall into. Especially when you’re not the only one who stands to lose because (eg spouse, kids) of your natural curiosity.
Curiosity and imagination therefore must walk hand-in-hand with courage.
Courage to resist the voices, within and without, teling you to quit making their lives bleeping difficult.
The loudest voices are the ones within, of course. I’ve just finished watching The Creative Brain, by neuroscientist David Eagleman. Great documentary. He interviews polymath Nathan Myhrvold, who says that anytime you start asking questions in a totally new field, you have to be willing to be confused, and you’re have to be willing to be wrong.
Most people don’t do confused. Or wrong. You idiot! You know nothing. What do you think you’re doing? You’re trying to run and you can’t even tie your shoes.
And some of those voices are not unreasonably veiled in a cloak of legitimacy. Yeah, I know you want to learn to write songs. Can’t it wait until the car’s fixed and we’ve renovated the kitchen?
But the path back to curiosity (and better mental health!) requires that you recognize those voices as a sure sign that you’re onto something. This is going to pay off somehow. Even if it doesn’t work, it’s time well spent.
I’m writing this as much for myself as for you. I’m a 50-something family man, whose children are grown (and thankfully still fairly curious).
And who realizes that he hasn’t minded his own business well enough. I’ve allowed curiosity and imagination to become strangers. I’m determined to get reacquainted. Writing used to be a favourite hobby and (I daresay) skill. By this post, I am springboarding myself into new adventures.
By all means, come along!