I think I’ve found the secret of life. Well, if not the secret, then certainly one of the pillars. Drumroll please, it’s…curiosity.
Think about it, the greatest learning period in our lives occurs in the first few years when we don’t know anything yet but are watching and listening to everything around us with astonishment and curiosity. Now, the largest leaps are made before a child is even vocal and I’m pretty confident that’s no coincidence because we all learn more when we aren’t talking. When a child does learn to talk, what is the word parents hear more than any other? So often that we need to try and propose things like “the quiet game” just to get a break sometimes. It’s WHY, isn’t it? Why is the sky blue, why does the cat make that sound, why, why, why? My daughter could rattle off about 30 why questions to complicated concepts in under three minutes when she was young. The other questions, what? and how? are not far behind, and children are persistent with the questions. I was never able to get away with “I don’t know”, and I never tried “because it is” as an answer because, well, that’s just not how I’m built. Being curious and asking questions is the key to tremendous growth.
We go to school to be educated and gain life experiences as we grow up. The lucky among us stay curious and go into fields where we can continue to pursue our curiosity. Others of us still pursue it by getting outside our boxes, either with reading or travel, or cultivating relationships with people who have different backgrounds than we do, becoming lifelong learners. Then there are the poor souls who believe they already know all that’s worth knowing and they aren’t curious, or tolerant, of anything outside their view of the world. In my personal experience, this last group of people tends to have had a very limited experience of the wider world. They live right where they grew up, don’t read very much except maybe the local newspaper, and oddly, are very authoritative and opinionated about many subjects that they have little or no experience in.
These people have slowed their learning to a snail’s pace and will never experience the childlike joy of discovering something new. Interestingly, this lack of curiosity is not isolated to any one country or ethnic group. I know people in many cultures who would say “my grandpa is just like that” or “I have one aunt who you must be describing”. It’s not limited to older people either; there are many younger people I’ve met who are the same way. This reminds me that curiosity has very little to do with any particular group, even a highly educated one. In fact, Einstein once observed that it was a miracle that curiosity survives formal education. Curiosity requires interest from the individual.
Einstein also said that he was neither clever nor especially gifted but that he was only very, very curious. This is likely to have been true of all the great minds. Of course they were extraordinarily gifted, but they were also very curious. Can you imagine where we’d be if Isaac Newton hadn’t wondered what made the apple fall on his head, or Ben Franklin never wondered about electricity? However, you don’t need to be a genius or have a lot of formal education to ask questions and be curious. Famed author Ray Bradbury has often said that after high school, he went to the local library and spent ten years there. He believed that there was no use even going to a university if you didn’t practically live at the library.
Curiosity and interest are not limited only to the young but they are definitely a part of the young at heart. Have you met these people who have some years on their bodies but who are interested in everything around them? They pay attention to what’s happening in the world, get involved in things like social media, and ask a lot of great questions of the people they meet; not out of nosiness, but because they are really interested. They also love to meet new people, young and old. These inquisitive people can look like just about anybody but two things they all seem to have in common are twinkles in their eyes and smiles on their faces. I love having conversations with curious people like this, it makes me feel younger and more alive.
When my mother-in-law was nearing the end of her life, hospice workers gave us a pamphlet to read describing stages that people go through as they prepare for death. One of the stages is losing interest in the things of this life in order to distance oneself from this world. That’s right, losing curiosity or interest is a step towards death! This is supposed to happen in the last six months of life. How many of us march down this road toward death years before we are actually called home?
As a person who loves history and has forever dreamt of travel, I have always been interested in people different from myself. Having grown up in a mostly homogeneous area in the U.S., I felt very lucky to have been friends with various exchange students and to have learned about different cultures. There are so many fascinating things to know about food, language, worldview, even humor. It was also intriguing to learn about all the similarities we have. A couple of my oldest friends are naturalized citizens, one from Korea and one from Mexico. It has been incredible to watch how much each of their families want to fit in and how much they blend their traditional cultures with the cultures of the people around them (It seems everybody wants a traditional turkey dinner at Thanksgiving). I always felt that this was as close as I could get to seeing how my own ancestors must have blended their old ways with new ones when they arrived in the country several generations ago.
One of my dearest friends from early in my adult life came from a world very different from mine. She was a put-together, brassy New Yorker and I was a much less put-together, timid Pacific Northwesterner. She was over 40 years my senior and our skin colors were not even close to the same. She grew up in a different era than I did and had stories that have had a lasting impact on me. She had fought battles I had only read about and fostered over 30 teenaged women. She had already lived a rich life and I was just starting my journey but she was still interested and interesting. She was funny, kind, intelligent, and curious. These are traits that can help us make friends with each other even if we don’t seem to have any other similarities in our backgrounds.
Do you want to know how to use your curiosity close to home? Get one of those books that is filled with questions you ask your parents or grandparents and sit down with them. The questions aren’t things that always come up in day to day life. When several of us did this with my grandmother it was amazing. There were stories even my aunts and uncles didn’t know. Things my grandmother hadn’t thought about in years came up and they were fascinating. It was a look into a different era, time travel if you will. When I think about all the richness in my life that I would have missed if I hadn’t been curious I am humbled. I also feel so much pity for those who will never experience all the joy, wonderment, and knowledge that comes from curiosity.
What can you do to tap into this incredible fountain of youth? Get out and talk to people who you believe are different than you. Don’t assume you understand why other people do the things they do; ask questions. Read books, watch different television shows or movies than you normally would. Try some different foods, use Wikipedia any time you’re curious about virtually anything. Find a group involved in something you have been interested in and attend a get together. Indulge your curiosity! I promise you, the world will never run out of wonderful surprises if you are only curious enough to look for them.