I’ve been working on a story about writing. Yes, it’s about the act of writing. In the course of writing about writing, I’ve been doing some research. I do some research for pretty much everything I write, but the extent varies by the topic. The goal is of research is always the same though: an intimate understanding of the subject.
Then I head down the rabbit hole.
It usually starts with a single word or phrase or idea. That leads to something new, so I follow that thread; that leads to something different, so I follow that thread; that leads to a new way to see something old, so I follow that thread. And on and on until time decides that I have to retreat to the original topic.
It’s like being an explorer who’s charged with finding a land that you’re not entirely certain exists beyond the present horizon. I have a course in mind, but these sidebars lead me far astray of my original course. Detours don’t jive with the pragmatic nature of our adult world.
I can say from experience that these jaunts are not the type of activities that even the most liberal of employers appreciate. These tangents are often viewed as squandering the most precious resource: time. And since they often occur within the context of doing a job, I’m wasting money to boot. Instead of chasing some silly old white rabbit, I could be making the thing I was tasked to do in the first place.
“Smith,” they say. “I’m not paying you to learn. I’m paying you to make something. You learn on your own time.”
Be curious on your own time — that’s the message we receive from high school to the present day. Like everything else in life, curiosity will have to wait for retirement.
What we fail to realize is that we’re missing out on something amazing: possibility. What seems like a waste of time and money is actually a powerful tool for expanding information into knowledge and driving deep personal growth.
Being curious means asking questions to better understand a concept, an idea, or a person. It allows us to develop an objective view about how the world works instead of relying on our often misconstructed mental models. Curiosity creates breakthroughs, new connections, and develops in us a deep understanding of the people we interact with. In short, curiosity enhances empathy, builds knowledge, and drives innovation.
“Always a beautiful answer / who asks a more beautiful question.”
The good news is that you can cultivate curiosity. In the first 7 or 8 years of our lives, we’re on a quest to connect things, to understand how the world works. We challenge our worldview, asking questions of others and inventing new realities. But as we grow in education, we’re directed to be more pragmatic. As a result, we grow less thoughtful about the world, but we keep those old neural pathways to guide us. We can restart the process by asking questions.
Warren Berger has written a whole book on the art and science of the question. In his book A More Beautiful Question, Berger shows how questions have been a catalyst for change and fuel for innovation. He believes that the quality of the question is most important, that our questions should be, as the title suggests, beautiful.
Berger defines a beautiful question as, “An ambitious, yet actionable, question that can begin to change the way we think about something—and might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”
These types of questions usually start with Why, What-if, or How. “These kinds of questions challenge assumptions, and take a fresh look at things that maybe are being taken for granted,” says Berger in a HuffPost interview.
The What-if question is one that Stephen King uses in his writing. He doesn’t believe in plotting stories. He believes in putting characters in an environment and recording how they interact with one another. To King, a story is a found thing, not something plotted out by a creator.
From his memoir, On Writing:
“A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question:
What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (Salem’s Lot)
What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone in sight? (Desperation)…
These are all situations which occurred to me — while showering, while driving, while taking my daily walk — and which I eventually turned into books.”
For me, I’ve come to love the power of a good question. When I interview people for articles, I want to ask questions that reveal intimate linkages between people. To get to this level of quality requires the right set of progressive questions. When it works well, the interviewee does the work for you, and you then relay the witness report to the audience. Like Stephen King’s approach to story, you must listen and transcribe the tale.
I also like this approach championed as part of the Toyota production method called the 5 Whys. The primary design of the 5 Whys is for problem solving, but it works equally well for exercising your curiosity.
Why? Because you want to know more.
Why? Because knowing more allows you to create connections and forge new neural pathways in the brain.
Why? Because creating connections enhances your understanding of the world and how it works, building better mental models.
Why is it important to understand the world? There are complex processes that underlie how the world works, and when you understand them, you can help others grow.
Why? Expanding knowledge is a key to growth.
Asking why five times allows you to drill for the kernel of truth that’s at the bottom of the popcorn bucket. As a problem solving methodology, it’s a way to get to the human error that is the first link in the chain of events that led to an error. It’s also a great tool for cultivating your curiosity.
Questions are a powerful tool for driving change and challenging your view of the world. They can help you create fascinating connections between people, ideas, and concepts. But questions only works if we’re willing to ask them in the first place and we’re open to receiving the answers.
So when you see that white rabbit scampering past you, don’t be afraid to take a trip into the rabbit hole. Like Alice, you won’t know how you’re going to get back, but you’ll be better off for it.
What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There
My proclivity for chasing white rabbits is something I developed a long time ago as a child. While the world tried to stamp it out of me, I clung to it with every last bit of strength. When you’re a kid, the world is open to such play. As you grow older into high school and college, and later a job, it’s not as acceptable to follow your thoughts.
The working world doesn’t see the value of connecting disparate ideas and forging new neural pathways. Instead, we’re often called upon to use the old pathways, even as organizations champion so-called “outside the box” thinking (itself a worn out cliche).
For all the talk of “take chances, fail fast, and innovate,” you don’t see curiosity instilled as a value across organizations. If it exists at all, it tends to exist in pockets, in teams tasked with innovative thinking or in thoughtful CEO’s, as if it’s a power reserved for a privileged few. Very few organizations adopt curiosity as a cultural value.
It’s not all the working world’s fault, though. As a culture, we stop emphasizing the importance of curiosity about the time kids enter high school. To question is to challenge the status-quo, and that’s not something we have time for. Our school systems have placed the emphasis on results, not experiential learning. We have to produce children who can perform to an acceptable level on standardized testing. Overly-focused on the outcomes, we do not prepare children for a lifetime of learning.
A lifetime of learning requires a solid foundation to work from, and that’s why we go to school. We do well in the beginning laying a foundation. But an education is something to nurture. Learning continues long after you leave the classroom. To live is to learn. And we should imbue in kids the value of being curious and open to the possibilities it presents. Ask questions and seek their answers. Only then can we continue to grow together.
In an uncertain world, curiosity is a necessary trait for survival. It teaches us to accept nothing at face value, to challenge, and to choose continuous growth over stagnation. When we are open to what comes next, whatever that may be, anything is possible. It will take some time to get there, but it’s a worthy pursuit. It’s the best possible path to growth.