Whoever first said curiosity killed the cat might have been smoking something.
Sure, sticking your nose into business not your own can end badly, but more often than not true curiosity makes for a smarter cat.
Like many, I’ve read Henry David Thoreau and his exploits at Walden Pond. When we spoke of a pond where I grew up, it was a fairly shallow area of water and you could easily throw a rock to the other side. My frame of reference was the small ponds we had on our family farm.
Walden Pond covers 61 acres at a length of 2800 feet and a width of 1000 feet. By comparison, the average size of most ponds is roughly 10 feet x 15 feet.
Walden Pond is big. If you’ve read Walden, being able to grasp the size of the pond changes your perspective about Thoreau’s writing. Further learning that he often made a short hike into town also helps you understand that even Thoreau wasn’t above a bit of exaggeration about his isolation.
Why does this matter?
Today we can add rich context to anything we read or experience thanks to the power of the internet. You no longer have to fly Concord, Massachusetts and drive to see what Walden Pond looks like, or how big it is. And you don’t even need to take Thoreau’s word for what his escape from civilization was really like because so many have studied and written about him since the book was published in 1854.
I hope you, like me, take some pleasure in backgrounding the things most interesting to you in your life whether they be professional or personal. Whenever someone is asked how they “know so much,” likely it is because they availed themselves of the amazing technology that we now take for granted.
And why wouldn’t we want to enrich our lives with better information and deeper insight?
I think it is primarily a lack of curiosity.
I don’t know how much curiosity is an innate orientation, whether it is learned, or both. I do know that it serves us all well when cultivated and applied well.
Being smart isn’t just about how much information we have or can access, but how it all fits together in context. Being informed is about the relationships between different ideas. Learning the history, backstory or uncommonly know facts around a person or an event gives us not just a better understanding of the subject but the world at large.
I sometimes make lists of things I am curious about, that I want to learn about. And while investigating a new idea I often find interesting rabbit trails that lead to even better ideas.
You have a primary interest in your work (I hope) and you control how much you know about it. To increase knowledge that can improve your performance or value to your employer or customers is profitable and completely within your control. I am disappointed when I meet someone who has no curiosity about what they do beyond the essential minimums.
General Jim Mattis was known for traveling with boxes full of books on his deployments. In his memoir he wrote, “If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.”
Like most great leaders, Mattis knows the importance of curiosity.
What nurtures curiosity? That is both an easy and difficult question.
I don’t know how to motivate anyone who just doesn’t seem interested in the elements and circumstances of his or her life. I don’t understand but acknowledge that some people are content with limited information and perspective. That is their choice.
For the rest of us, the more we observe, study, read and question, the more interesting life becomes. Curiosity is cultivated by:
Asking more questions.
Looking beyond the obvious.
Thinking farther than second thoughts to third and fourth thoughts.
A quest for amazement.
Slowing down to look more closely.
Making connections between disparate ideas.
Challenging assumptions and assertions.
An appreciation for the unknown.
Taking an interest in something we might not naturally be interested in.
Asking other curious people what interesting things they are learning.
Keeping a list of topics you’d like to learn more about.
Adding to the list regularly.
Surfing the internet for fun and variety, not just work and results.
You now know–whether you wanted to or not–how big Walden Pond is. And the size of the pond may not matter to you at all. What does matter is that, as G.K. Chesterton said and as I often quote, “The world will never lack for wonders, only wonder.”
Cultivate your wonder and curiosity. Feed your imagination regularly. Take advantage of the extraordinary tools available today. And don’t believe what you heard about what killed the cat.
Mark Sanborn is an award winning speaker and Leadership Expert in Residence at High Point University, the Premier Life Skills University. For more information about his work, visit www.marksanborn.com. He also teaches professional speakers and leaders how to increase their messaging and public speaking effectiveness. Learn more here.