The more I observe brilliant people, the more I notice that one distinguishing characteristic they have is immense curiosity. I’m reminded of this quality when I read two articles by Bill Gates where he listed his favorite Teaching Company courses. There are two things I notice:
- He watches a lot of courses in addition to reading a lot of books.
- He watches courses on diverse topics, ranging from economy to chemistry to linguistics to medicine.
Another good example is Nathan Myhrvold (whom I wrote about in my post about polymaths). Just watch his talk at TED and you will see that his interests range from cooking to photography to nuclear technology to archeology and more. I can give you other examples but I think the point is clear: immense curiosity is a distinguishing characteristic of brilliant people.
Why Curiosity Is Important
How does curiosity contribute to someone’s brilliance? Why is it important? There are two reasons I can think of:
1. It gives you a fresh perspective. Most people have just one or two lenses to see a problem through, but curious people have many different lenses. As a result, they can see something that many other people can’t. That’s what happened in Nathan Myhrvold’s company when someone found something that had eluded experts in the field:
Wood was a physicist, not a doctor, but that wasn’t necessarily a liability, at this stage. “People in biology and medicine don’t do arithmetic,” he said. He wasn’t being critical of biologists and physicians: this was, after all, a man who read medical journals for fun. He meant that the traditions of medicine encouraged qualitative observation and interpretation. But what physicists do””out of sheer force of habit and training””is measure things and compare measurements, and do the math to put measurements in context. At that moment, while reading The New England Journal, Wood had the advantages of someone looking at a familiar fact with a fresh perspective.
A physicist who “read medical journals for fun” is definitely a curious person. And he had the advantage of a fresh perspective.
2. It gives you fresh ideas. Using the term from The Medici Effect, curiosity gives you Intersection experience where concepts from different fields collide with one another and produce fresh ideas. Since curious people get more Intersection experience, they consequently get more fresh ideas.
Seven Ways to Develop Your Curiosity
Now that we’ve seen how important curiosity is, how can we develop it? Here are several things you can do:
1. Don’t label something as boring. This is the first thing you should do. Whenever you’re about to label something as boring, stop yourself. Why? Because doing that will close one more door of opportunities. What might seem boring at the surface may actually be interesting if you just dig a little bit deeper.
2. Expect things to be fun. Rather than expecting things to be boring, expect them to be fun. This small change in your mindset can make a big difference. Once you do it, it will be much easier for you to find the fun side of practically anything.
3. Absorb other people’s enthusiasm. Often something seems boring because it’s delivered poorly. That’s perhaps one thing that makes great teachers great: they can connect their students to the fun side of what they’re teaching. So one way to develop your curiosity is to watch the talks of those who are enthusiastic about their fields. Don’t just absorb their knowledge; absorb their energy too. One good place to start is TED.
4. Question relentlessly. Whenever you deal with a topic, have questions in your mind. Find their answers and raise new questions. Questions keep your mind engaged. They can change your learning process from something dull to a treasure hunt.
5. Create a challenge. By creating a challenge, you will want to prove to yourself (and perhaps to others) that you can make it. One good way to do that is by creating a project: build something real out of what you learn. Another way is to create a contest with your friends to find out who can do something faster or better.
6. Connect to what you already know. Things will be more exciting if you can connect what you’re learning to what you already know. Why? Because that improves your understanding of the world and allows you to see new possibilities you’ve never realized before.
7. Diversify. Avoid boredom and find new possibilities by exploring new topics. Read books in new genres. Meet people with different professions. Add variety to your life.
The core is simple, actually. All the advice above can be summarized to just one: make things fun.
Photo by fdecomite
Great article Donald!
I especially love # 1 & 2 which states expect things to be fun and to not label them as being boring. The attitude that we go into things determines what we get out of it.
If we expect things to be fun there’s a learning experience there. But if we expect it to be boring like you said, we close opportunities and we shut down our ability to question it and learn new things!
inspiring topic, donald 🙂
i think actually we are born with curiosity in the first place and while we grew up the gift got faded.
see how curious the kids are.
they are naturally taking interests in everything.
they are eager to try all kinds of things around them.
and they always know how to entertain themselves even by the simplest little things.
it’s just while growing, we start to have thoughts and start to think too much to get ourselves overwhelmed, and hugely distracted.
so sometimes, we can simply try be innocent like a baby, embrace things around us with more open mind. then we will see we are actually living in every interesting details of the world 😛
Good point and good tips. If you find yourself having a tough time absorbing other peoples’ enthusiasm, try hanging out with some kids–nephews, nieces, your own, babysit, etc. I spend a lot of time with my nieces and nephews; no one has the enthusiasm and curiousity of children and it is very contagious.
Someone just pointed out the link in my name was wrong and confusing. Sorry about that and thanks for the catch!
Yes, that’s why it’s very important to have and maintain the right attitude.
Sandy and Ian,
Nice reminder 🙂 I agree that we can learn a lot about curiosity from kids.
Nice post, and nice new banner image too! New ideas/perspective are always welcomed and you’ve got some nice tips. Not classing things as boring was a hard one for me, but hey – It makes sense.
Donald: Great post with practical tips that can be put to good use. It is so easy to overlook the importance of curiosity and all the many benefits it can create. I really do agree with you that looking through a different lens is important and allows you to see things that other people may not see. Curiosity can really strengthen your ability to recognize insights and opportunities. Thanks for the post and the tips. Very helpful.
Nice article! As a scientist and Gladwell fan, there was much to appreciate here. I can remember wanting to briefly be an inventor as a young girl, and then saying, “But they’ve already invented lipstick!”
I think there are two big keys to invention that I have discovered for myself. One is to be a dreamer, but the other is to DO something with those dreams. The reason the Intellectual Venture club works so well is they don’t actually have to make the prototypes. They have enough money to pay people to do that for them. It’s a big difference. Most dreamers don’t have the oompf to follow-through.
very good post!
For me, your sixth advice: “Connect to what you really know” is the best one. This is the start point of increasing your creativity.
All the best,
Thanks! It isn’t easy either for me not to call something boring, but I find it makes a big difference.
This is indeed the main reason why curiosity is important.
Nice insight. I love the way you explain the keys to invention.
Glad you like it 🙂
This is a compliment to me. But having lots of interests and read a lot has two sides. One is that you don’t have very much time to meet with friends, the other is that you are never bored, not be sad or depressed. I feel sorry for anyone who has no interests and I know many. I say I know them, but do not meet with them as a talk with those people is very limited. I guess a talk with you would be interesting.
I hope so 🙂 As for the two sides you mentioned, I think maintaining the balance is important. Being curious and reading (or exploring) a lot is important, but so is meeting other people. It’s great that you have a lot of interests. Your life must be exciting.
I like to try doing boring things in interesting ways like taxes with a felt tip pen for example. It’s much more fun this way.
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