6 Tools of Curiosity

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One of the most useful skills to have is to be able to direct our curiosity. To many of us, curiosity often appears as some kind of spontaneous miracle: a spark just happens, seemingly from far beyond our control, and we find ourselves swept up by it. Perhaps someone with knowledge and charisma can ignite our interest in a specific topic for a time, but often, when we reach a satisfactory level of understanding, or after a bit of time has passed, our curiosity fades.

But making intentional use of our curiosity can help maintain our engagement in difficult tasks, see the limits of our understanding, gain insights, sustain relationships, and fuel our learning. In short, it can make high school (and work life, whether now or later) both easier and more interesting.

Rather than waiting for teachers, peers, or current events to persuade you that they are interesting, you can take responsibility for your own curiosity. If you don’t, who ever will? Here are some tools to develop and direct your curiosity.

1. Courageous Imperfection

In order to be curious about something, the first step is to be imperfect — to not know everything already. After all, what is there to investigate, to question, to puzzle over and wonder at, if we’ve assembled a complete understanding of the world around us? I find, even as an adult free from much of the status stresses of high school, that not knowing something that I “ought” to know is indeed embarrassing. It can be easier to spend more energy avoiding that embarrassment than learning new things. It takes a lot of courage to admit that we don’t know something, and we simply can’t be curious without being honest that we don’t know it all.

2. Open Expectations

Just as we don’t want to close ourselves off from wonder by assuming that we already have all the information we need, we also don’t want to limit our learning experiences by bringing expectations of what we should be getting out of them. On one level, I may know with some certainty what is going to happen for the rest of my day: I’ll go for a walk, then do some homework, then eat one of my families’ weeknight dinners, and so on. On another level, each of those events could lead to a discovery: who put that monument in the local park that I walk through? Why are history assignments so compelling some days (and so not on other days)? How hard is it to make the sauce that goes with this meal and why or why don’t we use it for any other dishes? To be curious, we need to be open to surprise and avoid functional fixedness.

3. Attention

When you find yourself curious about something, pay very close attention. Sure, the overall context is part of what’s going on, whether that’s, say, a video game, something that a friend or teacher mentioned, or a song lyric, a line in a story that you happened to come across. Yes, that’s important, but that’s not the whole story. Think about what you were doing, how your body felt, whether the moment went by in a chaotic blur of ideas or if you savored each detail. As with many skills, curiosity requires both pattern recognition and engagement. In other words, you need clear information about both the details that make up a pattern and to observe your own reaction to whatever caught your attention.

4. Questions That Spark Curiosity

Asking questions is curiosity in action. Curiosity is all about the desire to learn — to go from lacking some particular skill or knowledge to mastering that skill or knowledge. Questions are how we navigate from one place — the beginning place of lacking — to another — somewhere along the journey when  we achieve mastery.

We’re often told about W-questions: who, what, when, where, why (and how). Here’s a question you may not have asked about this list: which type of question is your favorite? Which one makes the hair on your neck stand up? Which one makes you lean forward, a flutter of vitality in your chest? And which one make your eyelids heavy? If you love learning about the people who shaped the ideas or history that we learn about in school, try to see how many “who” questions you can write down in a class or during a day. The surprising thing here is that often, if you tug at one question type (“who came up with combinatorics?”), other questions will attach themselves (“what purpose could this idea possibly have served?”), and you’ll soon be exploring the world of combinatorics without ever having necessarily set out to do so!

5. Watch Your Language

One easy way to invite more curiosity into your life is simply to add some vocabulary that will provoke your brain to be curious. When you start to say “I don’t know,” perhaps just add “yet” at the end. Or “I don’t know, but I wonder” or “I don’t know, but I’d love to look it up.” Relatedly, I ripped off a great tip from author Elizabeth Gilbert, which is that whenever anything happens, rather than telling myself that it is bad or good, I simply label it as “interesting.” If I say “my weekend was boring,” and someone asks me to say more, then my mind will search what it knows for signs of boredom. If I say “my weekend was interesting” then, interesting or not, I’m going to go digging for an answer to justify my judgment. You can even use it as a response when peers share about their hobbies. I have navigated plenty of networking events and weddings — and learned a lot along the way — by saying little else other than “Interesting, tell me more!”

6. Presence and Practice

Like most skills, curiosity is a daily practice. It’s a muscle that can grow stronger or can atrophy from use or lack thereof — but it is a particularly delicate one that’s easy to injure. When you lack curiosity about someone or something in your environment, simply notice. I find that if I chastise myself for being boring and uninterested, it can be harder to find the emotional space and openness to be curious about something later. Fortunately, caring for our curiosity often makes our lives more engaging, likable, and fun, and who doesn’t love fun?

Ryan Warren

Tutor & Creative Director

Ryan is fascinated by sharing ideas with people, and has been doing so with PrepMatters since 2007.

Ryan grew up in Maine, doing the usual Maine nerd things: math club; theater; logic puzzles; playing tuba; going to independent movies; and shamelessly listening to punk rock, hip-hop, and cheesy 80’s pop anthems. You get the idea.

He has a BA in English and Philosophy from Gord...

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