Thinking Tips

Curiosity is not just a penchant for asking a lot of questions. It is a specific kind of interest in a topic, which is critical to thinking and problem-solving.

What is curiosity?

Curiosity is the emotion you get when you have a sense that there is a phenomenon to understand of which you are aware of only some of the parts. When you are curious, you are eager to understand the interrelationships between the parts and how they come together to form a whole. The curiosity motivates you to explore those parts and understand the interrelationships before trying to reach a conclusion or make a decision or initiate action.

It’s not automatic.

So, for example, a couple of years ago, the water stopped in my cottage but the pump kept running. I was not curious about what caused it. I jumped to the conclusion that the pump had malfunctioned or the well was dry, and I called the plumber.

When my plumber was not immediately available, I went to my neighbor, Jim, to see if he knew another plumber. After hearing about the problem, Jim was curious about it. He said, “Let’s go look at the water system.” One look into the crawl space under the cottage revealed that a pipe fitting had come loose. Lots of water was being pumped, but it was going in the dirt below the cottage.

Curiosity motivates exploration

When you are curious about some phenomenon, you want to be aware of more about how it works.

Sometimes this means you go out and look at the world to make new observations, i.e., you explore. Exploration is more than just looking around to see what’s about. It is not scanning the environment. It is purposeful observation of the parts with the intention of understanding how they relate to one another.

There is a great story in The Art of Teaching by Gilbert Highet on this topic. It tells how a famous biologist, Louis Agassiz, had a graduate student simply observe one preserved specimen of a fish until the student had learned all he could about it from observation. The graduate student thought he was finished in a couple of hours, but when he reported his findings to Agassiz, the man said, “Not enough!” and left him. This continued for two weeks, by the end of which the graduate student had become fascinated by what he could learn from observing the visible parts of the fish. He had not been curious when he started. Once his curiosity was fired, he could learn much more and put together his observations into deep knowledge.

(Incidentally, I highly recommend the book — particularly the first half, plus this story that appears in the second half.)

Curiosity and “dumb” questions

In my previous article, I discussed what makes a question helpful. (A helpful question is one that is answerable and relevant to your thinking process.)

Curiosity is a great alert to possible helpful questions. This is particularly true when a “dumb” question occurs to you and you feel slightly puzzled by it — it seems obvious, yet you are curious about the answer.

When you put such “dumb” questions into words and then try to answer them, you typically reveal important information.

For example, if you are in a meeting and ask an apparently “dumb question” such as: “Why exactly are we here?” or “Why are we discussing this?” you can reveal contradictory purposes and vague purposes and lack of purposes.

If you are trying to solve a problem, it can be very helpful to ask things like: “What exactly is the problem?” or “Why is it a problem?” or “When did it start?” Often there are all kinds of assumptions built into people’s description of a problem that don’t give a full picture. A friend of mine used to help “dumb computer users” with their problems, and almost regardless of what they would say, he would start by asking questions like, “What do you see on the screen?” He wanted to get the full picture before trying to diagnose the problem.

Curiosity is how you activate the relevant context of knowledge

If you want to make a decision or solve a problem or figure out how you will achieve a goal, you need to call on everything you’ve got that may be buried in your memory banks. One way to make sure you get it out is to get curious about the details.

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