Scott H Young

The Power of Curiosity


There are essentially two different modes of thought you can apply when deciding what to do: purpose and curiosity. Acting through purpose means accomplishing a project or task because you have a known outcome. Writing this article is an act of purpose, I want to update my blog with new content, so I’m writing with the intent of finishing an article.

Curiosity, however, is a more interesting perspective that is often underused. In taking on an activity because of curiosity, you aren’t taking on a task despite an uncertain outcome. You’re taking on a task or project, because the result is uncertain. While acting from purpose comes from the need to achieve something known, curiosity drives us to learn something new.

Lost Curiosity

When you don’t know anything, curiosity will drive the majority of your actions. If you were stuck next to a machine that had many buttons, but you didn’t understand how it worked, you would probably experiment until it’s functions were known to you. Small children take a lot of actions out of curiosity, building basic knowledge about the world.

At some point, however, curiosity starts to taper off. With a minimum understanding, the emphasis switches from curiosity-driven actions to purpose-driven actions. When learning how to use blogging software, I was initially unfocused, trying to figure out the function of everything. After using WordPress for three years, I’m almost completely purpose-driven, focusing on writing articles rather than trying to uncover new features in the software.

The problem is that curiosity can die off too soon. When was the last time you invested time into a project or activity simply because you wanted to see what would happen? If you’re over twenty, I’m guessing that those types of projects and activities make only a small part of your free time. Curiosity is replaced with purpose, and in that replacement, something important has been lost.

The Curiosity Valley of Death

There comes a point when you have enough understanding of a system to achieve results. Further studying of the system then becomes less productive than actually working with what you know. An hour spent uncovering new features is less useful than working with the features you understand.

However, the problem of lost curiosity is a problem of a local maximum. Curiosity may be less valuable, in the short run, but added curiosity can often ratchet you to an even greater level of achievement. Getting out of the valley of death is difficult both intellectually and emotionally.

From an intellectual standpoint, because you are on a local maximum, it appears as if curiosity-driven actions are a waste of time. Why waste six months on an experimental business idea when you can guarantee yourself $30,000 by completing a known project? Why try a new diet when you’ve had success in losing weight on a previous diet? Why take a martial arts class for fun when you know you’ll be entertained by playing video games?

From an emotional perspective, curiosity can be frightening. There’s a reason it killed the cat. In a prehistoric world, being too curious could mean eating a poison mushroom or getting too friendly with a bear. So it’s not surprising that humans are engineered with a disposition towards purpose-driven actions after a short period of time.

But we don’t live in prehistoric times. What’s the worst that will happen? You’ll lose a few months, a promotion or some cash? More, because the world has become more complex, there are even more local maxima, so the chances that you’ve stumbled upon the best strategy for living is rare. Curiosity has become more valuable, but most people still avoid it.

Reigniting Curiosity

Purpose-driven activities are still worth doing. Known outcomes are useful for your finances, relationships and health. But in a complicated world with infinite choice and variety, curiosity becomes a more powerful long-term tool for achievement.

What are some ways you can reignite your curiosity?

  1. Work on projects with no defined results. Write a novel when you’ve never written a short story before. Train for a marathon when you aren’t athletic. Find something you’re bad at and make a project out of it, because chances are if you’re bad at something it’s because you know very little about it. Ignorance is the starting point for curiosity.
  2. Read books about a topic you don’t normally read about. The point of a book isn’t knowledge, it’s wisdom. Your most important decisions aren’t going to come in the form of a citation, they’re going to be divulged from the background ideas you’ve been exposed to. Reading a huge variety, and taking advantage of curiosity, gives you new ideas.
  3. Waste time on something creative. Try learning how to use a tool you’ve never practiced before. Curiously exploring new tools can often have unintended benefits. The programming skills I built on completely unrelated projects have helped me in running a website. The artistic skills I built allowed me to do much of my own design work for products.

Have Fewer Long-Range Goals

I’m a big proponent of goal-setting. Goal-setting is the purified product of purpose-driven thinking. Goal-setting can also help in a curiosity context as well. Thirty day trials are a type of goal, but involve experimenting with a new form of behavior. Goal-setting can give you the momentum to get over your natural aversion to trying new things.

But goal-setting can also inhibit creativity, particularly when long-range goals overwhelm all of your time and energy. I started goal setting by making five and ten year goals, I’ve since stopped doing this practice because I felt it took away my ability to see new directions. Now, I set goals of six months to 2-3 years, but I don’t set any longer than this.

Long-range goals, particularly those that consume a lot of time and energy, restrict the flow of new inputs. When I’m engaged in a six-month project, I’m constantly being exposed to new ideas that I need to put on hold because I’m purpose-driven. However, once the goal is reached, I then have the opportunity to explore some of those ideas. If one of them is significant enough, I may devote an entirely new project for exploring this direction.

When writing my longest ebook, Learn More, Study Less, I had the idea to go in a completely different direction. I wanted to work on a book that was shorter, easier to digest and distilled into individual ideas rather than a long essay. I put the idea on hold, but after I finished, I worked on The Little Book of Productivity, an experiment in a completely different direction.

Maintaining an Idea Folder

Aside from musings in my journal, I don’t actually maintain a written folder with new ideas for projects to pursue. However, I always keep new ideas in the forefront of my thinking. Whenever I read or stumble upon something that seems interesting and different, I make a mental note. Then, later, I can pursue the best ideas in a separate project.

If you’re stuck in purpose-driven actions, you may want to create an actual folder with written cards to accomplish this. I have a to-read list which serves a similar function of storing books I want to explore.

Planting Seeds Versus Watering Trees

Purpose-driven action is like watering a tree. You are putting inputs into a known system with a known result. For the most part, the watering the tree will encourage it to grow. Curiosity-driven actions are like planting new seeds. Only a small fraction will sprout, but if you plant enough, some may become healthy trees.

If you only water existing trees, you’re in a risky position. A bolt of lighting or disease could kill off a big tree and you’d be left with nothing. There is also the risk that you might water a stunted tree, and by planting no more seeds, you have no opportunities to find a bigger, healthier tree to put your energies into.

A lot of people I talk to have sickly trees. They aren’t happy with their lives and can’t seem to find a way out. One strategy is simply to water the trees more. If you aren’t taking care of your health, finances or relationships, then you shouldn’t be surprised when they’re withered and shrunken.

But often the problem isn’t in your effort, it’s in the trees. Working harder at a job you hate won’t help. In these cases, curiosity, planting more seeds, is the solution. Even if your current situation seems grim, planting more seeds can give eventual opportunities.

The 20% Rule

Twenty percent of your energy, time and money should be devoted to experimental and curiosity-driven pursuits. I’m borrowing from the successful strategy used in Google where employees must devote 20% of their time towards self-directed projects. Twenty percent is an arbitrary figure, the actual optimal result may be 50% or 75%, depending on your situation, but for most people I’d say 20% is a good start.

See how you could free up one day per week to invest into projects or activities where you can’t predict the material outcome. Even if you need to free up eight hours on a Saturday for this activity, it is worth the expense. First, novelty makes life more interesting, remember: boredom is the enemy. Second, the unintended benefits of seed projects can have huge repercussions in only a short period of time. I started this website without any definite expectations, now it can support me through University.

One day, once per week, do one thing new. Either add up all the time and invest it into an experimental project, or devote it separately to something completely different each time. Whatever the case, be curious and enjoy planting new seeds.


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5 Responses to “The Power of Curiosity”

  1. Kali says:

    I like your distinction between purpose and curiosity, Scott, and the planting seeds vs watering trees is an interesting metaphor. I laughed when you wrote in prehistoric times being too curious could mean eating a poisoning mushroom or getting too friendly with a bear :)

  2. Ben says:

    Hi Scott,

    I’m a number of months into my fifth decade and I still maintain a healthy curiosity. One of the benefits of working at a university is that I have access to a very good library system. I love going and seeing the new books. Several students are amazed that I read books that aren’t related to my job/profession.

    One of my curiosity sparkers is to check out art galleries.

    Cheers

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  4. [...] to deal with a salesperson who leaves them grumpy and depressed every time they leave the store. Be curious. Knowing everything about the client will help you get a much better view on the things that they [...]

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