WE WERE DRIVING IN THE car one afternoon with the windows open. It was 1959 — I was eight years old. We stopped at a traffic light, and suddenly there was a bee buzzing around, in and out of the windows. It was making me nervous. I didn’t want to get stung by the bee.
I couldn’t wait for the light to change, for the car to get moving again. But all of a sudden I had a question: which moves faster — a car or a bee? Maybe the bee would be able to keep up with us, even after my mom pulled away from the intersection.
We eluded the bee that afternoon, but the question stuck with me. Which moves faster, a bee or a car? I tried to puzzle it out, but I didn’t come to a satisfying answer. As an eight-year-old in 1959, I could do nothing with that question but ask a grown-up. So I did what I often did with my questions: I asked my grandmother. My grandmother was kind of my own personal Google — not quite as omniscient as the Internet seems to be, but much more understanding and encouraging.
She liked my questions even when she didn’t know the answers.
I’ve been curious for as long as I have memories of myself. I was thinking of myself as curious before I was thinking of myself as anything else. It is my first personality trait. Fifty years later, I think of myself as curious the way some people think of themselves as funny, or smart, or gregarious.
For me, being curious defines not just my personality, not just the way I think of myself, it has been the key to my survival and my success. It’s how I survived my reading problems. It’s how I survived a bumpy academic career. It’s how I ended up in the movie business; it’s how I figured out the movie business. And curiosity is the quality I think helps distinguish me in Hollywood.
I ask questions.
The questions spark interesting ideas. The questions build collaborative relationships. The questions create all kinds of connections — connections among unlikely topics, among unlikely collaborators. And the interesting ideas, the collaborative relationships, and the web of connections work together to build trust.
Curiosity isn’t just a quality of my personality — it’s at the heart of how I approach being alive. I think it has been the differentiator. I think it’s one of the reasons people like to work with me, in a business where there are lots of producers to choose from.
Curiosity gave me the dream. It, quite literally, helped me create the life I imagined back when I was 23 years old. In fact, it’s helped me create a life much more adventurous, interesting, and successful than I could have hoped for at age twenty-three.
For me, writing this book has meant thinking about curiosity in ways I never have, and it has revealed all kinds of qualities of curiosity itself that had never occurred to me before. In fact, I’ve tried to make curiosity itself a character in the book, because curiosity is available to anyone. My stories are meant to inspire you and entertain you — they are my experience of curiosity. But everyone gets to use curiosity to chase the things that are most important to them.
That’s the wonderful way that curiosity is different from intelligence or creativity or even from leadership. Some people are really smart. Some people are really creative. Some people have galvanic leadership qualities. But not everyone.
But you can be as curious as you want to be, and it doesn’t matter when you start. And your curiosity can help you be smarter and more creative; it can help you be more effective and be a better person.
ONE OF THE THINGS I love about curiosity is that it is an instinct with many dualities. Curiosity has a very yin-and-yang quality about it. It’s worth paying attention to those dualities, because they help us see curiosity more clearly.
For instance, you can unleash your curiosity, or it can unleash you. That is, you can decide you need to be curious about something. But once you get going, your curiosity will pull you along.
The more you limit curiosity — the more you tease people with what’s coming without telling them — the more you increase their curiosity. Who killed J.R.? Who won the Mega Millions lottery jackpot?
Likewise, you can be intensely curious about something relatively minor, and the moment you know the answer, your curiosity is satisfied. Once you know who won the lottery, the instinct to be curious about that deflates completely.
You can be curious about something very specific — like whether a bee or a car moves faster — curious about something to which you can get a definitive answer. That may or may not open up new questions for you (how do bees manage to fly at 20 mph?). But you can also be curious about things to which you may never know the answer — physicians, psychologists, physicists, cosmologists are all researching areas where we learn more and more, and yet may never have definitive answers. That kind of curiosity can carry you through your entire life.
Curiosity requires a certain amount of bravery — the courage to reveal you don’t know something, the courage to ask a question of someone. But curiosity can also give you courage. It requires confidence — just a little bit — but it repays you by building up your confidence.
Nothing unleashes curiosity in an audience like good storytelling. Nothing inspires storytelling, in turn, like the results of curiosity.
Curiosity can easily become a habit — the more you use it, the more naturally it will come to you. But you can also use curiosity actively — you can always overrule your natural pacing of asking questions and say to yourself, This is something I need to dig into. This is something, or someone, I need to know more about.
Curiosity looks like it’s a “deconstructive” process. That seems almost obvious — by asking questions about things, you’re taking them apart, you’re trying to understand how they work, whether it’s the engine in your Toyota Prius or the personality of your boss. But, in fact, curiosity isn’t deconstructive. It’s synthetic. When curiosity really captures you, it fits the pieces of the world together. You may have to learn about the parts, but when you’re done, you have a picture of something you never understood before.
Curiosity is a tool of engagement with other people. But it’s also the path to independence — independence of thought. Curiosity helps create collaboration, but it also helps give you autonomy.
Curiosity is wonderfully refreshing. You cannot use it up. In fact, the more curious you are today — about something specific, or in general — the more likely you are to be curious in the future. With one exception: curiosity hasn’t inspired much curiosity about itself. We’re curious about all kinds of things, except the concept of curiosity.
And finally, we live at a moment in time that should be a “golden age of curiosity.” As individuals, we have access to more information more quickly than anyone has ever had before. Some places are taking advantage of this in big ways — companies in Silicon Valley are a vivid and instructive example. The energy and creativity of entrepreneurs comes from asking questions — questions like “What’s next?” and “Why can’t we do it this way?”
But just as each of us can start using our own curiosity the moment we decide to, we can help create that golden age of curiosity in the wider culture. We can do it in some simple ways, by answering every question our own children ask, and by helping them find the answers when we don’t know them. We can do it, within our own power, at work in a whole range of small but invaluable ways: by asking questions ourselves; by treating questions from our colleagues with respect and seriousness; by welcoming questions from our customers and clients; by seeing those questions as opportunities, not interruptions. The point isn’t to start asking a bunch of questions, rat-a-tat, like a prosecutor. The point is to gradually shift the culture — of your family, of your workplace — so we’re making it safe to be curious. That’s how we unleash a blossoming of curiosity, and all the benefits that come with it.
ROBERT HOOKE WAS A brilliant seventeenth-century English scientist who helped usher in the era of scientific inquiry — moving society away from religious explanations of how the world worked toward a scientific understanding.
Hooke was a contemporary and fierce rival of Isaac Newton; some have compared Hooke’s range of interests and skills to Leonardo da Vinci. Hooke contributed discoveries, advances, and lasting insights to physics, architecture, astronomy, paleontology, and biology. He lived from 1635 to 1703, but although he’s been dead for 300 years, he contributed to the engineering of modern clocks, microscopes, and cars. It was
Hooke, peering through a microscope at a razor-thin slice of the bark of a cork tree, who first used the word “cell” to describe the basic unit of biology he saw in the viewfinder.
This range of expertise is astonishing today, in an era when so many people, even scientists, are so specialized. The kinds of discoveries and insights made by someone like Hooke are thrilling. But what is really humbling is that scientists like Hooke didn’t just revolutionize how we understand the world — from the motions of the planets to the biology of our own bodies. They had to be revolutionaries. They were fighting contempt, mockery, and two thousand years of power structure that not only set strict limits on how each member of society could operate, but also what it was okay to ask questions about.
As the scholar of curiosity Barbara Benedict explained when we talked to her, “One of the things that made the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century scientists really extraordinary is that they asked questions that hadn’t been asked before.”
Hooke, she pointed out, “looked at his own urine under the microscope. That was hugely transgressive. No one had ever thought to look at urine as a subject of scientific examination.”
Benedict is a literary scholar — she’s the Charles A. Dana professor of English Literature at Trinity College in Connecticut — and she became captivated by curiosity because she kept coming across the word, and the idea, while studying eighteenth-century literature. “I came across the word ‘curious’ so often in every text, I got a little irritated,” Benedict said. “What does it mean when you call someone ‘the curious reader’? Is that a compliment or not?”
Benedict was so intrigued by the attitudes about curiosity she kept bumping into that she wrote a cultural history of curiosity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, titled simply, Curiosity.
In fact, says Benedict, before the Renaissance, official power, the kind of power that kings and queens had, along with the organization of society, and the limits on what you could ask questions about were all the same thing. They were interwoven.
Powerful people controlled information as well as armies.
Rulers controlled the story.
In that setting, curiosity was a sin. It was a transgression. It was “an outlaw impulse,” as Benedict described it in her book. Curiosity, including scientific curiosity, was a challenge to the power structure of society — starting with the monarch himself. It was a challenge to two millennia of “wisdom” — “I’m the king because God said I should be the king. You are a serf because God said you should be a serf ” — that culminated in the American Revolution.
Curiosity — asking questions — isn’t just a way of understanding the world. It’s a way of changing it. The people in charge have always known that, going all the way back to the Old Testament, and the myths of Greece and Rome.
In some places, curiosity is considered almost as dangerous today as it was in 1649. The Chinese government censors the entire Internet for a nation of 1.4 billion people, almost half of whom are online.
And everywhere, curiosity retains a little aura of challenge and impertinence.
Consider what happens when you ask someone a question.
They might respond, “That’s a good question.”
Or they might respond, “That’s a curious question.”
Often, the person who says, “That’s a good question” has the answer ready — it’s a good question, in part, because the person knows the answer.They may also genuinely think you’ve asked a good question — a question that has caused them to have a fresh thought.
The person who says, “That’s a curious question,” on the other hand, is feeling challenged. They either don’t have an answer at hand, or they feel the question itself is somehow a challenge to their authority.
So why hasn’t the Internet done more to usher in a wider golden age of curiosity?
I do think the questions we ask by typing them into an Internet search engine are a kind of curiosity. You can search the question, “Which is faster, a bee or a car?” and find a couple of helpful discussions.
But the Internet runs the risk, as Barbara Benedict puts it, of being turned into a more comprehensive version of the pope. It’s simply a big version of “the machine with all the answers.”
Yes, sometimes you simply need to know the GDP of the Ukraine or how many ounces are in a pint. We’ve always had great reference books for things like that — the World Almanac used to be a definitive source.
Those are facts.
But here’s the really important question: does having all of human knowledge available in the palm of our hands make us more curious, or less curious?
When you read about the speed of bees flying, does that inspire you to learn more about the aerodynamics of bees — or does it do the opposite, does it satisfy you enough so you go back to Instagram?
It was Karl Marx who called religion “the opium of the masses.” He meant that religion was designed to provide enough answers that people stopped asking questions.
We need to be careful, individually, that the Internet doesn’t anesthetize us
instead of inspire us.
There are two things you can’t find on the Internet — just like there were two things Robert Hooke couldn’t find in the Bible or in the decrees of King Charles I:
You can’t search for the answer to questions that haven’t been asked yet.
And you can’t Google a new idea.
The Internet can only tell us what we already know.
Excerpted from A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life by Brian Grazer with Charles Fishman. Published by Simon & Schuster on April 7, 2015.