“So what do you look for in a partner?”
The question came up the other day when I was catching up with an old friend. I gave them the same answer I always do when this question comes up: “Curiosity.” Sure, there are other desirable qualities that come to mind:
- A keen, piercing intellect
- Playful sense of humor
- A rack that makes me want to pull down my sunglasses and mouth “WOW” like I’m in a 90’s beer commercial”
But “Curiosity” is always my first answer. When it comes to turnoffs and deal breakers, a lack of curiosity is right up there with “vehement Trump supporter” and “can only get off in bed by roleplaying as members of The Dave Matthews Band.”
When I said that curiosity was my go-to must-have in a relationship partner, my friend gave me a reaction that I’ve received time and time again: they were baffled. “That’s not even in my top 5.”
It’s a reaction I get a lot whenever I bring this subject up. Extolling the virtues of curiosity in conversation (and not just in regards to romance), I’ve gotten some side-eye from people I know and love. “That’s just not important to me,” they’ll say. And then I’ll be the one who’s baffled.
It’s an attitude that’s hard for me to comprehend. Why wouldn’t you want to be curious? And why wouldn’t you want your significant other to share that quality? Especially if you’re monogamous (which I identify as) and you’re looking to play for keeps with someone; why would you want to spend the rest of your life with someone who’s indifferent to new experiences? Someone who is content to idle in their comfort zone and won’t push you out of yours?
That may sound nice and cozy, but too much of the latter can turn out to be a (waaaaaaait for it)
Looking back at my own (rather brief) romantic history, one common trait that all my partners possessed was a spirit of curiosity. And that same spirit has been my guiding star for a good chunk of my adult life. Who I am now at 35 would be unrecognizable to 25-year old Me, just how 25-year old Me would be a man my 15-year old self couldn’t even conceive of. And a lot of that unexpected personal growth came from being open to taking detours and making major life decisions I wouldn’t have made if I stuck to what I know.
But I know a lot of people who don’t understand that approach to life. They also tend to be the type of people who:
- only consume media that they discovered between the ages of 15–20
- routinely dismiss unfamiliar things by saying “Well, I’ve never heard of it” as though their lack of awareness proves that thing has no merit
- consider watching anything with subtitles to be “pretentious”
Just to be clear: they aren’t bad folks. In fact, most of them are quite lovely. But there is a fundamental difference between us that’s hard to bridge. For better and for worse, they have settled into their habits and tastes like a groove that’s been furrowed into a couch. It’s perfectly conformed to suit them. They are happy in their bubble, and treat any foreign thing that’s brought to their attention as a needle that could pop it.
The most common rejoinder I hear from them is “I like what I like.” Which is, no disrespect intended here, a “well, duh” thing to say. We all like what we like. But the things we like aren’t fixed and unalterable; the borders that establish your comfort zone, your cultural bubble, can always expand. There is what you like, and then there are the things that you could like if you were exposed to them.
Consider the way our tastes in food and drink naturally evolve over time. 10-year old You may have treated Mac & Cheese as the be-all, end-all of grub, but hopefully 40-year old You has broadened their culinary palate a wee bit since then. And you can’t know if your inner Mac & Cheese kid is going to like Ethiopian food or ghost peppers or plum wine until you get over your knee-jerk “I like what I like” reflex and try something new.
When it comes to so many things I love, from food to the arts, I’m less interested in “I like what I like” then in discovering what I don’t know what I’ll like yet. Those are always thrilling moments, the ones that really give life its zest:
- watching a random episode of SmackDown on TV and realizing that huh, wow, this wrestling stuff is actually rad
- that life-altering moment when I watched Ubu Roi at Space55 and theater went from being “A Thing That Annoying Kids At My High School Used To Do” to “A Thing That I NEED To Do”
- or that moment when I was sixteen, biking in the rain with A Love Supreme in my headphones, and suddenly that album (that everyone told me was amazing, that I couldn’t make heads or tails of) made sense to me when I noticed that the raindrops hitting me synched perfectly with Elvin Jones’ cymbal taps. That moment when I realized jazz was body music, not head music, and an entire genre opened up for me.
There are hundreds more of those moments in my life. Those moments where things that were once blurry and hazy to me like Magic Eye posters suddenly snapped into focus. Moments where, to invoke dear old Robert Anton Wilson, the walls of my reality tunnel came tumbling down and I was exposed to new ways of seeing and hearing and feeling and tasting the world. Moments where I had to redefine myself, where I had to drop long-held notions of myself as someone who is Not Into Jazz Music or Not A Theater Person or Hates Spicy Food and realize that I didn’t know myself as well as I thought.
That’s why cultivating and maintaining a curious spirit is so important. It’s an acknowledgment that the world is still full of mysteries, that whatever expertise you prize about yourself is incomplete, that you yourself exist in a constant state of revision and alteration. It’s accepting that it is better to own your ignorance and try (futilely) to overcome it than to be a know-it-all, a seen-it-all-before.
And I say futilely because there is simply too much of everything. No matter how deeply you tunnel down into any one subject, there’s always a hidden layer to uncover, an undiscovered gem that you’ll need to double-back to the surface and polish up. Our personal maps of creation will always have wide swathes of Heyre Be Monsters written on them. It’s on us to probe as much of that area as we can and reclaim it into our territories, bit by bit.
And yet there are powerful social forces and expectations that push us into not asking too many questions. “Curiosity killed the cat,” “stay in your lane,” “need to know,” “don’t ask,” “it’s not for you,” “why do you care,” “you’re too young/old for this,” and on and on. A stream of injunctions coming from all levels of society encouraging us to stay in our bubble, stick with what’s tired and true. Leave the mental Lewis & Clark shit to the professionals.
It’s why I hate giving in to the nostalgia industry that’s hellbent on force-feeding us our youth when we get older, encouraging us to close ourselves off and only listen to the music we grew up on. “Everything modern sucks,” “there’s no good music anymore,” “the kids aren’t alright”: etc etc.
It’s an impulse driven by our worst instincts:
- fear of change
- fear of The Other
- self-satisfied and unearned arrogance (“Congratulations on living through the Golden Age when you were 15–25, same as everybody else in the world”)
- sheer laziness
Sure, there are valid reasons why people fall out of step with the times. As we transition from school to the workplace, there are less opportunities to organically stumble onto What’s Next. It’s easier to find out about great movies and bands when your dorm neighbor is blasting it through the walls. There’s also less social capital to be gained from being up on things after a certain age. And after you factor in a reduction of disposable income and free time, having kids, everyone in your peer group encouraging you to give up the ghost, and all that jazz… yeah, it’s a hell of a lot harder to keep popping a wheelie on the zeitgeist.
But your basic cognitive ability to appreciate the new doesn’t just disappear. Believing in concepts like “aesthetic atrophy” is ageist bullshit and incredibly self-defeating. Look at David Bowie. When he was in his 60’s, he was STILL going out to shows in New York and seeing what was happening in the world. If anybody has earned a right to be jaded and incurious because he’s seen and done it all, it’s fucking Bowie. But there he was, soaking it all in, eyes still on the horizon.
Truth of the matter is that we accept ideas like “everything sucks now” is because it lets us off the hook. It gives us an excuse to not engage with the world. If you really believe nothing worthwhile is happening outside your front door, then you’ve got no reason to leave the comforts of home, Hulu, and your hi-fi turntable. And you don’t have to feel guilty about missing anything- there’s nothing to miss, after all.
This kind of thinking is hubris, pure and simple. Considering the deluge of content out in the world, it’s almost impossible for NOTHING of worth to be out there. Something out there will resonate with you, if you’re willing to hunt for it.
And while a lot of what I’m saying is geared around art, a lack of curiosity can lead to larger implications. Being curious means being open to other perspectives, other cultures, other pockets of humanity that you have nothing in common with.
I have no real interest in ICP, but I’d love to talk to Juggalos and find out why they’re drawn to that life. Much in the same way that I don’t understand Mennonites or hobby train collectors but I’m curious to know what their deal is. Being interested in what other people are interested in doesn’t mean that I have to share their interests or that I’m trying to co-op their shit; it just means being respectful of their differences and having an honest curiosity about what drives them.
I have good friends who are avid gamers. While I still play the occasional Final Fantasy game and dust off my copy of Katamari every now and then, I have very little interest in keeping up with modern video games. But I love listening to my friends talk about the games that they’re playing because listening to people vent and rave about their passions says so much about them. I may not walk away from those convos with a desire to buy a new PS or Xbox system, but I do feel like I’ve got a better understanding of the appeal of those games and what people get out of them. If I were to say “I’m not a video gamer” and shut these conversations down, I’d be poorer for it.
It’s why someone like Anthony Bourdain was such a powerful role model. He was always open to seeing how other people lived and what they were passionate about; he didn’t try to make it about him. He didn’t try to speak for them or change them. He came at people with a non-judgmental spirit of inquiry and they vibed with that. He didn’t go to North Africa to eat something he could get in Brooklyn; he wanted to be surprised, astounded, educated.
But that kind of attitude is rare. It’s much more common to treat everything as a branding exercise: how does this relate to me and my interests? The rise of algorithms that deliver us content tailor-made to satisfy us encourages us to hold close to what we know, to condition us to settle for the familiar and “on-brand” rather than for something that can surprise us. When’s the last time your Spotify suggested you give black metal a go after listening to Rihanna? Or Netflix encouraged you to watch an experimental, non-narrative art film after you binged on “Parks & Recreation”? Our culture of You Might Likes is all geared towards reinforcing who you are right now, not offering you branching points that can steer you off in radical new directions.
Look at gentrification: it’s all about terraforming unfamiliar neighborhoods until they become comfortable and familiar to upper class dickheads. It’s about warping what’s outre and different into something that’s soothing and nonthreatening, quirky as opposed to alien. It’s urban planning whose end goal is to make people incurious: “Why explore this authentic, ratty looking neighborhood when you can get a Disneyland version of it over in our kombucha-on-tap, artisanal taco shop/bodega?”). Here is more of what you like, everywhere, forever.
Here’s the thing: I’m not trying to say you have to be willing to do absolutely anything because that’s just silly. We all have our limits. For example: I have an irrational aversion of seafood. You could not pay me to eat it. I don’t know why I’m like that, I have no idea where it stems from, and I have zero interest in overcoming it. But most of the people that I love in my life are all about seafood, and I’m always down to hang with them while they eat it and listen to them explain why they like it. I may not be willing to explore that particular area of human experience but that doesn’t mean I’m not open to learning about it secondhand.
Curiosity is something we should encourage in everyone. Our friends, our family, our children, our lovers. Never tell a kid “curiosity kills the cat” or advise someone to “stay in their lane.” A kid asking “why why WHY” a thousand times is irritating but that’s an important quality to cultivate. Just as how someone changing lanes should be encouraged to do so if they’re going about it the right way. We should be goading people on to get out of their bubbles and see what other bubbles are like. Not so they can co-opt it or get ally points or to escape their own bubble, but because the only way to really understand how small your world is is to go beyond it. How can you know how constricting your own POV is until you’ve had the chance to look through somebody else’s perspective?
Those kinds of explorations, paradigm shifts, attitude adjustments, whatever the hell else you want to call it all comes from curiosity. And if you insist on liking what you like, you might miss out on that one world that could hit you as hard as Newton’s apple and change everything you thought you knew about yourself.
And besides, being incurious is a boring way to live. Who wants to hang out with someone who responds to the unfamiliar by being threatened by it or dismissing it with a “Well, I haven’t heard of it so it can’t be good.” People like that are lame fucks in every sense of the word.