How to Hack Your Brain with Curiosity to be More Creative and Successful

Photo: Udita Budde via Unsplash

It’s curious how big a role curiosity might actually play in success. A lot has been said about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours and I lean heavily toward the investment of time as being crucial to success. However, that equation only looks at the quantity of time, not quality. If you’re doing something over and over on autopilot, that’s not the same thing as being engaged and in the zone, or in a flow-state. If you’re doing something in a state of curiosity there are serious advantages.

As a teacher, I’ve struggled to figure out how to inspire curiosity in my students. I’m not sure it’s something that can be taught, but I know it can be inspired, encouraged, and rewarded. I’ve always believed that by allowing students, employees, and really all people to pursue their curiosity they will learn more, innovate more, and understand more about the world and each other.

Be curious and you shall be rewarded

Franscesca Gino wrote in the Harvard Business Review that companies are catching on to the importance of curiosity and even devising ways to evaluate it in job applicants. With regards to curiosity in the workplace, George Mason University’s Todd B. Kashdan, David J. Disabato, and Fallon R. Goodman, with linguist Carl Naughton, see evidence that divides it into five categories: deprivation sensitivity, joyous exploration, social curiosity, stress tolerance, and thrill-seeking. Employees engaged in these mindsets were typically better performing and more satisfied in their jobs. Simply put, they found that curious workers are better and happier.

Researchers at UC Davis determined that curiosity switches the brain into a hyper-learning mode which allows the hippocampus to create more long-term memories. In other words, if you’re following your curiosity about one thing you can piggyback that mindset to simultaneously learn information about something else.

It sounds a lot like curiosity could be a good thing.

But curiosity killed the cat, right?

Can we once and for all put this horrible saying out of its misery? No, the cat is fine. Schrödinger would be proud. Rather, curiosity helped the cat build a better mousetrap and it’s quite pleased. If we continue to inherit our outlook on curiosity from the previous generation of worn-out adults, tired of answering questions from their kids, we are never going to evolve to meet the challenges of the world they left us.

Luckily, we have more access to information than ever before. On the other hand, we also have more access to propaganda and misinformation which means parents are not off the hook. We need to be there to decipher the non-stop fire-hose of data and guide and advise our curious children, otherwise, we are surrendering our parental authority to the algorithm. And this goes for ourselves as well; we need to be our own parents and follow our curiosity online but also fact-check things and be discerning about sources.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

This is another saying that makes me nauseous. Almost anything can be improved. Just because something still sort of works doesn’t mean we shouldn’t always be open to doing things better, and curiosity is the active agent of improvement. It can be applied to anything that needs improvement. That could be a golf swing, a business model, a sculpting technique, a skateboard trick, a cookie, or anything else you can imagine. Why would anyone think curiosity could possibly be a bad thing?

What curiosity is not

I think sometimes curiosity is misunderstood and mixed up with quitting one’s job and saying “Now I’m a professional kite-surfer!” which would take an extraordinary amount of curiosity, to be sure, but also a lot of recklessness and naiveté… unless you happen to be really amazing at kite-surfing. It’s not about randomly saying “what if we all fly to Vegas tonight?” Surely, something interesting might transpire, but being curious doesn’t have to mean being irresponsible. Curiosity can conversely inspire you to try kite-surfing and maybe learn something along the way you can apply to something else in your life, like “It’s all about balance.”

While trying new things can stimulate ideas that wouldn’t happen otherwise, being curious can also be strictly about what you already do. Drilling down to the molecular level about your current interests can bring about innovation. A study by researchers at the University of Oklahoma broke curiosity down into diversive curiosity (trying new things, looking beyond our field) and specific curiosity (interest in learning new skills or specific information). They found that while diversive curiosity brought more creative problem solving, specific curiosity was also valuable for problem solving, but not as creative.

Can we even learn without curiosity?

I’m fascinated with the intersection of creativity and curiosity. Can an incurious person be creative or learn anything of consequence? Curiosity is, in essence, a catalyst for learning, which is how we fill our minds with fuel for creativity. Before you can write a poem, you’re going to have to at least learn some words. If you’re not curious about words, poetry is going to be hard.

Conclusion

In order to retain information our brains have to tag it as useful and it seems like curiosity invokes that process. This could be the key to redesigning the educational system, but beyond that, it is something everyone can benefit from. Maybe on its own, it can’t save the world, but it is certainly part of the solution… and most definitely did not harm any cats.

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