Recently at a holiday party, I found myself hanging out in the rec room, watching two boys play a video game that provided them with an open world to explore at their leisure.
I noticed that each approached the game very differently. Player One focused on achieving the milestones the game proposed in this open world. He was racking up the points and leveling up. Player Two, meanwhile, ignored the path the game outlined for him, opting instead to wander the map.
As time passed, this difference in play style began to impact their enjoyment of the game. Every few minutes Player Two would shout with excitement about something he found in his exploration. Sometimes the discovery was a piece of equipment, an extraordinary resource, a hidden room or a new side quest. Player One was getting more of the “achievements,” but he was also expressing mild jealousy that Player Two seemed to have more perks on his character and more (and rarer) collectibles in his inventory.
Eventually, Player One lamented that his friend seemed to be “accomplishing” more than he was. In a way, he was right because it was evident Player Two’s natural curiosity was bringing him more opportunities, more objects, and richer game experience. Player One was following the path the game outlined, and Player Two was letting curiosity be his guide.
We are all born with natural inquisitiveness. It motivates us to explore our worlds as babies and learn as much as we can, as quickly as we can. However, formal schooling tends to shift our attention away from this natural curiosity and toward a desire to know the right answers before we speak up. The more knowledgeable we become, the fewer questions we may ask.
This doesn’t mean we lose our natural curiosity completely; it just becomes a tool we use less often. However, if we choose to hone and exert this exploratory skill as adults, it holds the opportunity to open up new worlds, new options, and new connections to the people around us. Valued qualities like intelligence, cleverness, and resourcefulness all begin with curiosity.
The challenge is that, from a brain science perspective, the more stressed we feel, the more likely we are to retreat from novelty and seek out new things. Instead, our brain chemistry leads us to withdraw into the familiar and routine in an attempt to feel more safe and protected, thereby reducing our stress hormone levels. Unfortunately, when things aren’t going right — when we feel stuck, frustrated, or dissatisfied — retreat into the “normal” is the last thing we need.
It’s in these times of stress – when we are challenged with problems, difficult people, or unsatisfactory options, that curiosity is our most reliable ally. Instead of getting angry or frustrated and retreating to hide or pout, we can dig into our challenges to find a novel solution. Curiosity prompts us to ask not just, “How do I fix my current situation?” or, “What could I do differently to get a better result?” but also powerful emotion-shifting questions like, “How can I look at this problem from a different vantage point?”, “Do I need more information to evaluate my problem in a new way?”, “How have other people solved this?”
Ultimately, engaging in an attitude of discovery offers you more choices from which to drive your life to the desired result, because you are always exploring, researching, and observing the world around you. What you find may be useful immediately, or its utility may come to light in the context of something else you discover down the road. Regardless, the information, insights, and experiences we collect from following our curiosity lead us to identify more opportunities, find new paths others have not recognized, or solve problems in inventive ways. Research also suggests that new information we learn through our natural curiosity is stored in our long-term memory and is recalled more effectively and accurately, making it easier to use the next time it’s needed.
Curiosity improves our relationships, too. When we allow curiosity to drive us, we tend to ask more open-ended questions that provide new avenues of conversation and connectedness we might not get from limiting a conversation to “small-talk.” When we “get curious” about people, they benefit too, because it gives them the opportunity to feel seen, understood and valued. Through our curiosity, we deepen our bonds with people and learn to appreciate others more.
Asking questions can be useful for your career, as well. The most innovative companies today search for people who are willing to admit things they don’t know, and to learn new information and skills to fill the gap. To compete in today’s dynamic and ever-shifting markets, employees and leaders must ask questions, challenge assumptions, and resist the status quo. The speed at which business runs today requires companies (and the people who make them up) to be continually learning, adopting new practices and perspectives, and predicting the challenges that might lie ahead.
Regardless of where you are in life and the opportunities and challenges you face, natural curiosity is one of the best qualities you can cultivate for yourself. This week, think about an unresolved challenge or problem you are experiencing. Dig into it. Flip it upside down. Turn it inside out. Take note of each new path of discovery and see how far your exploration can take you.
Just like Player Two wandered the map of the video game, wander the map of your world, inside your mind and out. Above all, embrace the breadcrumb trail of clues you find along the way. Follow these clues as they reveal new and unexpected conclusions, and you might be surprised how little time it takes to uncover new solutions and opportunities.
“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” – Albert Einstein, German theoretical physicist.