This is a farce. An absurdity that must be corrected. Cats, in my opinion, were actually given nine lives as an invitation to be curious. Yes, yes, perhaps their curiosity leads them to a place of suffering, or worse, but there it is — the opportunity to rise up again and again. Well, at least nine times.
How then, did we get this ridiculous expression that curiosity killed the cat?
My take is it went something like this.
It is 1940 and Jane is at the counter of her kitchen making sandwiches. She is the wife of John and mother of Mark, Mary and Luke. Her hair is perfectly quaffed and she is wearing her newly sewed masterpiece, Afternoon Tea Dress, Simplicity pattern no 3848. A wide smile adorned with just the right amount of lipstick, she breezes through the current cultures expectations: exhibit the perfect American look of fashion and breathless beauty; be a good wife; keep a tidy house; and raise polite, inquisitive children.
On this fine morning, little Mary asks her Mother…
”Why does bread have crust?”
“A wonderful question, sweetheart. The crust is to protect the bread when it is cooking.”
“To keep the bread in the middle soft and fluffy, of course.”
“To allow the butter and jam to sink into it like a warm hug, don’t you see.” Swiveling around and lowering herself to show Mary the real McCoy.
“I love your curiosity Mary. Let us both think about this throughout the day and we can discuss the topic at the dinner table tonight. “
Eeeeerrrt. Now, let me take you to the kitchen of my home circa 2001.
Dog barking. Microwave buzzer pings. Holding two plates, I grow that imaginary arm and open the microwave door. Slide 4 pancakes on each plate and then swing by the fridge for the syrup, OJ and apple. I spill my treasures, topped with water from my dripping hair, onto the counter. Skillfully dealing a plate and empty cup in front of the big sleepy blue eyes of each of my sons then shuffling OJ and syrup. I then begin cutting the apple.
“Ok guys, you have exactly 14 minutes to eat your delicious and nutritious breakfast.”
“Mum, why do apples have seeds but pancakes don’t?”
“Apples come from nature.”
“God puts apples in nature so animals and birds will eat them and then poop out the seeds so they will grow somewhere else.”
“Why?” comes from the right speaker and “Gross!” Giggle, giggle, from the left. In stereo.
“Why doesn’t He want pancakes to grow somewhere else?”
“Pancakes are not from nature, they are from a box.”
“Because Aunt Jemima was trying to help mom’s like me across America get their children fed and out the door, so they can get to work.”
“Did you know that curiosity kills cats?”
If you do not believe the phrase evolved this way, are you at least curious where the phrase came from?
I was, and so began my investigation. I got so sucked into this topic that I missed my posting deadline for the last three days. My exploration led me away from the phrase and instead to the meaning and power of curiosity.
It was Merriam-Webster’s definition that sparked my curiosity.
1: desire to know:
a : inquisitive interest in others’ concerns
b : interest leading to inquiry
Curiosity is not only individual but also having an “inquisitive interest in other’s concerns”? I had never viewed it this way. I delved further and began to feel like a pinball wizard, the world falling away as I was rolled and flicked into the curiosity of, well, curiosity.
Your Brain On Curiosity
Matthias Gruber from UC Davis is one of the leading researchers on curiosity. His extensive studies show how curiosity changes the brain. The TED Talk called This is your brain on curiosity is fascinating.
When curiosity is stimulated but not yet satisfied it fires up two parts of the brain –midbrain and nucleus acumens. These are the same parts of the brain that are fired up when we crave something or anticipate a reward. Deemed our wanting system. Curiosity makes us want and compels us to seek out more information.
The other interesting finding suggests curiosity puts the brain in a state that is open to learn, not just about what prompted the inquiry, but a state of learning. The research showed the hippocampus, a part of our brain responsible for creating new memories is also lit up during curiosity.
Bottom line – when we are studying something that we are curious about, the sheer force of curiosity helps us absorb more and helps our memories stick.
This reminds me of how important those teachers are that are able to take a dry topic and make it magically curious. I had a fourth-grade science teacher, Mr. Cosmos, who began one of our classes silently crouched on his desk in a costume representing a “cocoon”. As we all settled into our chairs, whispering, wondering where our teacher was, the cocoon began to move ever so slowly. It merged into a butterfly right before our very eyes. At first it scared the bejesus out us but we quickly became captivated. I, for one, will never forget the metamorphous process of a caterpillar.
“Our brain just works better on curiosity.” ~Matthias Bruber
Curious – marked by desire to investigate and learn
Does the following scenario sound familiar? You are among friends and a question is raised that piques interest. Who wins the fast draw? The first one to whip their phone from the holster, of course. Tumbleweeds rolling across the table as all get ready to shoot each other like modern gunslingers of information. The initial spark that energized us to seek out more information gets extinguished when the first draw fires. We put our gun back in the holster and move on. I beg you, keep the discussion going. Follow the spark deeper, don’t stand so close, take 40 more steps before you draw your weapon.
If we look back at the beginning of this post it is the why that stood the test of time. Asking the question why over and over exhibits our natural response to curiosity. Children have an affinity for this with inquisitive little minds, unstained by the robotic numbing that we grow accustomed to. Was there a time in your life when you displayed curiosity, an outward inquisitiveness, but were discouraged from pursuing that curiosity. Teacher, parent, colleague, boss? Did that experience stifle your curiosity forever? Shake it off. Chalk the response up to the other person having a bad day, stressed or, more likely, feeling fear, discomfort, even shame of not knowing the answer to your why.
“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.” ~ Brian Grazer, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life
Both of my sons were born with an extraordinary why gene. Kyle is a self-proclaimed non-reader. Instead he satiates his curiosity with his tenacious inquiry during classroom time. He absorbs information this way and I would venture to say, now that I understand it better, he is likely opening his mind to learn and retain more this way. Babson College, where Kyle is a senior, is known for its entrepreneurial programs. Curiosity is a powerful entrepreneurial force. This spirit leads entrepreneurs to unrelentingly question why as they tunnel through to the root of problems that baffle or anger them in the world they inhabit. Through the excavation work one is naturally able to realize how to solve it. Maybe even stumbling upon a business opportunity.
Curious – marked by inquisitive interest in others’ concerns
Getting back to curiosity on a relationship level. Brian Grazer, recently came out with a book called A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger life which is about the hundreds of “curiosity conversations” he conducted with people that were interesting to him. These people were from all walks of life and the conversations spanned decades. (Mr. Grazer is also a film producer and co-founded Imagine Entertainment with Ron Howard back in 1986.) In an interview with Oprah he exclaims that curiosity disrupts our point of view. In fact,
“WE ARE ALL TRAPPED in our own way of thinking, trapped in our own way of relating to people. We get so used to seeing the world our way that we come to think that the world is the way we see it.” ~ Brian Grazer, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life
We need curiosity to disrupt our point of view. Shake us out of our little worlds where we suffocate in our naivety. When we can step back and make space for another, we expand our world.
If we think of the intersection of the curiosity of others and our brain on curiosity; we see there is enormous potential. When speaking to another person’s curiosity the relationship is such that:
– the curious person wants to receive information and is more likely to retain the information and additionally anything else you wish to convey to them. Their brains are in an open, welcoming state.
– the receiver of curiosity feels heard and is encouraged to share more, instead of closing defensively.
Finally, it begs mentioning the opposite of curiosity is a concept known as “knowledge conceit”. Knowledge conceit is when you think you know everything there is to know about a topic. This is dangerous for two, maybe obvious, reasons. First if you think you know it all then you are stuck in your ways and unavailable to have another disrupt your point of view. The second is from a leadership perspective. Your work as a leader is much more productive asking questions than giving orders. You surround yourself with knowledge centers and staying curious keeps these knowledge centers on their toes and creates an atmosphere of learning and acceptance.
John Tammy a writer for Forbes does a brilliant job of describing the repercussions of uncurious politicians and why “knowledge conceit is tragic for those you oversee”. His article which was written in 2015 is quite relevant today. Why Brian Grazer should have a curiosity conversation with George Gilder is worth a read.
How can we increase our curiosity quotient?
- Do not stop at Google or Siri. You can take the phone out of the holster and shoot information at yourself or your peers but allow curiosity to unfold further discussion.
- When you feel yourself reacting to a person’s why defensively, stop. Be curious about your reaction to their curiosity. Are you ashamed you don’t know the answer? Now turn it around and become curious about the person in front of you. Start with “I’m curious…” Responding in this way prevents the divisive wall to begin forming. Instead you light up the happy places in your brain and theirs, opening space for dialogue, satiating the need to learn, and expanding the ability to do so for both parties.
- Curious about a topic? TED Talks are a wonderful place to be begin to explore.
- Take online courses. MOOC which stands for Massive Open Online Courses offering free education on countless topics from top universities in our country. Check out edX and Coursera .
- Practice curiosity every day. Don’t just surf the web, dive deep, swim in it. Stir it up. Let the current take you where it takes you. Surface curiosity is stifling. Get those neurons fired up to develop into deeper thinking.
- Challenge yourself to think more deeply. Is there something that makes you angry? Dig into it. The deep thinking is what can lead us to a passion and transform that to innovative and profound.
Why? Why? Why? Go find out!