The Value of Curiosity

I’m curious… where does “curiosity killed the cat” come from? I pause, and I Google that, of course. That’s what a curious person does these days, and I discover that it’s not clear if it derives from the older “care killed the cat,” which appeared in Shakespearean times, but definitively appears at the end of the 19th century. But now that I know that, now what?

There is a common belief that the most accomplished artists, writers, scientists, and leaders got that way by cultivating their curiosity. It's what we say we want to cultivate in today's schools. Drive plus curiosity somehow equals “success” or “happiness,” though I remember my impatient curiosity torturing me in high school whenever someone kept a secret from me.

I was raised on Trivial Pursuit (or its kids counterpart, “Trivia Adventure”), and loved knowing facts. To this day, I love to go to trivia bar nights with old friends and compete for bar food and drink. But I think I understand that feline proverb a little better now. And it gets to both sides of true curiosity. Curiosity, at its core, is not wanting to know what. It’s wanting to know why and how. And sometimes that can lead to unwanted places.

I like to say that I learned how to really interview people when I became a trial attorney and drafted every last possible question to ask a defendant months in advance, having potential follow-up questions based on an if/then response. Ultimately, while I followed the script, I listened very carefully for what was left unsaid. That’s what a good Shakespeare education will get you. But when I interview a podcast guest, for instance, I don’t want him or her to feel like I’m deposing her. And yet… I want to know so much… I want to understand… I want to know what is going on in their heads.

I had a wonderful two hour lunch yesterday, the details of which I am not going to relay here in writing. But the food was beside the point. The face-to-face conversation made it memorable. Part of the reason I am not sharing details of the conversation is that I don’t want friends or family to start thinking of me as a vampire, just eager to absorb the life force and essence and lessons from every conversation. I read a long time ago that Neil Simon's wife made him agree never to write about her in a play, because she didn't want to be under the microscope. That's what can make curiosity dangerous.

Luckily, I love give and take. I don't want to conduct depositions anymore. In fact, I would argue that going into a good deep conversation with the intention to JUST learn actually can destroy the very best part of great conversations: spontaneity, levity, and being “in the moment.” If you plan, if you’re thinking of the next topic, that doesn’t make for a great conversation, “in my book.”

As much as I say I wish for an ongoing environment of intellectual curiosity, and as much as asking big questions is among the most important things a human being can do (just check out Josh Feigelson’s “Ask Big Questions” to see what I mean), I sometimes wonder if it’s better to seek true understanding AFTER a great conversation filled with big questions.

There seems to be something of an onion here: the questions and enjoyable back-and-forth borne from a surface curiosity “gets the ball rolling,” and may eventually become a real probative exploration. But I usually find that the real enlightenment from a great conversation springs forth upon reflection afterwards. That solitary reflection feeds an even deeper level of curiosity. The real whys and wherefores (which I know is redundant thanks to that Shakespeare education). Now… where does “in my book” and “gets the ball rolling” come from...