I absolutely love it when kids get to the age where they start asking “Why?” all the time. I imagine this gets old for parents, but for an auntie like me, it’s great fun to try to answer each question with as much precision and accuracy as I can. Kids ought to be rewarded for their curiosity with not only new knowledge, but also with the respect of an adult.
For bigger kids like us, asking “Why?” can take more courage, but it can be just as rewarding. With all of this life experience behind us, our questions can be full of nuance and meaning, and can lead to great discoveries. When you throw in “How?” you’ve got a magical recipe for innovation and growth!
Consider these benefits of asking “Why?” and “How?”
- Learning: Curiosity is a necessary ingredient for learning, and all great discoveries start with wonder. I’m not talking about at an individual level – you can learn something without being curious, simply by having a book placed in front of you. But humanity as a whole depends upon the curiosity of individuals to explore new questions, new areas of study, and even new worlds. We wouldn’t have post-it notes, MRI machines, or spaceships if people hadn’t asked questions and exercised their imaginations.
- Problem-solving: In my other life, I use a methodology called “scrum” on software development projects. Scrum mandates regular reflection activities in order to inspect and then adapt our processes. During these reflection activities, my team will sometimes ask “Why?” five times just to get to the root of a problem. “Why didn’t we deliver what we said we would to the client this month?” “Because we ran out of time.” “Why did we run out of time?” “Because we underestimated the work.” “Why did we underestimate the work?” “Because we didn’t realize the scope of the problem.” “Why didn’t we realize the scope of the problem?” “Because we didn’t have a full understanding of the needs when we started?” “Why not?” “Because we didn’t take the time to meet with all of the stakeholders in advance.” Aha! We can only get to the real underlying cause by continuing to ask the questions.
- Creativity: When I was younger, I didn’t consider myself to be very creative because I didn’t have much artistic talent (which was somehow synonymous with creativity for me). I desperately wanted to create beautiful and original works of art, but found that I didn’t have the vision or the technical skill to do so. Later I realized that I could be a creative thinker if I was able to ask the right questions. Technical skill can be developed, but curiosity is an essential part of any creative process. I’m now able to feel creative through all sorts of endeavors including event planning, puzzle-solving, gift-giving, and making up games.
- Happiness: Curiosity stimulates our minds, and tickles our brains. Of course, asking Why and How questions comes from a deep desire to know more, but I’ve found that I get a lot of pleasure even when I just ask the questions. There’s something about those neurons firing that makes me feel good, and can turn a bad day into a good one. Maybe it’s the cumulative effect of all of the above (learning, problem-solving, and being creative), but I wonder if there’s some fundamental positive reward for simply being curious.
Fortunately, our brains are wired to be curious. But at an individual level, sometimes we stifle our own curiosity. Or it’s stifled by others. Or, like a muscle, it can atrophy from lack of use.
In order to take full advantage of your natural curiosity, try the following:
- Make a list of things you don’t know. It’s not for the sake of humility, but for the sake of learning. I posted my Learning List here.
- Take a cue from a five-year-old and start asking more questions. It’s amazing how much we take for granted, but if you challenge yourself to ask five new questions a day, you’ll start to recognize opportunities for learning, problem-solving, and creativity all around you.
- Argue differently. If you’re like me and you like to win arguments, this will be difficult. But the next time you find yourself disagreeing with your partner or a friend, try to truly listen with an open mind. This requires more than just listening; it means you must be willing to change your viewpoint. The next time you find yourself in an argument, ask yourself, “What would it feel like if I changed my position?”
- Don’t get bored. My father told me once, “Only boring people get bored.” I’ve tried to not be bored ever since. Even in the midst of a low-energy lecture on a topic you’re not particularly interested in, you can become an active participant in creating a more interesting experience by asking good questions. Take note of the next time you’re bored and ask yourself, “What can I do to become interested in this experience?”
- Diversify your inputs. Have you been listening to the same music or podcasts for awhile? Reading the same news sources? Talking to the same people? If you want to change your thoughts, try switching up the information you’re feeding your brain. Add three new inputs to your rotation.
- Solve puzzles. One of my personal missions is to teach as many people to solve the Rubik’s Cube as I can. I see it as not only a good party trick, but also an excellent introduction to the world of puzzling. And nothing stimulates mental creativity like a good puzzle! But you’ve got to start with curiosity – a strong desire to know, “How does this thing work?”
- Treat everything as an opportunity to think differently. Your life is full of opportunities to do something a little bit differently than the norm. The way you name your Pinterest boards, the way you express gratitude, the way you plan your summer vacation. Look at your To Do list for the week and identify a few areas where you can approach a task in an unusual way.
How will you engage your curiosity this week?