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What Gets in the Way of Being Curious?


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I recently spent five days with more than one hundred fascinating people at the Become an Inspiring Speaker workshop. (And it was fabulous!) In one of the first exercises, we paired up to talk about our focus and our reasons for being there. I paired up with Ross Barrable, an acoustic sculptor and builder of wind harps. (How can you not be curious about that?)

I told Ross about my interest in wonder and curiosity as catalysts for creativity, innovation, learning, and compassion. His eyes lit up, and he asked me, “Why are people curious?” I suggested that a better question is, “What keeps people from being curious?”

We are hard-wired to be curious. Children are naturally curious, and grown-ups can be, too. In fact, the human brain rewards curiosity by emitting an opium-like chemical when a new concept is grasped.

Being curious is easy – as easy as falling off a log, as they say. Or is it? Some people lose their sense of curiosity. (Is it a sense? Is it a muscle? Hmmm.) Why?

If being curious is so easy, why don’t more people let themselves be curious? I think there are several reasons.

One reason is that well-meaning adults train children out of it. Children get scared, and we want to protect them. We want to look smart. And we get tired of all those questions. So we tell them what we know, or we tell them what we think we know, or we tell them to stop asking so many questions. Maybe curiosity gets squashed as people leave childhood and it is easier to conform than to keep being told to stop asking so many questions.

Another reason is just Habit: It’s easy to get comfortable, even lazy.

Another, more insidious reason is that we think we know the truth; for example, we think we know about people who are different from us. So we don’t inquire.

I think the main reason is Fear.

But I think the main reason is Fear.

By asking questions, I run the risk of:

Looking dumb.

Looking nosey.

Looking bigoted.

Looking disrespectful.

Looking defiant.

When we ask questions, we run the risk of being ridiculed for asking “stupid questions.” We also run the risk of getting new information that might force us to change the way we think. That can be uncomfortable.

Nobody wants to be forced to do anything, especially to change. I once read a quote attributed to Rosabeth Moss Kanter that said, “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.” I think that is true.

So, why don’t we ask questions?

It’s easier not to ask questions; it’s easier to go along.

We think we know something.

We’re afraid to admit we don’t know something.

We’re afraid of looking dumb.

We’re afraid of changing our minds.

We’re afraid that if we allow one part of our worldview to change, the whole thing will unravel, and that feels like chaos.

Fear.

Being curious takes courage. I submit not only that courage is like a muscle, but curiosity is like a muscle, too. Like any muscle, the more you exercise it, the easier it becomes and the more fun you can have with it.

One more thought:

I submit that it takes more courage to admit that I don’t know or I am wrong than to get to know someone else.

I’ll say that again, a different way: It takes less courage to get to know someone who is different from myself than it does to admit I might be wrong, or that I don’t know. Once I am willing to admit that I don’t know something, asking the questions is easy by comparison. Even fun.

So, are you curious? If not, are you willing to wonder why? What keeps you from being curious?

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8 Responses to What Gets in the Way of Being Curious?

  1. Beverly Mederios October 20, 2010 at 5:57 pm #

    Sue…..Oh how right you are……Fear can play a very important part of one’s life involving the unknown and yet at the same time trying not to look stupid……Been there, done that. !!!!

  2. Yolanda Facio October 20, 2010 at 10:15 pm #

    I’m laughing a bit! You’ve hit the nail on the head I think. I ask a ton of questions all the time. Mostly because I’m simply curious. Of course, I’m a Learner (StrengthsFinder 2.0 – book) which means I read a ton and I ask a lot of questions. And here’s is what I hear from other people: “Why do you ask so many questions?” “Do you think you should be asking them that?” “Maybe you shouldn’t ask so many questions…”

    Well, you can’t learn if you don’t ask!

  3. Susan Walls October 20, 2010 at 10:36 pm #

    I could not agree more. I would add another to your list of “reasons”…people do not have the patience (translation – “time”) to listen to and answer questions from curious people, particularly when those curious people are adults. I am naturally curious, always have been, never want to lose that attribute. It’s my believe that we have a (nearly) infinite capacity to learn. We learn by reading, asking, listening, doing, experiencing. We’re curious, we learn, we grow. Simple. When we ask too many questions, others feel threatened for whatever reason. Go figure. Employees stifled, companies stifled.

  4. Susan October 21, 2010 at 8:34 am #

    Hi Bev,

    I think we are subject to those fears at one time or another, but some people are afraid to admit it. 🙂 The challenge is to move forward anyway.

    Thanks for responding! I’m always glad to see you here!

  5. Susan October 21, 2010 at 8:37 am #

    Hey Yolanda,

    Exactly. We can’t learn if we don’t ask. And even though it might be risky, asking and learning can be so much fun! And sometimes not so fun, if we find something out that makes us sad. But it’s still important to ask.

    If you liked this, come back on Friday when we’ll talk about practicing curiosity and helping others to be curious, too!

  6. Susan October 21, 2010 at 8:40 am #

    Hi Susan! Glad to see you! I think you are right, that is an important reason. Here is another question, though: Do you think that lack of patience is the core reason? or is it covering up something else?

  7. Susan Walls October 21, 2010 at 3:00 pm #

    Susan,
    In my view, the core reason goes way beyond lack of patience and frequently covers up other reasons – but won’t expound much here. One I will broach however, is not wanting to, or perhaps having the ability to, take an interest in others’ growth. Happy to have a conversation sometime on this and other topics.

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