Curiosity and the Love of Learning

Three Curiosities, part 1

Curiosity killed the cat, the saying goes. Shakespeare didn’t say that. In Much Ado about Nothing, there’s a line that care killed a cat – meaning worry or sorrow. The earliest known appearance of the phrase "curiosity killed a cat," replacing Shakespeare's "care" with "curiosity," is in an 1868 newspaper. It must have been in use before then, since by 1873 “curiosity killed the cat” was included in a handbook of proverbs.

The image conjured up is of a cat – a naturally curious animal – investigating something and getting into fatal trouble from messing around in something better left alone. The idea is to warn us about dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation. Leave well enough alone. But that’s often not an option. Life is ever moving on, and keeping up with it means investigating.

By the 20th-century, it seems some folks were getting tired of being warned against investigation and experimentation. A newspaper in 1905 added a phrase: “Curiosity killed a cat, but it came back.” The cat, you see, is such a useful metaphor because not only is it a animal whose curiosity is particularly obvious to humans, but it is also said to have nine lives – giving proponents this natural rejoinder: it may have been killed, but it comes back anyway.

It wasn’t until 1912 that the earliest know inclusion of the word “satisfaction” appears: “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.” The new proverb is a push-back against the “leave well enough alone” argument. There may be risks from investigating into the unknown, but the satisfaction of finding out new things is so powerful that it will resurrect the dead.

And indeed curiosity does make us feel alive, resurrected from the walking death of not investigating what’s going on, or, anything.

Curiosity has been the subject of a lot of psychology research lately. We’re confirming that curiosity makes the mind active instead of passive, makes us observant of new ideas, opens up new worlds and possibilities, and brings excitement into life. Curiosity might kill you – but you won’t die bored.

And, anyway, as best as we can determine, the incurious also die – and probably at about the same average age. Possibly younger, on the principle that active engaged people are healthier, though that hasn't been established.

The business world seems to have started paying attention to the virtue of curiosity. A popular book a couple years ago was called The Power of Curiosity: How to Have Real Conversations that create Collaboration, Innovation and Understanding. And I discovered that there is now such a thing as "The Curiosity Institute" which consults with businesses to help workers improve communication skills by reducing reactivity and increasing engagement through: curiosity.

So that’s great. Yay for curiosity. As Bill Maher said, “Curious people are interesting people; I wonder why that is.”

In my own wonderings, it seems to me there are three kinds of curiosity to look at.

1. Love of Learning

First, there’s simply loving to learn. Wanting to know stuff. These are the folks who read nonfiction books voraciously and magazines like Scientific American. They go to museums. Their taste in films runs toward the documentaries. They are curious to know about medieval Chinese history, or the life and times of Sigmund Freud, or the basis of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle or how quantum entanglement works, or why people are having less sex these days. They just want to know.

I can relate to that. I was a guy who would not stop going to school – I just loved sitting in graduate seminars, doing the reading, hashing over sophisticated concepts. I didn’t stop going to school until I was well into my 30s and had five college degrees in four different fields. I also had, by that time, an 11-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son, and really couldn’t put off any longer that curiously unreal-to-me world that people insist on calling “the real world.” And even that wasn’t the end of it, because I went back to seminary in my 40s – to learn some more interesting stuff.

There are a couple of pitfalls in this sort of pursuit of knowledge, but in my experience falling into either is relatively uncommon. The first is the danger of merely amassing factoids. The goal of education and learning, of course, is not merely to be able to recite long lists of tidbits of information, or even to become a champion of trivial pursuit or quiz shows. The point of the information is the meaning made of it – the integrating the separate factoids together into an overall, more-or-less coherent, yet very detailed, sense of how things are. And in my experience, this is indeed what people who really want to know stuff do: they but it together in meaning-making ways.

The second pitfall of loving to know stuff is the lure of thinking that you do. If you become certain that what you’ve found out is the permanent truth, and now that you know it, you will never have to revise that knowledge – that’s a problem. What begins in curiosity leads to knowledge, which then kills the curiosity. But curiosity shouldn’t be like hunger. The aim of hunger of is to get you to eat so you won’t be hungry anymore. The aim of curiosity is not so you find out stuff and aren’t curious anymore. The true aim of curiosity is to always be learning, but never knowing -- full of possible explanations but always looking for new ways to understand anything, or new nuances to add to one’s understanding – always holding what has been learned as a maybe-useful-maybe-not tool for approaching what is unique in the given situation.

Knowledge can become an excuse to not pay attention. You say, “I had a botany class, I know about oak trees, that’s an oak tree, don’t need to look at it any further. I know what needs to be known – I’ve got my category for the object, and don’t need to investigate this object.” The true botanist, instead, uses knowledge of oak trees to frame and focus the way she looks and curiously investigates the particular uniqueness of the oak tree in front of her.

If we use knowledge of general truths as an escape from curiously engaging with the unique particulars we face, that’s a pitfall. Paying attention to the unique particulars of the situation you’re in right then, right there is the segue into the second kind of curiosity.

Next: Curiosity #2

This is part 1 of 3 of "Three Curiosities"
See next: Part 2: More Curiosity, Less Judgment
Part 3: Curiosity, the Bad Kind

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