Curiosity Is Your Personal R&D

TAoN No. 72(a): The case for being childish. PLUS: Yes, it's time to subscribe! :)

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[nick] on Flickr, some rights reserved

Your Curiosity Is Your Personal Department of R&D

In the beginning, we are curious.

I’m not a parent, but as an ex-child I feel qualified to say that a typical kid approaches daily reality with more inquisitiveness and wonder than a typical adult does. In fact, that was basically the subject of an episode of The Ezra Klein Show the other day, titled Why Adults Lose the “Beginner’s Mind.”

Klein and his guest, author and psychologist Alison Gopnik, don’t lean quite so heavily as I am going to on the word “curiosity.” But that’s what their conversation made me think of: why we’re curious, why we seem to get less curious, and why it matters.

In particular, the discussion reminded me of some Harvard Business Review survey results suggesting that while top managers claim to value curiosity, a vast majority of their workers don’t seem to feel that curiosity is actually rewarded. That seems like a problem. And maybe it’s partly because there’s a disconnect in how we talk about curiosity and what it looks like.

Which brings me back to Gopnik (whose books on children and parenting include the widely praised The Gardener and the Carpenter). She offered a dichotomy I found really helpful: Exploring vs. exploiting.

Children, she pointed out, are “designed to explore” — to ask questions, play and experiment, check out the world, gather all manner of information. And they see amazing things everywhere. “Going for a walk with a two-year-old is like going for a walk with William Blake,” Gopnik joked at one point: Fliers and trees and airplanes overhead — incredible! And of course kids are always asking why. They are genuinely, fundamentally, curious.

That behavior fades. As adults, we exploit what we’ve learned via that exploratory curiosity, as we become more oriented toward, you know, getting things done.

Still, we don’t, and shouldn’t, completely let go of our curious/exploratory side. Even the most productivity-focused among us feel that side come out when, say, we travel somewhere different, or make the effort to learn some new skill.

Obviously I’m oversimplifying things. But the broader point is that ideally we should figure out tradeoffs between exploring and exploiting — finding ways to hang onto the “beginner’s brain” as we age. And as she talked about this, Gopnik made passing reference to the idea of childhood as a sort of research-and-development phase of life. I found that really interesting, and after poking around found this comment from her elsewhere:

“Babies and young children are the R&D division of the human species.”

I love that!

For starters, I think it resonates with the idea that creativity (defined as broadly as possible) begins with noticing — an exploratory, curious mode of engagement with the world, being amazed or appalled by things others take for granted. While not everything we notice proves useful, some does, and that’s precisely the hit-and-miss, adventurous nature of R&D. There’s no way to “exploit” new knowledge or insights — to be original — without it.

I’m guessing that regular readers of TAoN do not need to be convinced that curiosity is a good thing — even if it takes forms that suspiciously resemble playing around, or just wasting time. But here’s a way to think and talk about acting on your curiosity. Next time somebody wants to know why, exactly, we’re exploring the everyday in a way that doesn’t seem to have an obvious point, we can say: “Right! I’m just doing my R&D!

Exploring curiosity — why it matters, how to think about and cultivate it, whether it’s properly valued — is going to be a theme here in the weeks ahead, so I’d be very, uh, curious to hear your experiences and ideas, and any recommendations you may have for further reading, listening, etc.

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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032 

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