In Pursuance of Curiosity

“It’s not always easy to be comfortable in the space created by open questions. It’s tempting to hide in small rooms built from quick answers.”

Merlin Sheldrake

What is the role of curiosity in our work and life?

Curiosity can simply be described as the desire to know. And most of us would agree that the fact that we even have the sciences, philosophy, the arts and technological developments is due to humanity’s innate curiosity and search for greater knowledge. 

Among ancient Greek philosophers, curiosity was often mentioned in relation to wonder. In Metaphysics, Aristotle states that “philosophy begins in wonder.” For some of them, wonder was about seeking answers, while for others, it was about experiencing awe.

Certainly, curiosity is something we see in children from a very young age, everything they do is guided by a desire to seek new information, new experiences, sensations. But as we become socialised, a lot of that curiosity gets discouraged so we can be brought into line.

While some people remain curious throughout their lives, for many of us, growing up means learning to accept things the way they are, and eventually, answering questions becomes more important than asking them. 

In fact, curiosity is seen as vice in certain religious texts, in repressive states, for certain groups of people, or even within certain professions, because curiosity challenges dogma, authority or any space where things should not be questioned.

By contrast, Elias Baumgarten, from the University of Michigan-Dearborn, argues that curiosity is a virtue and that it’s closely linked with care and concern because it helps people gain the kind of knowledge needed for caring about things in the world. This in turn, helps to overcome indifference which often leads to more meaningful lives.

So curiosity invites us to step outside of ourselves, to break our assumptions and see the world differently. But do we give ourselves the space to be curious in our work? And can we learn to become curious again?

Instilling curiosity in people has become part of organisational change strategies. A study at Harvard Business School suggests that people perform at their best when their skills are “accompanied by an intellectual curiosity that leads them to ask questions, explore, and collaborate,” according to Francesca Gino, behavioural scientist and author of the study. Not only that, but when curiosity is triggered, people are less likely to fall prey to confirmation bias, to stereotyping people, and generally take an interest in others’ ideas. 

In the not-for-profit world, curiosity needs to go beyond our own roles and our relationships with our colleagues to a curiosity about the people we aim to help, and crucially, the ways in which we approach and do our work. And this matters whether we are helping someone, speaking on their behalf, or telling their story.

Moral Philosopher Jeff McMahan says that unfortunately “many activists don’t question. They might be highly motivated by their ideals when their ideals are simply mistaken. And history shows this over and over.”

Do we fail to question because we are so certain of our moral position? Or is it a lack of time? Are we pressed by deadlines and donors who don’t want to fund the questions, only the (imagined) certainties of our answers? 

We can probably find many excuses why we don’t question, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to create the space for this questioning, this curiosity. Perhaps just like listening is an artform that requires practice, so too is curiosity which asks us to practise seeing better, being more open.

Elias Baumgarten says “a person who acts on a desire to know about an ecosystem or culture will come to a greater understanding of its distinctive features, which makes more likely the person’s coming to an appreciation of it and a concern about its preservation.”

In Indigenous traditions, curiosity is part of a way of life. The Wabanaki Confederacy in North America, for example, have a set of values that guide how they live in harmony with nature, other people, how they educate their children and more. Among these is Wikuwaculal, which encapsulates ‘the love of learning, holding onto a sense of wonder and curiosity in life. In order to keep growing, you must continue learning.’

If we can awaken curiosity in others, and in ourselves, wouldn’t our impact grow exponentially?

Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes

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