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How And Why To Be Curious

The greatest comment I’ve ever had on this blog was in response to the post 10 New Labors For Hercules. In that post, I mentioned 10 things in modern day that I wished someone could take care of or create. Conor added this:

Remove the phrase ‘curiosity killed the cat’ from our language and memory. What a terrible lesson for kids.

I couldn’t agree more. What could be worse than learning that asking questions could get us in trouble? We’re born curious and I believe we’re supposed to stay curious. In fact, I think curiosity is what makes me happy. If I’m not curious, I’m not thinking as much as I want to. I become a mere spectator.

How to be curious

Simple: ask questions. Explore everything. Become, as Leonardo Da Vinci often referred to himself, a “disciple of experience.”

I take a notebook with me everywhere I go. I write in it when I’m reading books. I write it in while I’m on the desk at work. I jot down questions I have, words I learn, observations and lame jokes. Anything and everything and I never filter any of it. I just write it down and come back to it when I have time to answer the questions.

Some questions, thoughts, and observations from last week:

  • Is Kim Jong Il shorter than Lady Gaga?
  • What did Hipparchus have against Eratosthenes?
  • 300-1300 was a bad time to be a map-maker
  • Do men ever wear those stretchy stirrup pants all the women at the library are wearing?
  • What does bifurcate mean? (this is accompanied by a sketch of a stick man being split in two by the word BIF!)
  • Did people in the middle ages really believe that everything worth knowing was already known?

There are many more and it all jumps all over the place, which is kind of the point.

Why to be curious

Curiosity leads to greater curiosity. The more questions we ask, the more associations we are able to make. I can’t explain how, but wondering about Kim Jong Il’s height eventually led me to ask myself what I think the most difficult position in soccer would be. And that led me to a memory about a goal I scored in Dick Norse’s Cancer Kick tournament in third grade.

And that led me to think about whether I want Max to go to a public school in Utah, because our schools rank so poorly, particularly in my area.

But none of that is the point. The point is that “Think outside the box” is a trite phrase that we say without thinking about it. To me, thinking inside the box means thinking linearly. Linear thinking is a valuable asset, but it doesn’t provide as many opportunities for free association. If it’s the only thinking we can do, we’ll never reach our creative potential.

The most creative people I know are all children, or they’re adults who can still think like children when they need to.

I’ve been doing this with my notebooks for a long, long time. If you’ve never tried it, I would love for you to give it a shot this week and see if you like it. I find that once I start asking questions, it’s hard to stop.


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  • Julianne Fuchs-Musgrave June 14, 2010, 4:26 am

    Wonderful! Those questions are my favorite part when teaching kids–and absolutely the difference between teaching kids and adults. Since I’m only teach “school” subjects in a one-to-one tutoring scenario or arts to groups, I’ve found the kids are starved. Not just for answers–but for the freedom to ask questions and give their own possible answers. I try to always use the, “What do you think?” before giving an answer.
    Interestingly enough, when I flipped through an old journal recently I found a couple of pages of notes to introduce an arts project to a class I was teaching. All around the page were quotes. Questions and responses from the kids. The gift to me was the instant memory of the child who belonged to the quote. Not that I can remember their names–but I remember the question and with some, even the artwork that resulted.
    Thanks for the nice memories.

  • Heather June 14, 2010, 6:06 am

    Tee-hee-heeeeeeeeeeeeeee! I wanna see the picture for “bifurcate.” BIF! Indeed! This is an awesome idea, Josh, and not only am I forwarding this to people as a challenge to them, but I’m going to take UP your challenge and try it! Rock on!

  • Todd June 14, 2010, 6:33 am

    “Woenwee. I’m so woenwee.”

    Have you ever seen the killer Ka car commercial (find it on youtube)? Go check it out. You’ll see why the phrase “Curiosity killed the cat.” is appropriate to a point. Inquisitiveness is a good thing, but in some circumstances we should exercise caution. That, IMO, is the moral of that saying.

    With that said, I’ve always taught my kids to ask questions. The younger one does so more than her older sister. But the older one is a better critical thinker because she takes the time to work things out in her head before asking questions. Both are good traits.

  • Conor June 14, 2010, 7:28 am

    Hey Josh,

    Best comment ever? What a mighty start to my week 🙂

    Curiosity is the driving force behind great science and art. I believe we should be continually searching for answers and, perhaps more importantly, the right questions. Some questions lead us in a circle, others help us break out of it into the unknown, the beautiful mysterious (as Einstein would say).

    Your questions made me laugh out loud. Thanks for a lively and humbling Monday afternoon 🙂


    • Josh Hanagarne June 14, 2010, 8:53 am

      Where are you from, Conor? It’s 9 AM where I’m at.

      • Conor June 14, 2010, 11:42 am

        Hey Josh,

        I’m from Dublin, Ireland 🙂


  • Srinivas Rao June 14, 2010, 7:46 am


    Definitely an interesting way to keep life interesting. I guess in many ways this is how I come up with ideas for blog posts. I observe the world around me and ask questions.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 14, 2010, 8:53 am

      I’ve made a point of sketching things as I think about them. I’m a horrible, horrible sketcher (sketchist?). The best part is trying to actually draw Kim Jong Il measuring his height next to LG.

  • ami June 14, 2010, 9:25 am

    heh. Your last idea – Kim Jong Il measuring height against LG brought an image to my mind of KJI kicking LG in the shins, causing her to double over – and the dear leader pointing to LG’s reduced height to prove his supremacy.

    I think Conor’s comment is brilliant. People who discourage children’s curiosity should be sent to their rooms without supper and made to conjugate German verbs until they come up with original ideas.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 14, 2010, 11:52 am

      Please draw it. Maybe it should be the new logo. Have you ever read Mark Twain’s essay about the German language?

      • ami June 14, 2010, 1:08 pm

        Just took a peek at Twain’s take – classic Twain. German is one of those languages that I’ve heard is so difficult one must drink heavily to learn it properly. Which makes me either want to learn it or avoid ever learning it, depending on the day. But on the ‘avoid at all costs’ days I’ll learn a new word, like schadenfreude or verklempt and I’ll be intrigued again.

  • John June 14, 2010, 9:28 am

    You couldn’t be more right about kids being the most creative people. I’ve often wondered at what point we allow that to be taken away from us. I don’t want my kids to ever lose that imaginiation…they inspire me to be more of who I want to be and less of who the world expects me to be.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 14, 2010, 11:53 am

      Where I see it the most in my son is that he is uninhibited. It would never occur to him to wonder if an idea was silly, or implausible. He just got a table that he can draw on with markers. Last night we spent about 15 minutes drawing pizzas and then eating them.

      • John June 14, 2010, 12:01 pm


  • Cait June 14, 2010, 10:36 am

    When I was a little kid I was way into cats (think xkcd’s “You’re a kitty!”). So, naturally, I was way into anything that mentioned cats, like the phrase “curiosity killed the cat.” First of all, the thought of a poor dead cat was enough to make me get weepy. But more importantly, I just *didn’t get it.*

    I didn’t realize that the true meaning was that the cat was curious enough to do something stupid, thus resulting in its death. Instead, I thought it meant that the cat was SO CURIOUS that it just died. To my seven-year-old self, this seemed logical enough, since I was pretty sure you could die of boredom. Nor did it seem too far-fetched that one could die of excitement/anticipation. To me, dying of curiosity was probably a lot like that – you’d just get so frustrated by the NEED to know something, that your head would explode.

    Therefore, what the phrase “curiosity killed the cat” meant to me was: the cat let itself get so curious that it simply couldn’t hold itself together anymore, so to avoid such a fate, I should find out EVERYTHING POSSIBLE.

    That’s a lesson I wouldn’t mind sharing with a little kid.

  • PicsieChick June 14, 2010, 11:35 am

    Wow, Cait, I LOVE your telling of curiosity killed the cat. It’s filled with awesome!

    Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of work on my website, a wholesale move from Blogger to Wordpress with the intent to create income from my pretty pictures. It’s been hard to find one single resource that identifies all of the things that I need to build, create and do to get the job done. Couple that with my Random Powers of Observation, and I’ve definitely gotten into moments of struggle over here.

    On the plus side, I have now recognized that my style of thinking is neither linear, nor spatial, it is tangential. I suppose this could be considered a more creative way of thinking since it’s hard to predict which ideas will lie in the path of any one tangent…..but a lot of times, this type of thinking just seems messy.

    And the more I think of that, the more your notebook idea seems like a good one, keep those random thoughts and questions corralled on a page and put them to good use when my mind catches up to them.

    Thanks for the tip!

    Hugs and butterflies,

    • Josh Hanagarne June 14, 2010, 11:54 am

      I noticed that you’d been busy over there. I find that when I start to add things up and seeing connections, the “random” questions start seeming far less random.

  • Bill Jones June 14, 2010, 11:47 am

    Interesting how you operate. I always carry a pen (sometimes paper…Hell I’ve written on money to remember stuff!).
    The books I like the most have writing all over them…they are mine I can do with them what I wish.

    I think curiosity is what drives progress (good and bad). Without it we are bystanders, motionless in a body made to move (mentally as well as physically).

    Curiosity brought me to you (Adam, etc).

    I’ve been told by a lot of patients, doctors and other therapists/trainers that I “think outside the box”. I really never liked that.

    I always tell them: I don’t think outside the box…I just have a bigger box. And I am going to continue to expand my box.

    Fun post Josh!


    • Josh Hanagarne June 14, 2010, 11:55 am

      Boxes are made of lines. Maybe we should just invent a shapeless box!

  • Patricia Pentecost June 14, 2010, 12:53 pm

    For all the times I’ve heard, “you think too much,” or “you ask too many questions,” I say to you, thank you!! for today’s post.

    Today, I feel a little bit more normal…though I know…normal’s overrated. 😉

  • Josh,

    I am a life-long lover of the notebook. I have a slight addiction to the molskines, but I have an even bigger problem, because I have about 6 notebooks going at the same time, so I never no where I wrote anything.

    Curiosity is the cornerstone to getting anything done in life. It’s the rest of the people that I feel sorry for. Sure you can spend you day plugged into the tube watching different housewives in different cities act like morons, OR you can give your brain a big ‘ol can of Popeye spinach and start exercising that child-like sense of wonderment.

    I pick number 2… and not THAT number 2.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  • mk akan June 14, 2010, 2:56 pm

    curiosity is a great gift to man…if man was never curious we would still be living in the stone age in caves dressed in hides and skin
    the internet would have not existed and probably would have never met Josh.
    curiosity leads to discoveries and inventions.
    curiosity improves us.
    curiosity is great.

  • Laura Cococcia June 14, 2010, 7:13 pm

    I love being the curious student that I am…I actually just bought a few children’s books for fun’s sake. I tried your suggestion and started asking some fun questions to myself like “who said we had to have turkey on Thankgiving?” and loads of other ridiculous questions, but it was a fun time. Thanks for giving me something to get even more curious about. Good idea for an ebook….hmmmm…:)

  • Daisy June 14, 2010, 8:34 pm

    In addition to asking questions, it’s time to ask thick questions, not thin ones. Thin questions can be easily answered: yes, no, or a simple number. Thick questions require analysis and thought.

  • adam June 14, 2010, 11:48 pm

    Superior post

  • e.lee June 20, 2010, 2:45 pm

    I hate hearing ‘you think too much’ or ‘don’t think about it’, well why not?