When, in anticipation of story time, my grandson melts into one of those precious, almost romantic looks, I know he’ll be selecting a Curious George book. He loves following the escapades of the world's most inquisitive primate. Translation of the books to so many languages and mega-sales of branded products -- movies, dolls, even grape jelly – speak of the character’s widespread appeal. The series is popular, no doubt, because of the monkey’s cuddly cuteness. But many of us, I think, are drawn also to his namesake attribute: George is, after all, curious.
In the academic world, curiosity is a key driver of success. "Get curious about your research," one of my first mentors advised me, "and you'll see that others will be infected with an interest in your work." In fact, curiosity has inspired my best stuff. The same teacher liked to say, "Wisdom begins with the phrase—I don't understand."
Probably we’ve all met people endowed with curiosity. We might remember their spirited nature in school or their abilities, perhaps as our neighbors or friends, to continually recognize problems and propose resourceful solutions. We’re all born with varying degrees of curiosity, but there are ways to strengthen the delightful trait.
Often, curiosity-building entails a trek though unknown, even uninviting, terrain.
Interaction with people of different backgrounds, for example, stimulates my curiosity. Whenever I’m assigned to a committee with folks whom I don't know, I initially feel lonely and start figuring out ways to excuse or distance myself. Usually, though, my discomfort quickly morphs into curiosity and enthusiasm for learning from diverse perspectives.
Curiosity can emerge from diversity of not only people but also experience. Several of my colleagues say they’ve spent their sabbatical years deliberately studying material that has no clear interface with their own discipline. Often as a result, they admit, they’ve found ways to fuse the new subject matter with their primary research interest. But even when synergies haven’t emerged, they’ve felt invigorated to return to their primary research fueled by fresh curiosity.
One final, curiosity-enhancing trick from academia involves seeking out things that don't fit smoothly, the so-called "art of polemics." One article of mine was tentatively accepted for publication with a provision that I address one small discrepancy in my data. In trying to repair the problem, I discovered that my whole theory was flawed by a major error and had to be gutted. In the process, however, my curiosity inspired a more intriguing hypothesis. As a result, although the first piece was never published, four important articles grew from curiosity as it navigated the bumpy road for me.
Among my cancer patients, I frequently see curiosity manifest as creativity. Many feel compelled to try new things. They learn to play a musical instrument or to write poetry. They try Zumba or gardening. Usually, they say, they’d wanted for a long time to try the novel activity but felt inhibited by fear of failing. Consistently, they implore me not to wait for a cancer diagnosis to overcome my own inhibitions and, instead, to quench my thirst for knowledge.
And so I offer you the prescription that my patients give me. What have you been curious about? What curiosity have you been afraid to tackle? Consider trying it, despite hesitancy, lack of time, higher priorities, or self-doubt. The experience might move you to feel like an innovator, perhaps even to return to being a starry-eyed child inspired by a cuddly monkey.
Until next Monday, Shalom.
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