Oreo the Cat, hard at work.
Curiosity killed the cat.
Or as the Russians say with far more dramatic flair, “Curious Barbara’s nose was torn off at the market.”
These proverbs, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, are “used to warn of the dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation.”
Curiosity, in cats or in Russian market-goers, isn’t just annoying or inconvenient. Curious people aren’t just pesky troublemakers who can’t be satisfied with the status quo. They’re downright dangerous. As the legendary Hollywood producer Brian Grazer writes, “The child who feels free to ask why the sky is blue grows into the adult who asks more disruptive questions: Why am I the serf and you the king? Does the sun really revolve around Earth? Why are people with dark skin slaves and people with light skin their masters?”
Curiosity also requires an admission of ignorance. Asking a question means that we don’t know the answer, and that’s an admission that few of us are willing to make. For fear of sounding “dumb,” we assume most questions are too basic to ask, so we don’t ask them.
In this era of “move fast and break things,” curiosity can also seem like an unnecessary luxury. With an inbox-zero ethos and an unyielding focus on hustle and execution, answers appear efficient. They illuminate the path forward and give us that “life hack” so we can move onto the next thing on our to-do list. Questions, on the other hand, are exceedingly inefficient. They don’t yield immediate answers, so they’re unlikely to get a slot on our overloaded calendars.
So we wait until a crisis occurs to become curious and start asking questions. It’s only when we’re laid off that we begin to ponder alternative career paths. It’s only when our business is disrupted by a young, scrappy, and hungry competitor that we gather the troops to spend a few futile hours “thinking outside the box.” But by that point, the ship has already sailed. Just ask Blockbuster, Kodak, Borders, and the entire cab industry.
Our education system is also to blame. In most classrooms, there’s little room for curiosity and experimentation. An authority figure steps up to the podium to feed us “the truth.” Textbooks magically reveal the “right answers” to questions. We learn about Newton’s “laws” — as if they arrived by a grand divine visitation or a stroke of genius — but not the years he spent exploring and revising them (not to mention his experiments in alchemy, which attempted, and spectacularly failed, to turn lead into gold).
If your chemistry class was anything like mine, the outcome of each experiment was predetermined. There was no room for curiosity or unexpected insights. If you didn’t get the “right result,” you’d be stuck in the lab repeating the same experiment over and over again, while your classmates trekked off to the movies.
As a result, we believe (or pretend to believe) there is one right answer to each question. We believe that this right answer has already been discovered by someone far smarter than us. We believe the answer can, therefore, be found in a well-crafted Google search, the latest self-help book, or advice from a self-proclaimed life coach.
Fear is another reason we shun curiosity. If we spend too much time investigating and experimenting, we’re afraid of what we might find. Worse, we’re afraid that we may not find anything at all, that our inquiry led us nowhere, turning this whole curiosity business into a gigantic waste of time.
Let’s nip these beliefs in the bud. Unnecessary investigation and experimentation are precisely what you need for a creative personal and professional life. Hustle and innovation are antithetical to each other. You can’t generate breakthroughs while clearing out your inbox. You must dig the well before you’re thirsty and become curious now — not when a crisis inevitably presents itself while you’re too busy staring at the rear-view mirror.
Curiosity killed the cat. But it just might save you.
Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned law professor and bestselling author. Click here to download a free copy of his e-book, The Contrarian Handbook: 8 Principles for Innovating Your Thinking. Along with your free e-book, you’ll get the Weekly Contrarian — a newsletter that challenges conventional wisdom and changes the way we look at the world (plus access to exclusive content for subscribers only).