Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy: Blog & Art
My mother has told me stories about how curious I was as a child. I don’t know if I was born this way or if this curiosity was mostly nurtured. I guess that’s sort of a what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg type of question. I do know that mom got me going in the right direction by encouraging me to look and listen and ask questions. And for that, I owe her nearly everything.
In my last post, “Overthinking: A Nuanced Discussion,” I wrote about critical thinking and several related issues. In this one, I’d like to discuss curiosity, the engine that drives us to ask more questions and become better thinkers.
Curiosity motivates us, keeps us alive and fresh and exploring. I would even argue that those who hunger to examine and grow intellectually are happier and thus curiosity feeds into that felicity. The curious are less likely to be bored because they are aware of how little they’ve seen and understood and how much there is yet to see and understand. The truly smart realize how dumb they are and how far they have to go to get to where they want to be. On the other hand, those who think they know it all, often know the least. The Dunning-Kruger Effect explains this well. This psychological principle holds that the truly incompetent are so incompetent that they are utter incapable of seeing themselves objectively. Such folks think of themselves as geniuses when the exact opposite, in fact, is true.
Curiosity can be aimed outward, toward others and the world, but it can also be aimed inward, toward the self. In “Know Thyself,” an article by John D. Mayer that appears in Psychology Today, the author writes that we should all aim to have “personal intelligence” and that those who do “understand themselves and know who they are.” Mayer goes on to write that they “evaluate others more accurately and…are better at acknowledging their own limitations.” They also “make better guesses about how people are likely to behave.”
I would argue that having “personal intelligence” makes a person much more likely to be able to solve problems and handle the sort of stress that accompanies them. Those with self-knowledge are likely able to draw on a wellspring of inner resources when difficulties arise. They are capable of self-regulation, are able to stay calm and engage in the sort of unemotional analysis that leads to insights about what sort of problem they are facing and how to devise an insightful response.
Thus, curiosity, self-study, self-awareness, critical thinking, artful problem solving, and happiness are all interrelated.
It all starts, though, with looking inward, deeply and profoundly. Those who take this first step—and take it seriously—are far more likely to end up living better, more fulfilling lives. They will feel more in control when problems arise. They will have inner resources to draw upon to empower them. Rather than being pushed around by forces that feel overpowering, they will be able to push back and may even be capable of exerting force that overpowers.
“Know thyself” is a philosophical maxim that some date to the ancient Egyptians. Socrates, the great Greek teacher and philosopher who was eventually forced to drink hemlock because his ideas were considered too radical—many great thinkers are so far ahead of their time that they are often misunderstood—claimed that the basis of all knowledge was self-knowledge. I would definitely tend to agree with that argument. I would add that knowing thyself begins with the feeling that the self is a mystery that needs to be examined carefully. Curiosity is the impetus that pushes us toward that examination.
Given that curiosity is such a valuable tool that enables our thinking, what can be done to nurture it in ourselves and in others? Coming up with the answer to this question could very well be the key to happiness and “success” (however one wants to define it).