The importance of curiosity

Several months ago, I was sitting in my good friend’s living room, talking with him and his dad.  Our conversation shifted to more interesting topics once we’d had a few beers each.  I remember mentioning that people’s understanding of the universe would always be a very small fraction of what was possible, and that fact made me sad.  My friend looked at me with his head tilted and said, “Seriously?  I do not give a damn about space — I couldn’t care less!”  His dad agreed.  “Yea, we’re here on earth.  Who cares about space?”

I was really taken aback by this.  It’s hard to justify wanting to learn about something that has no obvious practical value.  Learning about space won’t affect my survival, it won’t make me more money, and it won’t change my daily routine.  I just like to learn about it because it amazes me.  That’s it.

I read Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot when I was 15.  That book, coupled with Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene, left me in a perpetual state of awe.  The universe suddenly became far more interesting than I’d ever imagined.  I looked at everything differently, and actually became a much happier person.  Those books gave me a sincere appreciation for life and increased my curiosity tenfold.

Then I read Brian Greene’s Elegant Universe when I was 20.  That was the first book I can remember that made my brain hurt.  I didn’t understand superstring theory all that well, but it still fascinated me.

And while I was reading that book, I decided to start attending classes that I wasn’t enrolled in.  I had a lot of free time so I looked through my school’s course book and picked the ones that looked like they’d be interesting.  The one that I enjoyed most was the history of film, so I spent my Tuesday and Thursday nights in a classroom, taking notes on stuff that “didn’t matter.”

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that most people let their curiosity die when their childhood ends.  It’s depressing.  My curiosity has gotten me farther than anything else — more than skill, more than my degree, and more than knowing “the right people.” If something interests me, I study it then try it.  If it’s something I fall in love with, I keep going further down the rabbit hole.

Curiosity is why I dissected my family’s computer when I was 10-years old and put it back together to see if it’d still work (it did).  It’s why I tried to patent two inventions when I was 14.  It’s why I created Connect Four on my calculator in high school.  It’s why I got into editing video.  It’s why I taught myself guitar.  It’s why I went into the office on my days off so I could learn Photoshop.  It’s why I spent four months trying to start a company in an industry I knew very little about.  And it’s why I want to travel around Europe by myself.

Curiosity pushes you to try new things and test your boundaries.  It expands your thinking and makes you a happier person, even if what you’re doing has no inherent practical value.

So don’t ever tell your kids that curiosity killed the cat.  At least the cat was happy.

By Charlie Hoehn Tagged

6 comments on “The importance of curiosity

  1. what company did you try to start? This is something that really interests me, because I’m constantly coming up with new company or product ideas but unfortunately they are in areas that I know nothing about.

  2. I agree about the value of curiosity. Unfortunately, too many children are taught to stop asking “why” (adults get frustrated with having to keep answering the why question) and to only care about the “right” answer in school instead of the process to get the right answer or other possible answers. (I did this during school too.) This helps permanently end curiosity for most people.

    If you’re still interested in space, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was fascinating (although I didn’t understand a good quarter of it).

    What’s holding you back from going to Europe sometime this year?

  3. @Stefanie – I tried to start a company in the alcohol industry. I met with a former executive of Mike’s Hard Lemonade and talked with people at various distilleries. My buddy and I eventually figured out that the alcohol industry is pretty unwilling to license ideas, so we thought we could start the company on our own. Unfortunately, it’d take a pretty high amount of capital to get it going and seeing as how we had zero experience, we decided it’d be best to put it on hold until we could fund most of it ourselves.

    You should look into doing provisional patents then trying to license your ideas to companies. It’s pretty simple and gives you adequate protection for $100. Check out Stephen Key’s blog, he’s a very experienced inventor and knows tons about this stuff.

    @Ben – I actually have Hawking’s book in my room right now. It’s on my “to read” list.

    And I’m not going to Europe this year for a few reasons. First, I don’t have enough money just yet so I’m saving up. Second, I have a few projects that I’ll be working on until the end of this year, and need to see them through while I’m in the States. One of the projects is a book that I’ll be releasing : )

  4. First let me state, that I think some of Seth’s top tier interns from Summer ’08 are starting to really find their voice and get in a groove.

    Next, this post resonates with me because I have such an insatiable desire to learn (and I think it’s significantly larger now that I’m out of school — or maybe I developed it in grad school, I don’t know).

    The point is, I’m just like you in that if something interests me I venture down that rabbit hole. Unfortunately, sometimes this is at the expense of potentially more work, work I should be doing.

    Any thoughts on this?

    One solution for me (sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t) is to marry the two. If I get caught up reading something unrelated, I think about it’s application to business, marketing, social media and try to find connections and forge a relationship in hopes of creating something new. I guess it can’t hurt.

  5. Thanks Ryan!

    I think we’re young enough that work doesn’t matter quite as much as we tend to think. I look at acquiring wisdom as an investment. Work can oftentimes give you empirical wisdom, but if you’re just doing it for a paycheck, it’s probably not as valuable in the long-run.

  6. Pingback: On Being Lost « Alex J. Mann (.com)

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