On Curiosity and Why It Matters

by | May 5, 2023

If all objects eventually reach an equilibrium temperature in a closed and static environment, why do metal chairs feel colder than wooden chairs ? 

In a virtual learning session held by Sandhya ma’am and Sarit sir, the founders of Aavishkaar, we were invited to challenge our understanding of the everyday phenomenon of temperature – as an exercise in rethinking what it means to understand something at all. 

Aavishkaar, based in Himachal Pradesh, is striving to make quality STEM (Science, Technology Engineering, and Mathematics) education available and accessible to all. Sandhya ma’am and Sarit sir saw the gaps in the current public education system, with its prioritization of rote learning and dismal on-ground standards. By building an understanding of how education is and what it could be, Aavishkar found its vision: building curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking in the citizens of tomorrow. 

This session left me curious, funnily, about curiosity itself. Ever since, I’ve been observing my own relationship with curiosity, almost like a scientific experiment. But unlike scientific experimentation, what has emerged is less a set of findings and more a series of inter-connected and evolving insights. 

The way I understand curiosity is that it is the desire to know. The precursor to curiosity is the acknowledgment that you don’t know everything. This seems obvious, I know, but I’d invite you to look at the things you don’t ask questions about, and ask yourself why you don’t – I’d wager that at least one factor is the unconscious belief that you know what you need to know about it. 

Curiosity is political

Its absence and presence, its cultivation and curtailment–especially in structures in education–are political. It has been extensively argued that knowledge itself is political. What do we know? How do we know it? How did we come to know it, and from what perspective? When knowledge is political, the act of asking questions can be an act of defiance. What is curiosity if not the expression of dissatisfaction about what you already know?

I think about the stories of Adam and Eve, Pandora’s box, and Icarus who flew too close to the sun–how curiosity is a warning sign. When you are willing to ask why things are the way they are, you are also in a position to reveal their arbitrariness, find flaws in their logic or propose alternate ways of thinking/doing/being. This is often undesirable for institutions and people with a vested interest in the status quo. Because the curious approach rules like they are provisional, only there until they are challenged by a smart question that nobody has asked yet. 

Cross-disciplinary curiosity

It is easier to be curious selectively. There tend to be themes we are inclined to or interested in. Maybe these interests have developed because of years of curiosity toward them. But to practice curiosity would also mean remaining curious across disciplines–the ones you already know you like and the ones you’re hearing about the first time.

Ultimately, cross-disciplinary curiosity helps you stop pigeonholing yourself and broadens the perspectives you engage with. And when we have not only access to but comfort with weaving through different perspectives, we are able to cross-pollinate ideas and be creative in our approaches to problem-solving.

Willingness to be wrong

When you’re embodying curiosity, my guards are down. Your willingness to ask a question should be accompanied by a willingness to hear an answer you don’t want to hear. To me, inculcating curiosity is as much about inculcating a willingness to be wrong. When the question is what matters to you, then you’re also able to de-centre yourself, able to challenge your existing opinions based on new perspectives. Ultimately, then, I don’t believe curiosity can exist without both courage and vulnerability.

Own it up!

You must take ownership of your own curiosity. A majority of us have grown up with educational, familial, and social structures telling us that whatever we need to know will be told to us by adults in our lives, discouraging questions and deviation from the “syllabus”. While recognizing that it may have hurt our relationship with our own curiosity is ground zero, to reclaim curiosity is to reclaim agency in nurturing it. 

And no inquiry is complete without seeking answers. When we take ownership of our curiosity, we learn how to feed it. Instead of waiting for the teacher-like figure in my life to give you answers, it means reading books, looking up resources on the internet, having discussions with peers and reaching out to mentors to broaden my understanding. 

That’s the other thing about taking ownership of your curiosity: it is recognising that, often, there are no definitive answers, but instead a rainbow of perspectives. Which naturally means that curiosity is the enemy of judgement. And, more often than not, each new perspective creates an opportunity to ask more questions. Taking ownership of your curiosity feeds curiosity. 

Building new perspectives

Curiosity makes you seek novelty – not in a shallow kind of way, but the kind that enables you to journey outside of your comfort zone and seek the unknown. Seeking out new perspectives builds bridges between someone, something, or someplace different from you and what you have known. It is the catalyst for dialogue, and when combined with other values like vulnerability and humility, essential for collaboration. 

I see curiosity as an antidote to passivity. When my curiosity is piqued, the world isn’t a static object I’m looking at through a glass window. My experience of curiosity often helps me snap out of that dissociation. It immediately makes that glass window a porous boundary, and the world feels alive and dynamic. When I ask a question, I step back into the world, no longer a passive outsider.

I’ve realised that curiosity has been essential to my experience of the fellowship – it has been the foundation for connection, learning, and building an appetite for the unknown and uncertain. It may not be a silver bullet, but there is more to curiosity than meets the eye. This meditation on a word that is such an ordinary part of common parlance certainly highlighted that for me.

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