Curious: A book review by Bob Morris

CuriousCurious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It
Ian Leslie
Basic Books (2014)

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Albert Einstein

Strengthening observational skills is a worthy objective. However, if a person has little (if any) curiosity driven by a desire to learn, to understand, what’s the point? Also, someone with little (if any) curiosity probably has no interest in that fact.

It is no coincidence that companies that are annually ranked among those that are most innovative are also the most profitable and have the greatest cap value in their industry. What they also have in common is a culture within which anomalies are highly valued. This is what Isaac Asimov has in mind when observing, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny….’” Now more than at any prior time that I can remember, all organizations (whatever their size and nature may be) need both problem-finders and problem-solvers at all levels and in all areas of operation in the given enterprise.

As Ian Leslie explains, “A society that values order above all else will seek to suppress curiosity. But a society that believes in progress, innovation, and creativity will cultivate it, recognizing that the inquiring minds of its people constitute its most valuable asset.” He goes on to point out, “During the Renaissance and Reformation, European societies started to see that their future lay with the curious and encouraged probing questions rather than stamping on them. The result was the biggest explosion of new ideas and scientific advances in history.” Moreover, “The great unlocking of curiosity translated into a cascade of prosperity for the nations that precipitated it. Today, we cannot know for sure if we are in the middle of this golden period or at the end of it. But we are, at the very least, in a lull.” Part of the current, unresolved situation is the fact that the rewards of curiosity have never been higher but our ideas about how curiosity works are muddled and misguided.

That is among the reasons — and probably the primary reason — why Leslie wrote this book: to share what he has learned about curiosity so that as many other people as possible can, as Charles Eames described it, “reassess their relationship with what Aristotle called ‘the desire to know’ — to choose curiosity.”

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest to me, list also to indicate the scope of Leslie’s coverage:

o Dangers of Diversive Curiosity (11-12)
o Cognitive approach to curiosity (33-34)
o Stories and storylines (43-45, 47-452, and 151-152)
o Puzzles versus mysteries (52-53)
o Education: Facts and creativity, self-organized learning, and thinking skills versus knowledge (105-123)
o Education: Attitudes toward Curiosity (108-198 and 131-132)
o Memory (118-123)
o Epistemic Curiosity: Caring about information gaps, success and knowledge, and progressive education versus fact-based learning (123-132)
o Chess (129-131)
o Unconscious at work (145-148)
o Education: Specializing and quantitative expertise in different fields/Foxhogs/Charlie Munger (152-155)
o The Big Why (156-158 and 162-163)
o Benjamin Franklin (163-167)
o Thinkerers: Symbolic analysts (167-170)
o Transformative power of attention (172-173)
o Empistemic and empathic curiosity (187-188)

Here are Ian Leslie’s concluding remarks: “Epistemic curiosity can be tough to justify in the moment. It is hard work, it diverts us from our tasks and goals, and we never quite know where it will take us. But we have a choice. We can decide to explore the worlds of knowledge that present themselves to us. Or, we can turn our face from the beauty and the mystery and make for the next appointment.” I urge all who read this brilliant book to embrace and cherish what he characterizes as a “sublimely lucky break.”

Once again I am reminded of Tennyson’s Ulysses who challenges his crew to join him once again for new adventures: “To strive, to seek, to find…and not to yield.” In business, there is an ever-increasing need for people with a great “need for cognition,” the scientific measure of intellectual curiosity. In parenting, there are countless opportunities to serve as a role model for learning within and beyond the classroom, for the sole purpose of learning, rather than for grades, recognition, and rewards. In technology, various digital devices almost instantaneously connect questions with content that provides answers and yet, deeper inquiry is a process rather than a destination. And in education, children need order and structure in order to explore subjects — previously unknown to them — that arouse their curiosity but they also need caring and capable guidance from their instructors to nourish that curiosity.

For many people, this may well prove to be one of the most important books they’ve read in recent years…if not ever. Yes, the information, insights, and counsel it provides are that valuable.

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