Why We All Need To Be More Curious

Am I normal? written on a chalk board in different colours

“The real enemy is the man who tries to mould the human spirit so that it will not dare to spread its wings,” Abraham Flexner.

How good is your chat? Last month I wrote that it was our civic duty to one another to be interested and interesting. I was only half joking. And while no one wishes to be the dinner party bore, the person you owe it most in life to be curious, is yourself. Back in 1980 only 10% of graduate and diploma students were mature ones. By 2012, that figure was closer to 30%. Not that being curious necessarily means a return to formal education. Show me a life where you stop questioning the world around you and frankly, you might as well as be dead.

Curious people tend to be happier, enjoy higher levels of positive emotions, have lower levels of cortisol and celebrate life in the present. As if that wasn’t enough, curiosity also fuels our imagination, our creative work and encourages us to be more innovative. It can bring untold excitement, help us escape the hum drum of daily life and also promotes more meaningful day to day exchanges with everyone we encounter.

Studies have shown that curiosity improves our memory, helps to release more dopamine and makes you sleep more soundly. Being curious also encourages us to step out of our comfort zone, helps us to keep our minds more active and challenges the way we do things. In short, it keeps us on our toes, it also – and here’s another welcome health benefit – keeps us looking younger, behaving younger and moving with agility. That is a long list of things to love. And as with so much positive learnt behaviour, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Of course for many of us, somewhere in the thick of middult-hood, we are too busy or run–ragged to be curious. Mumsnet founder, Justine Roberts was outraged a few years back when her husband suggested that she had no “hinterland.” In an interview with the Times, she said she nearly clubbed him over the head. Although as a mother of four, with a busy and demanding job, she wondered when she would ever find the time.

“But you move on, your life changes….with the benefit of hindsight, I wished I’d developed more of a hinterland. We fall into a trap where we do nothing but kids and work, or kids and domestics but it doesn’t all stop just because you’ve become a parent. You can still do interesting things and learn new skills.”  And so she set up the Mumsnet academy where the idea was that women could learn everything from how to start a business to the art of pasta making.

Sadly her enthusiasm for self-improvement or learning new skills didn’t quite catch on. Mumsnet found that many women were reluctant to spend time or money on widening their horizons, although therein lies a whole other rant about the importance of learning to put yourself first. Roll on seven years and a slew of vodcasts, podcasts, TED talks and sites such as theschooloflife.com are so readily available at our finger tips, that there’s little excuse.

Worrying that you’re not quite up to it to going back and study? I promise you, your zeal, dedication and sheer bloody mindedness (especially if this avenue is respite from a dead end job) will give you the edge over much younger peers. So too will the perspective of more life experience. There are other things to consider too, certainly points that I was never aware of at school which is that you need to incorporate failure as well as learn to enjoy the process. So much more fun that I had ever realised.

Fellow VH contributor, Jo Fairley wrote a brilliant feature some time ago about the website, masterclass.com where you can learn to cook with the California based chef and organic foods pioneer, Alice Waters, take creative writing tips from Margaret Atwood, or learn about photography with Vanity Fair’s Annie Liebovitz. The site recruits only the very best in their fields (truly a very starry line up) to produce beautifully filmed, instructive courses. At £170 for unlimited access, it works out at around £14 a month, the price of your Deliveroo. Just as compelling is Serena Williams on tennis, Frank Gehry on design and architecture or Dr. Jane Goodallon on the art of conversation.

As parents, we often wonder what we can teach our children, how we can best prepare them for later life. One of the most important lessons you can impress on them is that parents are still learning too– and screwing up often it should be noted! The buzz words at most schools these days include qualities like resilience, not so easy to teach in reality. I try to share examples of trying and failing with my elder two daughters and even, winging it and succeeding.

Hopefully they are beginning to see that it’s more important to be curious and for things to not pan out quite as they expected, than never to question anything at all. That it’s more important to learn something new than it is to look smart. Oh, and that there’s no shame in admitting that they don’t’ know something because we are all learning every day.

The landscape of work is changing too and curiosity along with an emotional agility are rather excellent tools at navigating this new world. Studies suggest our children might have as many as six careers in their lifetime- these qualities are going to be valued more than ever before.

And really, this is nothing new. As Lauren Laverne reminds us in an article celebrating learning in The Pool, the last words of Michaelangelo, artist, architect, poet and engineer, three weeks shy of his 89th birthday, were Ancora Imparo. Or, I’m still learning. Just wow.