Updated: May 12
“What quality should we continue to develop as we transition from college to our careers?” This question was posed to me a couple years ago by my undergraduate teaching assistants as we celebrated the end of a great semester and their upcoming graduation. Before I tell you what I said, what would you say? Think about it before you scroll past the image below.
Now, if you had to pick from the following list, which of the following qualities would you say is most important?
Tough choice, right? The National Education Association, the largest professional interest group in the United States, advocates for the first “Four Cs” to prepare students for a global society. My goal as an educator has always focused on helping others develop these qualities; however, I increasingly think curiosity is an important element to living a good life.
Curiosity helps us perform better in school and at work. It also helps us better understand others and ourselves.
Curiosity Starts At Home
Children are born curious. And as soon as they can talk they express their curiosity with questions. Lots of them.
What happened to dinosaurs?
How do leaves change color?
How many words are there?
Where do people go when they die?
Why can’t I stay up as late as you?
Caregivers can create a home environment where questions are celebrated. When children ask a curiosity question, we should stop what we are doing and give them positive attention. Instead of rushing to answer, consider asking them what they think. My wife and I have recently started encouraging our children to write down their questions on what we are calling our “wonder wall.” At dinner, we bring up questions they asked during the day and explore related questions. We don’t always figure out the answer and that’s okay.
Curiosity Leads to Success In School
Greater curiosity is associated with higher academic achievement in children. A longitudinal study of 6,200 kindergarteners found children with higher curiosity performed better in reading and math. While intelligence has long been the focus of psychologists who study academic performance, intellectual curiosity is increasingly recognized as a key contributor to success in school.
While teachers understand the importance of curiosity, research suggests they do not prioritize it when creating lesson plans. Susan Engel, in her book The Hungry Mind, suggests schools place too much emphasis on standardized tests and lose focus on getting children excited about learning.
Unfortunately, once children enter school they tend to ask fewer questions. The focus shifts to answering questions. Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question, suggests our schools aren’t preparing our children for the modern-day entrepreneurial workforce that demands question-asking skills.
Curiosity Leads To Positive Workplace Outcomes
Managers regularly cite curiosity as a quality they look for when evaluating job candidates. A recent Gallup survey found “curiosity and interest in work that is meaningful to them” to be one of the most important workforce readiness skills. In fact, developing students’ curiosity is among the outcomes on which managers feel colleges should focus.
Francesca Geno, a professor at Harvard, writes: “Most of the breakthrough discoveries and remarkable inventions throughout history… are the result of curiosity.” She has identified the following benefits of curiosity to organizations, leaders, and employees:
Fewer decision-making errors.
More innovation and positive changes in both creative and non-creative jobs.
Reduced group conflict.
More-open communication and better team performance.
According to other research published in Harvard Business Review, high performing groups treat mistakes with curiosity. This allows members of teams to ask questions, express their ideas, and take action without fear of punishment. An environment where it is safe to take risks improves a team’s ability to solve complex problems.
You can take personal responsibility for increasing your curiosity at work by challenging yourself to learn something new everyday. Also, become more conscious of how often you ask questions and compare that to how often you make assertions.
Curiosity Improves Romantic Relationships
Curiosity plays an important part in romantic relationships. Early phases of relationships are characterized by sharing of information, experiences, and resources. However, in committed relationships, couples tend to overestimate how well they communicate. The closeness-communication bias may be to blame for lower levels of curiosity and the tendency to tune out your partner. Esther Peral, a psychotherapist and relationship expert, notes that we are constantly changing and the people we think we know well are somewhat mysterious. The key is to remain curious about each other. When you exhibit curiosity in your partner you will be perceived as more attractive, and your partner will feel closer to you.
Curiosity Helps You Understand Yourself
A variety of societal forces can lead us to lose touch with who we really are and what we believe. The authors of Difficult Conversations write, “The process by which we construct stories about the world often happens so fast, and so automatically, that we are not even aware of all that influences our views.” Understanding yourself begins with asking important questions. What do you value? What is truly important in your life? How are you spending your time? Parker Palmer, author of A Hidden Wholeness, argues for the need to create space where we can listen to our inner teacher so we can hear our own answers to life’s important questions.
Curiosity Can Be Developed
We can all learn to be more curious. The habit of being inquisitive that we had as a child can be relearned as adults. Like our intelligence quotient (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ), we can develop what some are calling curiosity quotient (CQ).
Scholars have found evidence of multiple dimensions of curiosity. Understanding these dimensions can give us ideas about how to practice curiosity in our own lives.
Joyous Exploration: View challenging situations as opportunities to learn and look for experiences that challenge how you think about yourself and the world.
Social Curiosity: Attempt to find out why others behave the way they do and listen to others when they speak.
Deprivation Sensitivity: Recognize when you have a gap in your knowledge and seek to fill that gap.
Stress Tolerance: Put yourself in situations where you don’t feel confident about your abilities or where you could be surprised.
These dimensions suggest curiosity can be exhibited in many ways. Where do you see yourself? Are you curious about the world around you? Do you like to solve problems? Are you curious about other people?
When thinking about who you are and who you want to surround yourself with, is curiosity a quality you should give more consideration?
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