... To Be Relentlessly Curious
Do you know anyone who is 21 years old? Can you imagine that person going on a journey. An adventure. Waving them off at the station. Now, imagine that journey took them further than they planned. Much further. 75,000 miles in fact. That’s three times the earth’s circumference. Imagine that journey lasting longer than they planned. Much longer. 30 years in fact.
Imagine them also leaving on foot, with a donkey to carry their few possessions. For the year isn’t 2019 but 1325, over 700 hundred years ago. And the person concerned isn’t the 21 year old who you know, but a 21 year old Arab from Morocco called Ibn Battuta.
You may never have heard of Ibn Battuta. Not many people have. Ibn Battuta was the only medieval traveller who is known to have visited the lands of every Muslim ruler of his time. Ibn Battuta, one of the most remarkable travellers of all time, visited China sixty years after another famous explorer, Marco Polo, and travelled 75,000 miles, much further than Marco Polo.
Why did Ibn Battuta go on this incredible journey? It was because he had relentless curiosity. The men in his family were all legal scholars and they valued education; however, there was no madrasa, or college of higher learning, in Tangier. So his curiosity to find the best libraries and best teachers in the known Islamic world, meant he started walking. For 30 years, and for 75,000 miles. It also allowed him to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, called the “hajj,” out of an eagerness and devotion to his faith.
Now we’ve all heard the phrase ‘curiosity killed the cat’, a proverb used to warn of the dangers of unnecessary investigation, but curiosity is a natural human need to inquire, discover and learn; an eagerness to ask questions and explore beyond what is required. I believe relentless curiosity is one of the most important things we can help develop in ourselves and our children.
In T.H. White’s story about King Arthur, ‘The Once and Future King’, it says the following: “The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
Why is relentless curiosity so important?
Because it makes your mind active instead of passive
Curious people always ask questions and search for answers in their minds. Their minds are always active. Since the mind is like a muscle, the mental exercise caused by curiosity makes your mind stronger and stronger.
Because it makes your mind observant of new ideas
When you are relentlessly curious about something, your mind expects, anticipates and recognises new ideas related to it. Without curiosity, the ideas may pass you by.
Because it opens up new worlds and possibilities
By being relentlessly curious you will be able to see new possibilities normally not visible. They are hidden behind the surface of normal life. Curious minds look beneath the surface to discover.
Because it brings excitement into your life
For curious people there are always new things to attract their attention, new ‘toys’ to play with. Curious people lead an adventurous life.
Just knowing that being relentlessly curious is important, is not enough. We need to know how to develop and encourage the spirit of curiosity in ourselves. Ian Leslie, in his book Curious: The Desire To Know And Why Your Future Depends On It suggests several ways. Three of these struck a particular resonance with me:
Read widely and follow our interests
John Lloyd was a hugely successful TV producer and writer until one day he started to encounter a string of failures, leading to depression. He dealt with it by taking time off work, going on long walks, and reading voraciously. He read about “Socrates and ancient Athens, light and magnetism, the Renaissance and the French impressionists. He had no method or plan, he simply followed his curiosity, wherever it took him.” All this reading eventually led to his idea for the BBC comedy gameshow, QI. QI is short for ‘Quite Interesting’ and a deliberate reversal of IQ. QI has a philosophy that everything is interesting if looked at it the right way.
Visit a physical bookstore or library and browse the shelves
In this era of Google searches, we have no problem finding the exact answer to our question, but we may be less likely to encounter other information not necessarily specific to our question. Visiting a bookstore or a library allows us to encounter wonderful information in a way that is not dictated by the structure of a computer algorithm.
Economist John Maynard Keynes once offered advice on how to conduct yourself in a bookstore: ‘A bookshop is not like a railway booking-office which one approaches knowing what one wants. One should enter it vaguely, almost in a dream, and allow what is there freely to attract and influence the eye. To walk the rounds of the bookshops, dipping in as curiosity dictates, should be an afternoon’s entertainment.’
Put a lot of ideas and facts in our heads: don’t rely on Google
At the most basic level, all of our new ideas are made up of old ones…to create a smartphone, you need to know about computers and phones.
We romanticize the curiosity of children because we love their innocence. But creativity doesn’t happen in a void. Successful innovators and artists amass vast stores of knowledge which they can then draw on unthinkingly. Having mastered the rules of their domain, they can concentrate on rewriting them, until a creative breakthrough is achieved.
I’m going to try and develop my curiosity over the course of this year. It may not take me on a 75,000 mile journey like Ibn Battuta, but it will still take me on a journey. A journey in which I’m prepared to ask questions and explore; where I become more inquisitive; where I will discover, learn and understand new things. The journey will be quicker and easier if I take the A road, but it can be more interesting if I take the time to travel along the B road.