People talk a lot about finding and following your passion these days, but I have to side with Elizabeth Gilbert on this one. Liz – author of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear – claims that curiosity, rather than passion, is the key to living an interesting, creative life.
Following your passion is a romantic pursuit, and if you have a passion – particularly one that somehow easily translates into helping you pay your bills – then by all means go for it. But not everyone knows what their passion is, and even if you do know, passions aren’t really known for their powers of sustainability. I think I’ve had about 150 different passions in my short lifetime. Maybe a couple have been consistently present this whole time, but it’s taken me almost 30 years to really identify those.
Passion or no passion, everyone can be curious. Most of us came by this naturally as children. It’s a capacity we can and must recover in ourselves if we are to realize our creative potential as adults. Remember that game you could spontaneously launch into while riding in the car as a kid? The Why Game?
Why is the sky blue, Mrs. Betty?
Well Sarah, the blue light from the sun collides with molecules in the air and….
Well the Earth orbits around the sun, and …
The game could go on forever. It was a playful way to be a pain in the ass without getting in trouble, sure, but I was always somewhat genuinely curious about the answers to all those why questions. I’d surprise myself sometimes by how far the string of questioning could go, and sometimes it’d take me into territory I’d never previously thought to enter. The questions themselves were vehicles into new realms of ideas – and more questions.
Creativity isn’t only about expression. It’s just as much about discovery. And to discover, we must ask questions. Curiosity fuels the art of asking questions. It renders your experience of the world interesting and opens our eyes to the value, depth, and complexity of all that you encounter. It feeds into the art of paying attention, kicking our sense perceptions into high gear and prompting us to collect whatever new information we can about ourselves, another person, topic, place, or activity.
Eventually, following the trail that your curiosity takes you on may lead to finding “your passion,” and that’s wonderful. Though even if it doesn’t or if it just takes a while, you’ll have had an engaging journey with tons of material for creativity, understanding, and maybe some new friends collected along the way. Even the great Albert Einstein claimed to have little in the way of talent, only passionate curiosity…and look where that got him.
Interesting people are interested people. Conversely, bored people are boring people.
Are you interested in the world around you? What about the world within you? You never have to be bored again. Get a little curious, pay a little closer attention, and you’ll unlock layers of interesting realities that’ll keep you occupied for years to come. Really. I don’t think I’ve been bored in over 10 years.
Curiosity teaches us a few more things that are essential to artful living. First, curiosity requires humility. To readily seek out more information, you have to admit that you don’t have all the information. Saying “I don’t know” can be so liberating and can lead you into a rewarding process of investigative learning. Additionally, curiosity can form in us a habit of perceiving the unknown with positive regard rather than with fear or disdain. Our life can expand as we follow our curiosity rather than shrink around increasingly rigid boundaries of what’s right or wrong, safe or unsafe, for you or against you. The expert on this, Elizabeth Gilbert, even goes so far as to claim that a creative life is “any life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” Finally, curiosity forms us in the way of empathy – which begins with asking yourself what it might feel like to be another person. Connection through this curiosity about each other must start with curiosity about ourselves. We must have some honest grasp on our own felt experience to have something with which to relate to another’s experience.
So how do you cultivate curiosity?
Here are two practices that might be helpful:
- Midrash. I borrow this term respectfully from the Jewish tradition. One type of midrash in Judaism includes investigating a scriptural text by asking every possible question one can come up with about it. This process inspires theological creativity, often resulting in the rabbis writing additional parables and stories to fill in the gaps of a text or to shed new light on it. No questions are prohibited and no one right answer is expected to surface. The text is the beginning of generative conversation in this tradition, unlike in Christianity where it tends to be the end of conversation, purported as the final word. I find this approach fascinating and invaluable not only in relation to sacred texts. I think this is a practice with which we can engage many things. Are you confused about a situation? Sit down and write out as many questions as you possibly can about it. See where it takes you. Working on a project? Don’t understand a pattern of behavior you keep repeating? Not sure what to believe about something? Making a big life decision? Don’t understand a friend or family member? Midrash it. It takes some practice to build up these curiosity muscles. Sometimes I’m appalled by how few questions I can come up with initially, but stick with it. It’s worth the effort.
- Beginner’s Mind. The great Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, once said, “Be willing to be a beginner every morning.” This wise instruction is an echo of the Zen Buddhist concept of beginner’s mind. Think about how you approach subjects or activities when you are a beginner versus when you feel like an expert. What’s different about the two postures? A beginner’s mind lacks preconceived notions, prejudices, and judgements. It is present to the moment, open to the experience, and ready to learn. This mindset breeds curiosity, creativity, and forming deeper connections with those around you. An expert’s mind is fixed. Its perceptions are not easily altered, and it is all but shut down to change, novel observations, or new lines of questioning. Where in your life would you benefit from a renewal of this beginner’s mindset? Perhaps write Meister Eckhart’s quote on a notecard and place it somewhere you will see it each morning reminding you to approach your day as a beginner. See what opens up for you! I'll be doing the same.
*offer good through Jan. 28, 2018
The above text is an excerpt from my in-progress manuscript of a book about artful living through lenses of creativity, connection, and community. More excerpts to follow in this blog series titled Artful Living.