Have you ever given yourself time to deeply follow your curiosity? Do you consider yourself a curious person? Did you know that it’s possible to move from curiosity to success?
These questions are rarely discussed in school or by the media. Yet they deal with a defining quality of our humanity: curiosity.
This article will provide evidence which argues that we achieve our best when we follow our curiosity. And that we should allow our curiosity, rather than our passion, to guide us through life.
What Is Passion And Why Are We Supposed To Follow It?
Growing up in the west we are bombarded with the idea that we should base our decisions on what activities to pursue based on our passion, this is encompassed by the phrase “Follow your passion.”
But what is passion? If we’re supposed to follow it through life, shouldn’t we at least have a conception of passion as an experience? So we can know when it shows up and then follow it?
According to the dictionary, “passion” is “a powerful emotion, such as anger or joy.” If we go off of that definition, passion is not an emotion itself, it is a quality of an emotion. It is an intense emotion. This means that when we hear the phrase “Follow your passion” what we’re really hearing is “Follow your powerful emotions.”
Does that sound like a sustainable way to live? Should we follow our strongest emotions wherever they take us? If we feel powerful anger when someone insults us, should we act on the desire to hurt that person in return? Is that the best course of action?
Probably not. Our emotions are guides; while we should always be attentive to our emotions, we should not be ruled by them. But according to what I, and presumably most other people, learned from school and the media was that I should follow my powerful emotions when it came to choosing my work.
You could say that passionate anger is a negative example; we could actually do well by following a positive one like passionate joy. But there’s an issue with that too. Anyone who has ever fallen in love knows that infatuation wears off. If you follow an activity which sparks passionate joy in you, eventually you will reach a plateau, like a bungee jumper who always needs a taller point to jump off of, or a substance addict who needs more and more of the substance in order to experience the same high.
Always pursuing powerful emotions is exhausting. No one can handle it. Passion is fickle. It comes and goes. It’s a wild, untamed mistress that does what it wants when it wants, like our emotions. In other words, following passion is no way to build a sustainable enterprise. Any worthwhile endeavor takes time. Eventually, things get boring and passion fades away, leaving us without anything to follow anymore. Leaving us lost. Can you imagine any successful business owner, artist, scientist or athlete saying “I was going to run my business/paint/experiment/practice, but I didn’t feel passionate about it today, so I didn’t do it.”
Of course not. The pros show up whether they’re passionate that day or not. So it’s not passion which drives them.
So then what could it be?
It’s desire. But desire for what? To be the best? Why be the best? To know what it’s like to be the best? To experience it?
Ah. So it’s curiosity. High achievers are curious of how high they can rise, how far and fast they can go and what they can discover and what they can make. Curiosity is a specific form of desire; it’s the desire to know more.
Curiosity is focused desire. And desire is the start and engine of all achievement.
This is why we should follow our curiosity and not our passion.
What Is Curiosity And What Happens When We Follow It?
Curiosity is an evolutionary adaptation. As life on planet Earth became more and more complex, eventually an organism appeared (human being) which was capable of navigating the growing intricacies of it’s environment, by observing, remembering and extrapolating patterns. This “observing, remembering and extrapolating” is also called “learning” and it’s driven by curiosity.
Curiosity allowed us to discover new ways of harnessing our environment to enhance our survival capabilities. And while our curiosity probably ended up killing a few of us, like the cat, the benefits of being curious far overwhelmed the disadvantages. How do we know this? Because the human species is still alive and kicking today and curiosity remains a fundamental part of who we are.
In the fascinating book “Why?: What Makes Us Curious”, Mario Livio, an astrophysicist and polymath, seeks to answer the question of curiosity. He writes that while there is no real definition of curiosity, a couple of types of curiosity have been identified by experiments in neuroscience:
- Perceptual curiosity – Is what we feel when something surprises us or when something happens which conflicts with our models of reality. We feel this as an unpleasant state, like an itch we want to scratch.
- Epistemic curiosity – Is our desire to know more, to expand our knowledge. It’s experienced as a pleasurable state associated with receiving a reward; it’s what drives scientific research, art and education. Like when you’re reading a page-turner and are anticipating what happens next.
The book notes that curiosity can be both unpleasant, pleasant and sometimes even a combination of both! I find that interesting. But I want to focus on epistemic curiosity here.
According to research cited by Livio, epistemic curiosity activates the dopamine reward pathways in our brain. This is huge. While troves of literature exists on dopamine and the role it plays in our brains and bodies, it’s safe to say that dopamine plays a key role in motivation.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which helps us strive, focus and find things interesting. In addition, it affects other behaviors and physical functions such as:
- Heart rate
- Pain processing
If a human being were to lose his or her capacity to produce dopamine it’s possible that person would also lose their will to live. An experiment was performed in which rats were genetically modified to block their dopamine sensitivity; the rats lost all motivation to eat, drink or mate. They died shortly afterward. While the same might not happen to humans, it does make us wonder about the key role dopamine plays in all of our motivation to achieve things.
When you follow your curiosity you activate your brain’s reward pathways. Since the more you do something the better you get at it, this means that the more you follow your curiosity, the more efficient your curiosity-fired dopamine reward pathway becomes and the more reward you get from following your curiosity!
It’s a positive feedback loop. Powered by your inborn, human desire to discover and understand the world around you.
While passion comes and goes, curiosity is a stable, self-reinforcing process which we can harness to improve our lives. This is why curiosity is a better guide than passion.
So how do we follow our curiosity?
If Curiosity Is Focused Desire, Questions Are The Focusing Lens
We follow our curiosity by questioning. According to David Hacket Fischer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, questions “are the engines of intellect, cerebral machines that convert curiosity into controlled inquiry.”
Unfortunately, our current schooling system does not encourage us to ask questions. School indoctrinates us to passively receive the knowledge which is held by a teacher. Isn’t it mind-boggling that millions of students all over the world go to school every day where they sit down to be fed, or force-fed, information day after day and not once does any teacher or school administrator ask them “What interests you?”
How are students supposed to discover what sparks their interest if they’re never encouraged to follow their curiosity by formulating their own questions? Perhaps it’s because schools were not originally designed to educate, but to form obedient workers. But that’s for another article.
The point is, curiosity is always available to guide you, it’s invitations come in the form of questions. Bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her book “Big Magic” that by following curiosity’s clues you embark on a journey of discovery. She tells a personal story about how she became curious about the flowers in her garden one day, did some research on them, and ended up writing a bestselling novel, “The Signature Of All Things” as a side-product of her inquiries.
If curiosity is an engine, questions are the driveshaft, the part which transmits the engine’s force to where it can be used. All new enterprises, fields of study and artistic breakthroughs come from a person asking themselves “I wonder…?”
The Crumbs Of Curiosity Lead To Gold
I’ll end the article with a short personal story.
Throughout my mid twenties, I didn’t know what interested me. More precisely, I believed I knew what interested me, but it wasn’t what actually interested me. So I was unproductive, unmotivated and frustrated with myself for being the way I was.
This continued until I chose to follow what I was curious about. I started with books which dealt with our human need to feel connected to others. The subject fascinated me. It still does.
I read one book, then another and another and another. With each book I read I answered some of the questions I had and some I didn’t even know I had! Inevitably, new questions would emerge for me, which I would follow, either on the internet or in another book. I had no direction, no focus; all I did was follow the trail of breadcrumbs left by my curiosity. If I read a book on history one week, the next week I might read one on popular physics; one week I would read a book on economics, the next one on spirituality. The only requirement I had in choosing the book was that I was curious about it.
Eventually a pattern started forming, a network of knowledge I could rely on to respond to the challenges I faced. At the same time, that network was a direct reflection of me; my interests, my values, my attitudes towards life. In following my curiosity I uncovered myself. That self which had always been there, but had been buried beneath a mountain “shoulds” and “haves” and “needs.” I began to define my activities by my interests, rather than by what I had been told they should be.
And that is where we become our most authentic selves, and discover our mission in life.
I hope this article has shown you the preciousness of curiosity. I’ll end with this: no matter what your past has been or what you believe yourself to be or not to be, you are curious. You have a collection of interests which no one else has, because you are a unique individual which has never existed before and never will again. You have a calling which emanates from the depths of your soul.
Are you going to listen?
To our wealth and success.