The slow death of curiosity, and what we can do about it

The slow death of curiosity, and what we can do about it

“Curiosity killed the cat”.

I heard this phrase today, and immediately stopped what I was doing. For some reason, it had never occurred to me just what an awful, insipid little adage that is. What, now we really think about it, is the intended moral behind this seemingly innocuous saying? Right off the bat, unfortunately, it’s not a great start for poor old curiosity. In four words, we’re taught – via this sad little aphorism – that this virtue is not to be trusted after all. Let’s face it, the example we’re actually being given here amounts to: “the cat was curious and look what happened to him, so do you really think you’re going to do any better? Don’t be curious. Don’t try things.”

Nor is that the only example of the decline of curiosity. What about the account of Pandora’s Box? In this tale of Greek mythology, Pandora (the first woman on earth) is given, by the gods, a wedding present of a beautiful jar. There’s a catch – she is not, under any circumstances, to open it up. Of course, sooner or later, her curiosity (presumably instilled in her by these same gods and goddesses) gets the better of her, and she ends up opening it, thereby (unwittingly) releasing all evil into the world. Yet again, curiosity is apparently the one to let the side down.

It doesn’t stop at Greek mythology, either. In the Biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, God tells Lot and his wife that he plans to destroy the city of Sodom, and that they must leave immediately if they wish to stay alive and avoid the impending chaos and slaughter that awaits. God also adds the condition that under no circumstances must anyone stop or look back whilst they are making their escape.

Lot and his wife, amongst others, flee the city. Chaos ensues as the settlement is annihilated behind them, and amid all the pandemonium, Lot’s wife is unable to contain her inquisitiveness, and she looks back to see what’s happening to the city. God is – for reasons only known to Him – not best pleased, and immediately turns her into a pillar of salt.

Strike three for curiosity.


It’s not just in divine anecdotes that curiosity gets lambasted, either. All too often, we can spot its increasing absence in everyday life, and unfortunately, we’re probably not even aware of it. As an example, let’s say that your average John or Jane Doe is given the choice of two options:

  • Option A: easy and secure, but dull and unexciting
  • Option B: harder, less chance of success, but more exciting with a better outcome

Most people will, consciously or otherwise, plump for option A. We may not even realise we’re doing it, but we are – for the most part – wired to try to avoid failure, and it is thus, mostly, why deliberately opting for Option B is almost always an intellectual, measured and – above all – conscious decision. By choosing option B, what you’re really doing is putting that decision on the firing line and opening yourself up to the risk of failure, even if it piques your interest far more than the safe but tedious option A. Unfortunately, by default, most of us will go for the easy way out. Yet again, curiosity dies another small death.

Why has curiosity seemingly fallen so out of favour? I have no idea. If people are not encouraged to explore their curiosity and open up their imaginations to new possibilities, what hope do we have of innovation or progress? The only thing that comes immediately to mind is this quote:

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

– J.K. Rowling

Curiosity, then, is not something to be feared and avoided, but rather embraced and welcomed. It encourages creativity and allows us to quickly reach far outside of our comfort zone. After all, when NASA sent its brand-new, state-of-the-art rover to Mars with the aim of collecting enough data to launch an in-depth investigation into the Martian climate, what do you think they called it?

In my opinion, the best way to encourage this mode of thinking is to condense it down into one breathtakingly simple phrase: “what if?

Allow yourself the option, no matter the circumstances, of applying that magic motto to all areas of your life. Taking a moment to implement the “what if?” policy can begin to radically alter the way you view things.

For a piano player, it might be “what if… I changed this one note in this scale to a different note?” The pianist might then take the major scale, change the third to a minor third, and boom – he’s into melodic minor harmony, and a whole new world of sonic options.

The amateur chef might say to himself “what if… I substitute this herb for this other herb?” He or she may then discover a flavour combination never previously experienced, purely by changing a single ingredient. There’s absolutely no pressure to start “big” – take small chances and let the results snowball and compound from there.

On the other hand, if it’s big thinking you want, the “what if?” maxim most definitely still applies. Let’s explore this with a hypothetical scenario. We’ll follow the story of a hypothetical character and see where the “what if?” attitude takes him.

In the early 1990s, a student is two days into a PhD course at Stanford University. He has already studied both physics and business/economics elsewhere, and has received two bachelor’s degrees. Now, having finished, he has enrolled at Stanford, and is beginning his PhD in applied physics.

In short, although it’s by no means an easy path, it certainly seems – in principle at least – relatively straightforward: begin the course, learn the subject material, pass the exam. Given that this student is intelligent and hardworking, it wouldn’t be particularly complicated to follow this course to its logical completion and pick up a prestigious PhD certificate at the end of it, before then looking for a job opportunity to pursue in the industry.

However, this student follows both the news and the emerging developments in the tech industry, and hears of the potential in a brand-new invention called “The Internet”. Reading a newspaper one day, he is suddenly struck by a thought. “What if… these newspaper companies could use the internet to post their content, like maps and directory listings?” At the time, no companies are taking the internet seriously and nobody sees it as a useful – let alone profitable – option. The student thinks about it, and, deciding that the world doesn’t really need yet another PhD student – especially if a new publishing distribution option is in the pipeline for the industry – decides to drop out of college and start a company.

Several years later, the company is a huge success, and publishing content online has become the norm rather than the exception for huge companies. Having achieved precisely what he set out to do, he sells the company (his first company, no less) for $307 million. However, there’s a thought – a problem – niggling in the back of his mind, sowed there from years of working in an internet business.

“All these years, we’ve struggled with different ways of being able to give and receive payment via the internet. There’s just no easy  way to do it. What if… there were some kind of simple payment processor that allowed you to send and receive money online with just a few clicks?”

He re-invests some of his proceeds from his media company into forming a new finance company and creates the solution to the problem he used to face on a daily basis, knowing that thousands – if not millions – of other people shared the exact same problem. The company, again, is a monumental success, and several years later he sells the company – for $1.5 billion.

A lot of people, at this point, would be content to stop what they were doing and retire, possibly buying an island or six and as many obscenely fast cars as they could fit into their oversized garage complex, secure in the fact that they would never have to work another day in their life if they didn’t want to.

Not our guy. He’s too overcome with “what if?” questions, and this time he’s thinking big. “What if… there were ways to solve the biggest problems that humanity faces?”

He’s concerned about the long-term environmental impact of fossil fuels, and finds himself wondering about the advent of clean, sustainable transportation.

What if cars didn’t have to be noisy, pollution-spewing machines? What if there was a way to create a powerful, electric vehicle which didn’t need to rely on fossil fuels for power?”

The so-called transport experts sneered. “There’s no way that’ll take off,” they said. “There are no batteries that exist that are powerful enough, and even if there were, people wouldn’t want a horrible electric car over a sleek, attractive petrol-driven one anyway. And how are they going to make any real journeys if they have to go home to charge it every fifty miles? It’ll never work.”

Undeterred, our man moves forward, and the critics’ jibes have only sprung more questions within him. “What if it were possible to invent a type of battery that’s powerful enough to power a car for hundreds of miles? What if you could design an electric car that was elegant and attractive enough to rival any high-end petrol car in terms of desirability? What if there were a network of widely-available charging stations distributed across the entire country so that you could pull up, spend 30 minutes charging your car (enough time to grab a quick snack after three or four hours of driving) and then leave – without paying a penny towards any fuel costs?”

His curiosity has started a chain reaction, and within a few short years, all of the above have become a reality. His car company is arguably the first successful company to manufacture a series of wildly popular and revolutionary electric cars. His concern for the environment has not stopped, though, and he ponders further.

What if people had an affordable, economically-viable alternative to their existing, fossil fuel-based utility bills? What if they could use a sustainable substitute and actually pay less than they would for their existing energy bill, whilst allowing the energy company to still make a profit and thus expand globally? Can it be done?”

Shortly after, our protagonist launches a solar company, which quickly becomes a success and immediately starts changing the balance of power in the industry. New, hi-tech solar panels are installed – for free – on a home roof, and the homeowners pay the solar company every month for the power they are generating. However, it’s substantially cheaper than their previous energy bills, so all parties are happy.  The newcomer company has successfully disrupted the previous monopoly on the industry imposed by the big oil and coal giants, and sets into motion our guy’s ambition to change the majority of the world’s power from fossil fuels to solar.

Riding on the wave of his huge wins, our hero stops to ponder some really big questions. “What if the human race, through all its meddling, is forced into a scenario where the Earth is one day no longer habitable? What if humanity had the potential to become a multiplanetary race – potentially the biggest step in progress for life on earth since life moved from the oceans to land?”

He soon comes to the inevitable conclusion that his next company will have to be a space-related venture, but he is filled with trepidation. After all, this is classically an industry where very few dare venture, and with a couple of very rare exceptions, only governments and countries have successfully launched space-flight ventures. The critics start attacking again, and this time with renewed vitriol.

– “It costs NASA $1.5 BILLION to send the Space Shuttle on a single journey. Who the hell are you to say that you can do it better?”

– “Nobody has been on the moon since 1972. Clearly there’s just no public demand for space companies any more. Give it up!”

– “You’re just one man. If entire countries couldn’t make it to Mars, what chance do you think you stand?!”

Our man realises that the chances are probably stacked against him, but nevertheless he proceeds on anyway, filled now with the vision of “what if?”, of the possibilities of a changed world and – crucially – the grit to actually carry through with it. Now, the questions are flying from every angle.

What if… you didn’t have to pay $1.5 billion for every single space launch?” “What if… you could re-use the entire rocket for every single journey instead of throwing away huge boosters on every single launch? After all, nobody would fly if you had to throw away most of the aeroplane after every flight!” “What if… you analysed manufacturing costs from first principles and found a way to make the same rocket, but literally ten times cheaper?”

And so his rocket company was born, declaring its ambitious (not to say audacious) aim to put a living, breathing human on Mars within twenty years. Although this is the most difficult project yet, it gains traction, and before long, NASA itself cottons on to the fact that this new company is pushing the boundaries in ways that even NASA itself hasn’t yet managed – and for a fraction of the price. Realising its efficiency, NASA decides to hire the new company for several contracts amounting to billions of dollars – and yet, it’s still a huge saving for NASA. Everyone wins.

Our protagonist is now effectively in charge of three huge global companies and is working 100-hour weeks, and yet his insatiable curiosity is never extinguished. Whilst stuck in traffic on a freeway on the way to work, he begins to lament the inefficiency of the awkward road networks and begins imagining wild new scenarios.

What if… there were a way to cover great distances at great speed without having to fly and with no risk of traffic?” “What if… you could get from LA to San Francisco in half an hour? Can it be done?”

And so on, and so forth. New challenges crop up, and his constant reaction is “what if? what if?” By viewing the world through the lens of “what if?“, and – most importantly – taking action on these ponderings, he’s beginning to effect colossal change throughout the world, solving huge problems and battling many of humankind’s biggest concerns. This, then, is the logical extreme of the positive side of curiosity.

Now, that was heavy-going, and a far cry from merely switching around a few herbs in a recipe. Yet the attitude of “what if?” leads to playful, childlike imagination, and it is this imagination that gives birth to new inventions and fosters new ways of thinking – if, of course, one takes real, measurable action on those thoughts.

In case you think I’m being unnecessarily extreme with those hypothetical examples of our character above, I have a confession to make.

That was no hypothetical character.

Everything I described above was a genuine excerpt from the life of Elon Musk, a South-African born American entrepreneur. So what about those companies?

  • His idea to publish content online (in an era when nobody thought it feasible) led to him forming Zip2.
  • His finance company which allowed people to send and receive payments online? I’ve got a feeling you may have heard of it. It’s called PayPal.
  • Now, what about his electric car company? You may have heard of that, too – Tesla Motors.
  • His space company, SpaceX, is doing just fine and recently launched its Dragon v2 spacecraft (nicknamed the Space Taxi by fans), able to carry seven astronauts into space, return to Earth, and leave again within a couple of hours.
  • The solar company is called SolarCity, and within a few short years of its inception had grown to become the second-largest provider of solar power in the entire United States.

Oh, and the awesome new mode of transport that has been likened to a ground-based Concorde? The futuristic-sounding Hyperloop. (Musk doesn’t have time at the moment to oversee it personally, so he’s mentioned in interviews that if anybody would like to take the concept it and develop it themselves, he wouldn’t have a problem with it. How’s your spare time looking right now?)

It’s this openness to curiosity – and thereby to creativity – that fascinates me so much, no matter what the field or subject. Having pondered this a lot this morning, I found an opportunity to actually put it into action later in the afternoon, when practising my French.

I was revising vocabulary, and for some reason, could not seem to recall the French word for “the belt” – la ceinture. A minute would pass, it would come back again, and for some reason, I just couldn’t remember it. Then I stopped to think: “what if?”

What if there were a bulletproof way to memorise foreign-language vocabulary in such a way that it would be almost impossible to forget it or get it wrong?”

Taking my cue from certain Derren Brown memory techniques (and also from Ed Cooke’s excellent language resource Memrise), I decided on an unconventional way to memorise this vocabulary, seeing as learning by rote was proving ineffective. The word that I wanted – la ceinture (“the belt”) sounded phonetically similar to “centaur”, a mythological creature with the body of a horse and the head and torso of a human. However, with a clever tweak, I found a way to incorporate the gender of the word into this image (French nouns are either masculine or feminine, so the word for “the” can be either le or la).

Instead of just imagining a centaur, I imagined a bright pink, female centaur with exaggerated makeup and lipstick, with a head full of bright, platinum-blonde hair. She’s wearing huge, dangling hoop earrings and furiously chewing gum (with an imitation burberry handbag slung across her shoulders), but the main and most curious feature is that she’s wearing a huge belt around her torso with a HUGE, circular belt buckle decorated in horrendous, tacky fake gemstones, which glitz and sparkle so much that you’re in danger of being blinded if you look directly at it.

This may be a stupid example, but it’s precisely because it’s so stupid that it’s likely to actually stick. Now, whenever I think of a belt, I recall the pink female centaur, and I remember both the gender of the word (female) and the word itself (ceinture, very similar to centaur).

I find this extremely effective, and it’s because I followed the formula as outlined below.

PROBLEM       –       “What if?”       –       SOLUTION

Next time you’re struggling with something – anything – stop and think. Take your curiosity, and feed it. If you’re raising children, encourage them to explore their curiosities and let their imaginations run wild. After all, a lot is possible when you re-evaluate life through the lens of “What if…?”

  • A rather brilliant bit of writing, albeit a fairly hefty one. I shan’t waste time. Curiosity is the fuel of skepticism – skepticism is the engine of innovation – change scares people – therefore curiosity needs to be curbed. Eve eating the apple is another example of this ludicrous logic at work. Understandable in an age where everything was dangerous and almost nothing was easy. But that’s not the world we live in now.

    Here’s my suggested update:

    Curiosity made the cat enjoy his 10-15 year stint on this planet.