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CORRECTION: Curiosity Did NOT Kill the Cat!

Cat Eyes w fish friendWho among us has not heard this unfortunate maxim repeatedly from the time we were very young?  This cautionary saying has been brandished as a means of squelching natural human curiosity for 400+ years, when it was first penned for characters in plays by Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare.  However, some version of these sentiments has likely been in existence for millennia, serving to instill trepidation into the hearts of children and adults alike that trouble comes to those who ask too many questions!

But don’t believe it!!  Resistance is not futile!  Reawakening our innate sense of inquisitiveness and wonder is essential to cultivating our creative and innovative mindsets.  Leonardo da Vinci’s voracious curiosity led him to being rigorous in seeking ways to examine everything from a range of perspectives.   He sketched his subjects from different sides, and from above, and/or below.   The powers of observation that he honed seemed almost super human. He knew that it was only in this manner that he could come even close to understanding a thing’s essence.

As another important means for regaining fresh perspective, he encouraged people to take breaks from their work and relax or put their attention elsewhere, often to find that new ideas would then emerge.  Most of us have heard stories of brilliant insights coming to people when their minds are “unfocused,” when they are in the car, shower, bed, exercising, etc.  Einstein said he got his best ideas while shaving.  Abraham Lincoln also wrote, “Such [thoughts] often come in a kind of intuitive way more clearly than if one were to sit down and deliberately reason them out.”  It is an experience many of us have shared, having great insights emerge when we are doing something seemingly unrelated to the topic of inquiry. 

So — how curious are you?  In How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Gelb provides a “Curiosità Self-assessment.”  Ask yourself whether you:

  • Take adequate time for some form of contemplation or meditation – mental “down time” when you are not thinking about anything in particular.
  • Are always learning something new.
  • Seek out different perspectives when making important decisions.
  • Read a lot.
  • Learn from children.
  • Are skilled at identifying and solving problems.
  • Look up words you are unfamiliar with.
  • Continually learn about other cultures.
  • Know or are learning foreign languages.
  • Would be described as open-minded and curious by those who know you.
  • Love learning. Da Vinci Workbook

I highly recommend either going through Gelb’s da Vinci book or the accompanying Notebook.  Some people intend to go back through the book and do the exercises, but never get around to it.  So it might be best to just dive into the Notebook.

In short, Gelb recommends five types of exercises for cultivating our curiosity.  Helpful guidelines for these and related practices are provided in the book and workbook:

Practices such as these and others outlined in the book can encourage us to keep our inquiring minds alive while continuously helping us to expand our intellectual, expressive, professional, and interpersonal capacities.

  1. Keep a journal for a range of types of notes, observations, and questions to be contemplated.  Gelb offers good suggestions for topics.
  2. Find the right questions:
    Gelb writes: “You can increase your problem-solving skills…. [By] shifting the initial emphasis away from focusing on finding “the right answer” and toward asking “Is this the right question?
    …Instead of continually asking how to get to water, nomadic societies became agrarian and stable when they began asking, “How do we get the water to come to us?”
    Exercise: Ask the Five Whys of things, as well as What? Who? How? & Where?  Contemplate them in your notebook.
  3. Continually Learn New Things:
    “Just as iron rusts from disuse, and stagnant water putrifies, or when cold turns to ice, so our intellect wastes unless it is kept in use.”  Leonardo da Vinci
    “Your progress in learning will correlate directly with your willingness to play and embrace feelings of unfamiliarity and foolishness.”  Michael Gelb 
    a. Pick a “by when” date that you will begin to pursue your “some day” hobby now
    b. Learn a new language.  "Babies dive into learning language as early as they are able and don’t worry about sounding foolish – so can you!"
  4. Continually build your vocabulary.
  5. Nurture your emotional intelligenceBe curious about yourself.
    Differing from “self” obsession, some level of curiosity about oneself is healthy and necessary for emotional growth.  It can increase one’s self-awareness along with compassion for others and the ability to relate to them with less reactivity.  “Know Thyself” seems to have been a guiding precept for the maestro as well as for Socrates. 
    Exercise:  Ask trusted loved ones, friends, and colleagues questions such as:      
    i. What are some of my blind spots and areas for improvement? (In my hospital chaplaincy training, we called these our “growing edges.”)
    ii. What are some of my best qualities?
    iii. What can I do to be more effective, helpful, or sensitive to others?


    Gelb recommends just listening; maybe asking some clarifying questions, but avoiding the temptation to justify (as difficult as this may be).  I admit this might be bit of a scary exercise for some of us, but its value can be immense.

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