I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.Eleanor Roosevelt
Every once in awhile I start to feel like I live in a fortress. Not the kind from fairy tales where it sits atop a dramatic cliff shrouded in a quixotic mist. I'm talking about the grey kind. The dull kind. The kind made mostly of concrete and located somewhere that's of no interest whatsoever. Like Bakersfield.
This is the fortress I've built out of painful experiences, losses, failures, comparisons, and insults. I think most of us have some version of our own dull and dreary fortress.
Inferiority, or at least the feelings of inferiority, cause us to reinforce the fortress, erecting increasingly impenetrable walls so that we can withstand an anticipated onslaught from the outside. All the while, the greatest battle is usually the one waged within.
Inferiority holds us fast. But curiosity takes us places.
I recently finished the book The Curious Mind by Brian Grazer—frequent collaborator of Ron Howard and the producer of Apollo 13, 8 Mile, A Beautiful Mind, and a whole host of other films. He prides himself on his curiosity. He asks questions. All the time. And he purposely makes himself uncomfortable for the sake of asking questions. He makes appointments with people so that he can be uncomfortable so that he will ask questions. He has made the practice of curiosity his lifelong purpose.
It got me thinking about the use of curiosity to overcome fear… or inferiority.
To be honest, almost any appointment on my calendar elicits a certain level of anxiety. If I've known the person forever, or if the purpose of the conversation is clear as crystal, I'm usually okay. But if we've never met or if I’m not sure where our talk might meander off to, I can feel the walls of my fortress closing in the closer the time comes. I conjure illogical anxieties. I worry that we'll just stare at one another with nothing to say. I wonder if I'll blurt out something that will confirm their assumptions that I'm a crackpot, or a racist, or a bigot, or a blasphemer. Maybe worst of all I worry that they'll find me boring.
Another name for all those fears… inferiority. (Welcome to an area of my brokenness.)
Lately my schedule has been filled with appointments where I can easily imagine all these scenarios playing out. But instead of fear and inferiority I've been choosing curiosity. I've been asking questions. I've been listening carefully to the answers. And I’ve been letting those answers lead me to more questions. Over and over again my fear of being boring has faded into the background as I find the other person increasingly fascinating. The more I lean into curiosity the more I'm finding story. The more questions I ask the more I'm beginning to understand what makes each person tick. When you start to get into the heart of a person it gets hard to hold real interest, empathy, and even friendship at bay.
Sure, I still choose to avoid rooms full of people now and then. Sure, I'm still painfully awkward in conversations here and there. Sure, I sometimes feel a little flutter of anxiety when I see a calendar day full of appointments. But…
Curiosity makes my fortresses fall. And it often seems to break through the defenses of the people I talk with because the more I ask questions the more they begin to trust that I care. And that's good because I really do care. I care a lot, and curiosity is helping me communicate that care.
More than anything, cultivating curiosity has the beautiful byproduct of making me brave, brave enough to relate, to learn, and to wonder. And I’ll choose that over living in a fortress any day.