Fostering a Spirit of Lifelong Curiosity // Staying Young in Retirement

last week, while flying home from the week’s work trip, i was chatting with the woman sitting next to me. (this is not another flying story post — not to worry!) ;-) she made a comment about how we seemed to be waiting longer to take off than the larger jets that kept passing us. i responded that regional jets are the lowest priority aircraft at most airports, and air traffic control tries to get the bigger jets out fastest, something i’ve learned time and time again flying on little rj’s. this kicked off a conversation about airplanes — how to spot a 787, which row numbers always signal an exit row on certain airlines, which runways they use in which conditions at this particular airport — at the end of which the woman said, “you know a lot about planes. that’s rare for a woman. why is that?”

i thought for a moment, and realized that, though i like planes well enough, there’s actually nothing special about aviation or aircraft to me. and i responded, “i’m just a curious person. since i fly a lot, i like knowing about flying.” her response: “well that’s even more rare.”

is it?

this exchange made us both wonder: is curiosity actually rare among adults? kids are naturally inquisitive, and love exploring and learning about their environment. so why not adults, too? curiosity is generally a way to broaden one’s horizons, while in many ways the process of growing up is about narrowing them back down: selecting a course of study to the exclusion of others, choosing a focused career path, choosing a singular life partner, settling down somewhere but not somewhere else. does becoming an adult beat that curiosity out of us? or is it that tired old adage about killing the cat? (what did the cat ever do to you, curiosity?)

we feel super lucky to have somehow retained our spirit of curiosity, and we think it will serve us well in our (hopefully) very long retirement, since we think curiosity is a big part of what will keep us from getting old too fast. the brilliant neuroscientist oliver sacks, who just recently died, authored this wonderful piece in the new york times a few years back on learning as we get older, especially learning new skills and ideas, and how essential they are to staving off cognitive decline. we think curiosity is a key driver in being open to learning new things, and we aren’t taking our current curiosity for granted! here’s our plan for fostering a spirit of lifelong curiosity to keep our minds nimble and active for decades to come:

keep asking questions — and answer them! to us, there are no idle questions. if we wonder about something, we don’t just let that thought drop. we look it up. it’s easier than ever, now that we all carry super computers around in our pockets. in those cases when we can’t look it up, usually because we’re out of cell range, we make a note of it, and look it up later. this way, we’re constantly learning new information, which is interesting on its own, but also forces our brains to keep developing and maintaining pathways, rather than letting them atrophy. (this may not matter now, in our 30s, but it sure will in our 70s!)

let some questions remain unanswered — for a time. learning the answer to a question is great, especially if that answer is not something that can be deduced. like you want to know if hallelujah was written by leonard cohen or jeff buckley, or whether granite is an igneous or metamorphic rock. (do we know how to party or what?) in those cases, look it up. but sometimes, the gain is not in learning some fact, but in allowing yourself to ponder something, to philosophize, to work out a solution to a subjective problem. in these cases, we don’t look it up right away, and instead try to give ourselves a day or two, sometimes longer, to mull it over, like all of us had to back before the internet and smartphones.

seek out new ideas. we love free “mooc” services like coursera and edx, which let anyone take a full college course online for free, along with a few thousand others. we’ve taken some classes on super random topics that have nothing to do with our work, just because we were curious about the topics, and we plan to keep doing this. (we’ve just started the “science of happiness” course via edx, if you want to join us!) we try to do the same thing at the library, too — it’s easy just to pick out the books in our tried and true topics, but we make a habit of grabbing a book on a random subject every once in a while, just to learn about something new. we’re now quite conversant in art heists, for example, and the history of the british monarchy. (by the way, three cheers for queen elizabeth ii, officially making it to be the longest serving british monarch! wonder if she’s ever considered early retirement? doubt it.) :-)

learn new skills. this one can be intimidating, especially as we get older. somewhere it got drilled into our heads that the best time to learn a language is young, which implies that it’s hopeless to try when you’re older. well too bad, we’re gonna try anyway! we recently bought a spanish language course that we will both study, to supplement our respective french and german. we’ve also taken classes to up our cooking game, and have tried hard to do as much of our home renovation work diy style, as much to learn as to save money. and new physical skills are good too — we hope to try at least one new sport or variation on a sport each year in retirement, just as we’ve learned as adults how to mountain bike, climb mountains, run long distances and backcountry ski.

mimic children. no one is better at curiosity than children. and children thrive when given the opportunity to follow their curiosity where it leads them. though we don’t have kids of our own, we often get the chance to spend time with children of friends, as well as our niece and nephew. when we hang out with them, we try hard to get on their level. if they’re working out a problem, like how best to construct a lego helicopter, or how to build the optimal blanket fort, we try to take our cues from them, and work it out with them according to their logic system, rather than just pointing out the obvious (and boring) adult answer. this results in some mind-bending for us, because it forces us to think differently, and makes them feel supported, because we didn’t just tell them the right answer. win-win.

talk to strangers. okay, don’t give this bit of advice to kids! but for us, we’ve found that talking to strangers yields unexpectedly wonderful things, and has gotten us into some of our most thought-provoking conversations. just like on the internet, it’s easy in real life to surround ourselves only with like-minded people who share our views on politics, religion and money, and limit contact with people who think differently. though natural, this way of aligning our social circles vastly limits our ability to understand people who are different from us or have different views. it also spares us from the beneficial challenge of having to get outside our social comfort zone. the solution: talking to strangers. we’ve talked to strangers on planes, trains, ski lifts — you name it. sometimes just asking, “where are you headed?” can kick off a great conversation. and it forces this introverted extrovert to act like a legit extrovert, which is a valuable thing too, especially because the tendency is to get more introverted with age.

those are are strategies for staying curious and learning all through our lives. what did we miss? how do you foster curiosity in your own life? or think this whole notion is overrated? ;-) please share in the comments!

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54 replies »

  1. I personally think that curiosity is a great thing to have, but people seem to have their curiosity extinguished over time.

    If I am ever trying to learn something, understanding why it is so is often as understanding the fact I the first place, but people are the surprised when I ask “Why?”!

    I hope that I never lose my curiosity – life would become very boring without it!

    • Why is that — that people are surprised when others ask “why”? As a deeply curious person, it feels like people should expect and enjoy that question! But I think you’re right — curiosity gets extinguished over time. Ah well, all we can do is try to retain it as individuals!

  2. I think curiosity in adults is perceived very differently than in children. When it’s a kid, they’re just doing what they do (i.e. learn), when it’s an adult they’re being “weirdly obsessive” or something. Once I bought my condo, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out its architectural style, even attempting to see if it was a specific model of a Sears home. I remember people I knew laughing a little at my search but it was intriguing to me! I feel lucky that at my workplace we’re very much encouraged to ask questions (very academic-esque environment) so I don’t think I’ve ever lost the mindset of asking why.

    • Haha — So true. Fortunately, I got over worrying about seeming like a weirdo long ago. :-) And how wonderful that your workplace has a culture that encourages questions — that’s rare!

  3. I’m the same in that I don’t like leaving questions unanswered, especially now, as you pointed out we all have supercomputers in our pockets. I also like to not head straight to google though if it’s a question that I may be able to figure out with a little thought.
    Having kids helps with retaining that curious side or it’s there to tap if you choose to engage them and not give “the boring adult answer”. It’s amazing how their brains and logic systems work.

    I plan on playing more banjo and guitar, and finally taking time to get better on the dobro. Yeah! We also plan on working on language, but have found it hard to implement with our schedules. I guess the commute could be a good time for me to work on that.

    • Love your musical focus! And as for language, don’t pressure yourself — we probably won’t get through the full Spanish program while we’re still working, but it’s top of the list when we retire! Dobro….. wow!

  4. I do a little bit of each one of the things you listed. The main one I struggle with is actually learning new physical things. I want to learn to dance with Hubs, we want to learn how to curl, .. these things require going somewhere and taking a class or being instructed. These types of things get put off :(

    I’m a curious introvert. I ask a lot of questions. I retain most of the information and call them my fun facts. I have more of a random trivia brain than a deep knowledge of any particular subject. I don’t feel like I know a lot, and compared to other trivia heads, I know nothing. But compared to the everyday desk jockey, I’m a genius!…. or I just work with a lot of uncurious people.

    One of my favorite things to do is map things that are happening in the world. Like the Boston Bomber was caught a mile from my mother-in-law’s childhood home, where I stayed 2 years prior to the bombing. I may or may not have Street-viewed the Subway guy’s house.

    • Love that you may learn to curl — do it!!! Dancing too. And I love you more for being a map nerd, too. I always look out the window on planes, and try to piece things together. I may or may not have had Google Earth open on quite a few flights, and try to figure out what landmarks I’m looking at. :-)

  5. I think about this often and have a very similar post about 90% written that has been sitting waiting for me to finish it about 2 months. My daughter is in the Why? stage where no matter what we say to her, she responds by asking “Why?”. As any parent will tell you this is maddening, yet at the same time really cool and exciting. As much as I want say “Just do it” or “Because I said so” I fight that urge as much as possible and try to encourage that curiosity.

    If you think about it, the curious spirit and willingness to question things is why you, we and anyone else on the early retirement path is on it. People get caught in following the herd and all doing the same things like taking out loans for college, buying a new car not because they need or even really want one but because they can “afford the payment”, buy the biggest house they can afford rather than think about what they actually want or need and giving their money over to a financial advisor because it is too complicated to figure that stuff out for yourself. All of these things are typically done because “that’s what people do” and all are easy to reverse just by questioning things a little. All have MASSIVE impacts on your life.

    Keep being curious!

    • Good for you for answering your daughter’s “why”s. I’m positive that my parents didn’t ever do the “because I said so,” which I feel sure would have discouraged my curiosity. I think they made a real effort to answer my questions honestly or — as I got older — ask more questions back to challenge my thinking. I’ll forever be grateful for that! And couldn’t agree more — FIRE is definitely an approach for people who question the status quo, and thank goodness for that! :-)

  6. Cheers to you both! I absolutely love this post & the notion of remaining curious throughout life regardless of what age you are. :) Since graduating college, I’ve realized that learning outside of the institutional level can be a struggle when you do not have that built in structure. Since then, I’ve decided to embrace my growth mindset and dive right in to new things that I wasn’t exposed to before. I always enjoyed the concept of find yourself in rooms where you are not the smartest person, then fire away all the questions you can muster! Another way I foster curiosity is discovering new events in town (or towns nearby) featuring art, exotic cuisines, and vendors who display their passions. A wonderful example of this is the Saturday Market in Portland (we have a small one in Eugene as well, but PDX takes the cake). It’s an open air market that attracts all types of people, backgrounds, music, animals, costuming, you name it! Naturally, I like to observe people (it’s the Communication Major in me, I’m all about non-verbals) so events like this are incredible and definitely peak my curiosity. Do you have any free events in your city that would allow for exposure to new ideas/people/cultures and the like?

    • Love your approach of observing different people and settings. We live in a resort town, so have a continual influx of new people. We try to talk to them, which is a stretch for us, just as we try to on airplanes. Don’t think I mentioned this in the post, but we also try to talk to people who are different ages from us — young and old alike. We learn a ton that way!

  7. Hey ONL,

    That is a great list of ides to keep learning. I do believe like you that being curious and leaning new skills is the way to stay young of spirit and heart.

    The way you play with children is such a good piece of advice. Rather than giving the answer, go and think with them. Loving it. I will give it a try here at home


  8. My favorite questions start with “why.” I see no problem with questioning, whether the goal is to understand or to challenge the status quo. Some may see these “why” questions as juvenile, but I’m ok with that–young mind, young heart. :)

    P.S. One of my favorite songs of all time is Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah.”

    • That’s so great — “why?” is one of the most important questions there is, so keep going!
      P.S. I love the Buckley version, but the Mr. prefers the Cohen version, and found out that Cohen’s is the original. :-)

  9. Hah! I just enrolled in a Coursera class called “A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment” – taught by a business professor (https://www.coursera.org/learn/happiness). The one y’all are taking looks great too!

    I love the idea of letting questions remain unanswered. Critical thinking is a skill that seems to be going out the window now that we can look everything up on the internet. Sometimes when I have a problem, I try to work out the solution, then read up on why my solution worked/ didn’t work. I think learning the why’s is important to fostering curiosity.

    • Ooh — maybe I’ll have to double up on MOOCs this fall! (Okay, not really — slightly panicked at finding the time to do the one.) :-) Love your approach to answering questions — giving yourself time to mull it over before looking anything up. Keep that up!

  10. Before our son was born, my wife and I took a pre-baby class. I remember one of the exercises was for us to individually rate 35 different personality traits that we wished our child would excel in. After we finished, we looked at each other’s lists. My wife and I both picked “curiosity” first – I guess that’s why we have been together for 25 years. 😃

  11. I’ve been trying to learn Cambodian for a long time! And I love reading about new things, but I can’t throw the facts around like you can (that’s Mr.T). I forget it all so quickly. But I love fostering curiosity in my children. My husband and then-6-year-old daughter had a long conversation prompted by her saying “so… if you’re standing on the North Pole, is every direction South?”

    • Love that you all have such a strong connection to Cambodia. As for remember factoids, I don’t think that’s important — I think the learning and asking questions is the important part, whether or not you retain the information. And so great that you foster your kids’ inquisitiveness! :-)

  12. I think it’s sad that people lose their curiosity as they grow older. I am constantly seeking new things to learn. Sometimes too much! I’m currently signed up for 6 edx and coursera courses and can’t keep up. There’s just way to many fascinating and interesting things in this world to not be curious. This is great advice, and I hope more people begin to see the value in it and learn to ask “why” more often.

    • Haha — Yes, I think 6 MOOCs at one time is too much! I can barely handle one at a time in addition to work! But man, I’d take ’em all if I could find the time. :-)

  13. This is a great list. I like how you included talking to strangers too. It seems that lately, there are too much bad news around the world that sometimes make us apprehensive of interacting with strangers, but it is a great way not only of learning new things but also of learning more about yourself – the connection you are able to create, the sympathy you are able to give, the kindness you are willing to share. As for me, I think of myself as a forever student. I like learning new things, new skills. New information is always interesting for me. I had a boss who encouraged asking questions and every time someone said ‘this is a stupid question…’ he’d always say ‘don’t be silly, there is no such thing as a stupid question for someone who likes to learn.’ That resonated with me.

    Which Spanish language course did you buy? I’ve been learning Spanish on and off for a few years now but I’m not progressing because I have no one to practice with. I can read, write and speak very basic sentences but I get stuck in conversations. Have you tried Duolingo?

    • Talking to strangers definitely forces me out of my comfort zone, but I think that’s a good thing! In addition to your great point that it helps humans connect with each other, in spite of all the bad news that makes us want to disconnect and separate. You totally strike me as a lifelong student, so it’s no surprise to read your comment to that effect. :-) And the Spanish program we bought is “Living Language” — it was the best combo on Amazon of low price and good reviews! But we haven’t done it yet, so I can’t comment on how good it is. Haven’t tried Duolingo!

  14. I actually annoy my wife but if we ever question something, I will almost always try and look up the answer right away. While I could definitely improve my curiosity to things outside of my current activities and interests, I do try and continue to ask questions and learn more.

    • That’s so great — not the annoyance part, but the asking and answering questions part! Staying curious and nimble of mind is so important as we get older! :-)

  15. This is a great topic to write about. I think that while we all probably have the time during our working years to pursue some of these educational topics (like you guys are), retirement – and especially EARLY retirement – is prime-freaking-time for getting more involved in the education that you actually want to learn about.

    I’ve looked at some of the courseware offerings – for me, I always wanted to be a meteorologist (aka: a “weatherman”), and one of my goals in retirement is to take a few free courses online in weather/climate/meteorology. Unfortunately, those have been tough for me to find (if you do happen to stumble on anything, please let me know). The best that I’ve been able to find is this:


    But anyway, I think staying curious is not only healthy for any human being, but having the free time during the day to pursue these topics of curiosity is one of the best parts about retiring early and devoting your life to something that you actually want to be doing.

    …retirement, it ain’t far off! :)

    • How cool that you always wanted to be a weatherman! Some of the best blogs I know, in terms of thoroughness of information, are those written by snow forecasters in ski regions. (Good example: http://mammothweather.com/howards-forecast/.) Maybe that can be your new calling! :-) I’ll definitely let you know if we come across any great resources for you. How you feel about weather is how I feel about geology — there was never going to be a future in it, but I can’t wait to dive headfirst into it once we have time to spare!

  16. I don’t think I’ll ever have a problem staying curious. Whenever I want to learn about a topic I research it endlessly until I feel I have a decent grasp. Lately that’s been power lifting and personal finance. Maybe next it will be RVs or international travel. I also want to take some free Coursera courses, but can’t make the time right now. Those will definitely happen in FI/RE.

    • We’re the same way! When we find an interesting topic, we go down the rabbit hole of wanting to learn everything about it. Can’t wait until retirement, when we’ll actually have time to learn a lot more!

  17. So I had to comment based on the main photo for the post! I love this statue (?) guy and drive by him frequently. Looking forward to the opening just out of sheer curiosity (so I suppose that’s relevant to the post too)! Not trying to expose your location or anything, just fun to see something local posted – or at least I assume there aren’t many similar statues/sculptures out there! Just found the blog this morning and really enjoy it so far.

    • That’s so funny — where we saw this guy was at a temporary event! So I have no idea where he might live permanently, assuming it’s the same one. ;-)

      • That is funny! He’s in the West, Santa Fe to be more precise. He has a huge spider friend now as well. They’re part of a futuristic interactive art museum that’s being built (no idea what that means, but it sounds intriguing — you can look into Meow Wolf if interested). Hopefully your traveling friend found a nice permanent home here ;-).

  18. That’s funny you mention that snow forecasters seem to write well – I used to follow one from the Keweenaw region of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (JohnDee.com) because of his fantastic forecasts but he also has kept a journal for years and readers have seen him go from bachelor to married with child in their dream house. I don’t visit often but when I think of it it’s an enjoyable read.

    • I love that! These days I read many more avalanche advisories and forecasts than snow forecasts, and I wish they had an equal way with words, but sadly no. ;-)