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.”
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!