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In Retirement (and Before!), Be Curious and Conscientious

We’ve written before about curiosity, because we think it’s one of our biggest keys to happiness. (It’s also what will keep us from being doomed to 50 years of watching daytime television from our recliners. <– To be clear, we do not own recliners, and will resist as long as we possibly can!)

And if I could write an ode to curiosity, I would include a whole bunch of ideas:

Curious people are the most interesting people. Curiosity allows you to discover the things you’re most passionate about. Curiosity connects you to other people and lets you understand different viewpoints instead of shutting yourself off in an echo chamber. Curiosity lets you do things that others your age or in your situation would say no to. Curiosity makes life more fun.

We feel so strongly about the importance of curiosity that we would even say: If you’re not a naturally curious person, early retirement might not be the right fit for you, at least not yet. What you might need instead, if you’re unhappy at work, is a job change or career change. Focus on building your curiosity muscles and then think about early retirement. Because early retirement is unstructured time that requires a lot of self-direction to avoid the game show life sentence, and curiosity is the antidote.

Related post: 10 Questions to Answer to Find Out if Early Retirement Is Right for You

But, in addition to making us happier and more interesting, curiosity also does something huge for us:

Curiosity makes us live longer.

A peer-reviewed study published by the National Institutes of Health (<– clarifying this to show that it’s legit science, not pop science) showed that “Initial levels of trait and state curiosity were higher in survivors than in those who subsequently died.” In other words, more curious people live longer. Even if you adjust for all other risk factors, people who operate from a place of innate curiosity can be predicted to live longer lives than those who are content doing and thinking about the same things.

In Retirement (and Before!) Be Curious and Conscientious // Curiosity and conscientiousness are linked to happiness and longevity, and that's so important in retirement!

Curiosity Is Great, But Add Conscientiousness For Success

Curiosity is a predictor of how long we’ll live, and it’s closely linked to happiness. But curiosity all by itself isn’t as closely linked to success as you might expect. For that, we need conscientiousness.

And of course the term “success” itself is fraught with all kinds of societal expectation, so for this, just think about how you define success. Whatever that looks like. Maybe it’s achieving your big goal of reaching financial independence, regardless of what people think about you at work. You don’t have to stick to the traditional definitions.

Studies have shown that curiosity and conscientiousness are more closely linked to reaching big goals than are traditionally valued traits like high IQ. Conscientiousness is typically defined as being concerned with quality of what you produce, being highly concerned with right and wrong, and thinking through how your actions affect others.

It’s possible to be curious without being conscientious and vice versa, but the real power appears to come from the combination. And think about this example that many of us pursuing FI can relate to: We know we’re going to be leaving work at some point in the near or not-so-near future, so we allow ourselves to disengage a bit. This makes us care less about the result, and be less engaged in the work. Not only does this set us up for the opposite of success at work, but we’re now building a negative habit that will carry through us beyond work into our passion projects in retirement.

If, instead, we can find ways through curiosity to keep the work interesting, even if we know we won’t be doing it long term, we can stay engaged in it, remind ourselves how our work impacts others (conscientiousness) and keep building those high quality work muscles that we’ll carry with us into retirement, our second act, or whatever else comes next.

Related post: Don’t Check Out Early // Staying Engaged in the Home Stretch to Early Retirement

You Can’t Have Curiosity Without Uncertainty

I’ve talked to quite a few folks over the years who claim to be curious, but they are also folks — I know we all know people like this — who have all the answers. And here’s an uncomfortable truth about curiosity:

Curiosity requires uncertainty. 

If we have all the answers, then we don’t have that hunger to find the answers, or to explore if our answers might be based on incomplete information. We aren’t open to new information, we’re only open to information that affirms our inherent bias. That’s not true curiosity.

One of my favorite books is Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chodron, and as you may have surmised from our constant overplanning and navel-gazing around here, I would absolutely rather if certainty was possible in life. If we could know that our money will last our full lifetimes. If we could know that we’ll live healthily to a ripe old age. But of course we don’t get that luxury. We have to accept that everything is ultimately a guess, albeit a guess informed by lots of information that we hope ends up being relevant.

But I consider my quest for certainty in an uncertain world to be a gift, because it drives my curiosity. It makes me seek out information that challenges my world view to test if my theories actually stand up when tested. It makes me reconsider whether I’ve based plans on all available information, or only a limited set. It makes me continue to explore new activities and places because I don’t want to find out that I missed out on what would have been my favorite thing or place.

Wanting to know something for sure isn’t the same as believing we know something for sure. Make sure you know the difference. The former is based in uncertainty and curiosity, and the latter is not.

Curiosity and Conscientiousness Make Us More Empathetic

Another predictor of both happiness and longevity in retirement — especially the ages that constitute “traditional retirement” — is how engaged we are socially. I’ve written about this before (Planning for Social Interaction in Early Retirement // You Need New Friends!), because it’s super important and not something we see talked about enough. How connected we are socially has a direct impact on our mental health in all stages of life, but especially after we leave the work place and have an easier time becoming more isolated. And it’s well established that mental health plays a big role in physical health.

But if we apply curiosity and conscientiousness to this notion as well, we get to an even more positive and healthy place:

Curious and conscientious people are more empathetic.

And what’s that got to with anything? Empathy allows us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. It allows us to relate to people in very different situations. It helps us reach out to people in anguish or need.

Being curious makes us interested in those around us, instead of being comfortable isolating ourselves from them, or — in a less extreme sense — from just not interacting as deeply as we could. And being conscientious means we concern ourselves with the well-being of those around us, and consider how our actions affect them. Both of those are great qualities for staying socially engaged and successful.

Being Curious and Conscientious leads to empathy and a long life!

It boils down to this: Being curious makes us more empathetic. Being empathetic makes us conscientious of others. Being conscientious of others makes it easier to stay connected socially. Staying connected socially makes us happier and healthier. Being happier and healthier makes us live longer, with a higher quality of life. And isn’t that everyone’s goal?

Strong link between being curious and conscientious and living a long, healthy life

Practice and Cultivate

Some of us are born more naturally curious and conscientious than others, but it’s never too late to build those muscles, just as it’s not to late to build up your giving muscles by giving even before you’re 100 percent financially secure.

So often we believe that some thought pattern is just “how we think,” but in reality most are simply ingrained habits. And we can build and shift those habits through conscious choice. A good first step might simply be training yourself to ask “Why?” in response to answers you receive. Not in a combative or negative way, but simply seeking to engage more deeply. Then it might be asking other people more questions instead of talking about yourself, seeking to understand their experiences and beliefs. If you notice yourself saying, “I’d never do that” when you see someone doing something adventurous or crazy, learn to recognize that thought, and maybe even consider trying that thing.

Whatever the source of your curiosity, run with it. Cultivate it. Practice building it, even if it comes naturally. You’ll reap the benefits, and so will everyone around you.

How Do You Flex Your Curiosity and Conscientiousness?

Do you think of yourself as a naturally curious person? How do you flex your curiosity? Anybody relate to that paradox of feeling curious but also feeling like you have all the answers, or at least all the answers you need? How about conscientiousness? Do you think of yourself as a conscientious person, or is that an area where you could grow more? This is sticky stuff, and requires some introspection, but it’s so worth exploring. Let’s dive deeper in the comments!

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46 replies »

  1. Trust me, recliners don’t make the endless parade of paternity tests and hair-pulling on daytime television any better.

    A minor correction on the NIH point. Pubmed works like a card catalog of tens of thousands of peer reviewed journals (or a Google search for the younger readers). Pubmed doesn’t really publish studies itself. Some of the journals can be of very low quality that take almost everything submitted.

    A lot of bad science can sneak into journals. Here’s one example of how it was done (but it skipped peer review due to time constraints and hence didn’t get into NIH, but peer review wouldn’t have stopped it): http://io9.gizmodo.com/i-fooled-millions-into-thinking-chocolate-helps-weight-1707251800.

    Another great read is from the NY Times: https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/25/what-do-scientific-studies-show/

    I fall into the “have all the answers” type person as you can tell from the above (but it took curiosity to get there). (It only applies to a narrow domain of interests.) I don’t want to be that person and I’m looking to expand an find other areas that interest me. That’s a little more difficult than I thought it would be.

    One thing that has helped is having kids. There’s no better example of curiosity (except for maybe Curious George).

    • I am overly biased by what I saw my grandfather do in those last few years, those in all fairness, he also did active stuff too. But retirement for me will always feel like a pull toward the La-Z-Boy and the Price Is Right! ;-)

      And d’oh! Thanks for the pubmed tip. I updated the post! And kudos for recognizing in yourself the tendency to feel like you have all the answers and pushing yourself to get out of that mode, at least in little doses. :-)

  2. Oh Man – hit the nail on the head for me with this line — “And think about this example that many of us pursuing FI can relate to: We know we’re going to be leaving work at some point in the near or not-so-near future, so we allow ourselves to disengage a bit. This makes us care less about the result, and be less engaged in the work. Not only does this set us up for the opposite of success at work, but we’re now building a negative habit that will carry through us beyond work into our passion projects in retirement.”

    I’ve definitely been pulling back at work and developing some negative habits over the last year. I’m thinking ever more strongly about a career move to slow down a little before reaching FIRE, but this is a great reminder to try to keep pushing through and exercising those curiosity muscles!

    • Funny, I was just going to say the same thing! I am working in a position (temporary) that I held for 6 years and the administration above me has changed. I am having a heck of a time being positive because I know what “used to be”…. Taking it one day at a time, trying to be curious as to what they are thinking, but mainly avoiding being negative. Which is hard. Changing things up will help me too, I think. Not sure I can power through one more year and continue to exercise the curiosity muscles. I don’t want to undo the connections I have either – so that’s one more thing to consider!

      • It sounds like you’re exercising your conscientiousness muscles more than your curiosity muscles in this case! And I’m going to contradict myself and say: What’s best for YOU in all of this? Can you do that thing? I’m glad that you’re able to avoid being negative, but I hope you can get to a more positive place than that very soon! :-)

    • Agree 150% that I found myself doing this same thing and it does not (at least for me) make me more happy. Instead it made me more distracted and dissatisfied, b/c I still had to be at my job and now knew that I wasn’t where I wanted to be AND was not giving my best where I actually was. Not a good combo for one looking to increase happiness and satisfaction.

      • You really expect me to respond to your comment after you called me a donkey?!?! Hahaha. ;-) But I totally agree with you — getting to that place of disengagement is good for no one. I know there are days when I want to phone it in, but it feels important on many levels to either stay engaged at work or get the heck out.

    • It’s great that you recognize that this has been going on, so you still have time to address it! Slowing down could very well be the best solution for you, or it might make more sense to just make the conscious decision to stay curious and engaged. :-)

  3. Uncertainty and change are a fact of life. I suspect curiosities link to longetivity is mostly related to one ability to deal with that uncertainty in a positive way. Otherwise life is just one long bout of stress if your not curious where it goes next. Stress is definitely a leading cause of health issues.

    • I really bet the link between curiosity and longevity is a combo of factors, but I think you’re totally right that staying positive in the face of uncertainty has to be part of it. I also think there’s something empowering to be curious about whatever’s going on with your health, which would make you more likely to take the necessary steps to address that issue instead of just resigning yourself to some fate.

  4. I try to learn something every day that genuinely interests me. It’s really scattered sometimes, but I also think that curiosity is what turned me into someone who is (sort of) good with money. Reading, reading, reading. But listening to others and talking with people I wouldn’t normally talk with. You really don’t want to get the teacher started on learning ;) I love this post, though I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of anything in my life as linear and clean as your graphics. Ha!

    • Ha! The graphics are the consultant in me, plus I have learned that people (you and me excluded, probably!) who don’t want to read giant blocks of text. ;-) And I especially love your point about talking to those you wouldn’t ordinarily speak with. I think of airplane time as a major blessing for me on that front. I’ve sat next to folks from all kinds of different backgrounds, and have learned a ton in the process. So valuable!

  5. Really interesting research! I think of myself as curious in the sense that I like to question what I hear and think through it critically. I’m sure I’m still prone to bias but I do enjoy this type of pondering.

    I went through a period where I was not conscientious or empathetic–I just wanted to be left alone as much as possible. I realized firsthand just how depressing and lonely that existence is and was able to make some changes, while receiving a lot of boosts to help me out, too. I think what you’re pointing out here goes to show we can’t just set out to become happy by doing whatever we like as much as possible. It’s multi-faceted and involves others and our effect on the world around us. That’s so helpful to realize–thanks for backing it up with this research as well.

    • I thought this research was super interesting, too! And I love how you put it: we can’t be happy just doing what WE want all the time. Ultimately that’s isolating, or at the very least, doesn’t lead to true happiness, according to science. Definitely helps back up the world view that I think we share that we’re all best off if we do what we can to help those who need it!

  6. We consider ourselves lifelong learners so curiosity seems a natural fit for us, because there’s so much to discover in this world! It doesn’t mean you have to be curious on a single topic forever either. I get excited diving into new topics that I knew nothing about and go as deep in understanding it as I can. Eventually, I see another shiny object that catches my attention and go explore that one too.

    More often than not this curiosity leads to understanding many topics, and then the real magic happens where I’ll see how all of these ideas intersect and affect each other. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it keeps us alive and excited about life!

    • Couldn’t agree more! You don’t have to stay curious about one thing. I love to learn about new things all the time, too! I think the conscientiousness piece was a big aha moment for me, too — it’s not enough to be curious, I also have to stay committed to quality and to focusing on how my actions affect others. It’s helpful to think about!

  7. I’m reading a book called Emotional Agility and in it the author speaks about just being more curious about our thoughts instead of judging them or ourselves makes us more emotionally agile. I think being curious keeps you in the “beginners mind” mode, which means you are constantly open to new thoughts, ideas, and experiences, and that can lead to a more fulfilling life.

  8. I think I’m more conscientious than curious. I care a little too much about other people’s feelings. It’s a good trait in many ways, but it’s exhausting to care so much when you just want to be a selfish little goblin. :)

    I do think it’s important to grow creativity. My current profession isn’t creative in the least–so it’s tough to feel stimulated and joyful. It’s all about being curious about other things. For example, this weekend I cooked curry for the first time. I’m not an expert in Indian cooking *whatsoever*, but it actually turned out to be flippin’ delicious. It’s all about accepting that uncertainty and riding with it.

    • I know conscientiousness is a curse in its own way, but I wish there were more people like you in the world! We need people who consider how their actions affect others. And I love your solution — flexing your curiosity and creativity outside of work. And care to share your curry recipe???

  9. Great article and one that I will forward to our son at college! Before he was born – and my wife and I were doing ‘baby classes’ – we were asked to rank a list of 30 different attributes that we most wished for our baby. We both put ‘happy’ first, but ‘curious’ second. I like that you also take curious to include conscientiousness. Without a conscience, curiosity killed the cat! (Our son’s an Eagle Scout, so he has that in spades)

    • What a nice compliment! Thanks! It sounds like you guys had the right priorities, and I’ve often joked that if we had kids, our top priority for the kid would be “Don’t be an a-hole.” Haha. I think that’s the conscientiousness piece, even if I didn’t realize it was so connected to curiosity and happiness. ;-)

  10. I like the direction you’re taking some of these blog posts lately. Are you sure you’re not working on a psychology degree in the background? We’ve tried to stay curious and make learning new things a core part of our life without work. If we start losing that curiosity, that will be a sure sign that it’s time to do something else.

    That cracks me up that one of your favorite books is called “Comfortable With Uncertainty.” Does your bookshelf also have “In For The Long Haul: Getting the Most out of Working Until Age 70”? 😉

    • Haha! I was just wondering today if maybe I want to go do grad school after this! But then I immediately thought, “But no way do I want to pay for that! Better just stick to pop science on the internet!” ;-) I think you guys are living the curiosity mantra in a big way. And don’t dis that book! It is beautiful. :-)

  11. I used to think of myself as adequately curious. Having a toddler around has reminded me what true curiosity looks like. She is constantly discovering new things, asking a ton of questions about them, and experimenting. I have been trying to use her as a role model for my own curiosity recently (only for that though, I promise. I try hard not to emulate the rest of her borderline sociopathic toddler behaviour).

  12. Travel can be a great mechanism for this. If we pay attention to differencese and ask why people in different places and cultures act and think differently, we will likely find ourselves convinced and adopting some of their habits and beliefs.

  13. I think of myself as a mix of both.

    There are some days where my curiosity would motivate and drive me to learn the ins and outs of a topic, but then my conscientiousness would hold me back as I fear I’m not being detailed and consistent enough. And then there are days, where I’m open enough to try whatever the world throws at me.

    Life is a weird mistress.

    • Life IS weird indeed. :-) It sounds like curiosity is still a defining characteristic for you, and that seems to be what matters most. But it sounds like maybe learning not to let that conscientiousness hold you back is your key. :-)

  14. Curiosity is one of my favorite traits about myself and those around me. It made the short-list for things I was looking for in a person. She had to love herself (who she was and how she looked), she had to be out (I neglected this one), and she had to be curious. I did not care what she was curious about. I just needed someone fascinated by the world and people. I’m really glad that my 3 rules (er, 2) worked out so well.

    My teacher in the skill I’m building loves my curiosity. She never knows where I will end up in my assignments, and it is more enjoyable for her than the other students who just do anything to get it done.

    • I can totally see why your teacher loves your curiosity! It is so much more fun and interesting to engage with people who genuinely want to learn and explore. And on the partner choice, YES. So important. Mr. ONL is curious about different things than I am (like you, I care less on the WHAT), but that curiosity absolutely makes him a more interesting person!

  15. I generally have been more conscientious than curious, but there’s nothing like getting knocked down a few times for making some assumptions to make one’s uncertainty awareness a little higher. At the moment, I’m trying to read more broadly and gather in other perspectives on a number of issues. I just have to be careful that I’m not filtering out too many of the alternative perspectives.

    • High five for being so open to different ideas, especially NOW. This feels like such a weird time when people are retreating to their corners, so you rock for actively gathering other perspectives and trying to see your own filters.

  16. I’ve noticed that while I’m much more politically curious, I’ve been getting mentally flabby on the professional front. This may be a tradeoff in that I can only pay so much attention to so many things at once, or a sea change in my attitude shifting from prioritizing work over everything else in life in recent years. I still expect to perform at a high level but I’m no longer able to commit to doing that around the clock, seven days a week, and I’m ok with that change.

    Thanks to blogging, though, I’m glad that I feel like I should always have a personal outlet for the navelgazing we do so well, it helps keep my curiosity alive.

    Alongside natural empathy, I find that I’m much more conscious of how I’m being conscientious because of the JuggerBaby to whom we are trying to pass on good values and a moral compass. It’s interesting finding ways to explain why we do what we do to be thoughtful without turning ourselves into doormats for others.

    • Do you think that’s true over a long period or just true NOW, at this totally anomalous time in history? I think everyone gets a pass for how they’ve thought or felt since early November, and don’t want to encourage drawing too many conclusions from that. And as for not working around the clock anymore, that’s a good thing! I bet that actually makes you more conscientious, not less. And I am positive that parenting JuggerBaby does that too. (Btw, when will you start calling zir JuggerToddler or JuggerKid??) ;-)

  17. Goos post that makes the readers think a bit more…!

    I do consider myself curious, both private and at work. The conscientious muscle could use some more training. I tend to be happy to have the helicopter view and to stop working when it looks great when looking down from the moon. When you look from a little closer, it looks less good… Turns out it is hard for me to change, I only tend to do it when there is no back up for me. A good example is my option trading. I keep amazing myself on how well keep track of all of that. I even feel guilty when I do not log activities the minute they happen. weird…

    • So many people think in too granular a way and miss the big picture, so I don’t think it’s bad that you’re more of a big picture thinker. I think as long as you are invested in the work and consider how the quality of your work affects others, then there’s no problem there. (You don’t say that you’re neglecting projects and forcing others to work long hours to fix your mistakes — that would be bad.) ;-)

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