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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!