An active interest in things—an engaged, experimental mindset—is an essential tool for any creative person, professional or otherwise. It keeps you agile, attentive and youthful. And it leads to the improvement of ideas.
Expanding your knowledge by pursuing different possibilites with a keen rigor inevitably results in a broad and sizable knowledge base. That breadth has a multiplier effect—you're able to understand different points of view, and see how a problem solved in one scenario could work in a similar way elsewhere. If you play it right, over time you give yourself the superpower to independently reframe your ideas more optimistically—while carefully considering the risks and realities of starting an adventure. In other words, you're able to give yourself more options for solutions while others may be stuck in a “this is how we've always done it” or "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" kind of thinking.
Curiosity has to be nurtured. It has to be refined, trained, and weaved into your life so that you are are always pushing yourself toward better questions—to develop both intellectual and emotional intelligence.
I have done a few things deliberately to fine-tune my own curiosity. The common thread in them is paying attention to my interests in relation to my circumstances, and watching how they evolve over time. Often, looking back makes it possible to “connect the dots”—as Steve Jobs mentioned in his famous Stanford speech—to see how seemingly trivial interests, small questions and the ability to connect disparate ideas might lead to larger projects, or areas of study.
Stepping out of your comfort zone, in a calculated way, is a great mental exercise for developing new insights through curiosity. Something interesting happens when you start to pursue activities that are not directly connected to your work. Sometimes it's the new, surprising perspective a painter picks up from taking up a martial art. A sculptor may understand a principle of the art-making process better by taking up gardening or a sport. However nonlinear or oblique, things look and feel decidedly different after being exposed to a new way of doing things. When you return to your studio, old ideas may keep their shape but their colors will likely have changed. They will become clear in a way you never expected. Decisions will be affected.
I learned very early on to be fascinated by what other people do. As a teen I worked for a man who ran a small T-shirt design shop on the outskirts in Dubai. Gunter would meet with clients from various professions who needed custom printed shirts for their corporate special events. The range of customers was wide: car dealers, bakery owners, bankers, commercial pilots, fiberglass factory proprietors, concrete cutters…the list goes on. What was astonishing to me was how he was able to have in-depth conversations with all of these people. In their technical lingo. It was impressive and I wanted to be like him because I could see how his life had a richness about it. Looking back, it becomes easier for me to understand why I have so many interests.
Changing my personal perspective on a problem—looking at it through an entirely different persona—is another way to make it easier to ask myself better questions. I/we forget how much we look at things through our own biases and limitations. By giving myself the opportunity to imagine something from the perspective of someone of another gender or orientation, a different country, a different race, or with different financial means, I'm able to tackle the same problem and its circumstances from an entirely different angle. It may not be entirely resolved, but I will have an entirely different perspective. That alone is a stepping stone to something interesting.
Turning an activity or event into a game—gamifying it—is another tactic that I have used from time to time to keep that muscle active. After picking the aspects of my own performance I'd like to see improve, I go comparing my “scores” with those of my peers who have been immersed in it for a little while. It is a good opportunity to start asking why I get the results I get, and why they get the results they get. The goal is not to simply improve my score—although that would be great. No, I make it a point to push and probe and learn something unique and unexpected in the process. Otherwise it is simply not interesting enough to pursue.
But there's a larger point to cultivating curiosity than just developing it to further your own work or project. Corporate culture has quietly worked to replace human work with more “friction-free”, seamless, automated substitutions that make sense economically, but add non-economic, sometimes intangible costs—if you're paying attention. We think nothing of the things around the product or service that disappear when we choose the more factory-made, non-human version. Often, by the time it arrives on our doorstep, the difference might just be aesthetic. We don't think too much about how things are made or the care around them and what gets lost or missing in the difference.
When I get my shoes re-soled, for instance, I have the opportunity to actually meeting the skilled craftsman whose work and experience I am purchasing. How often does that kind of interaction happen anymore? Consider that he's been doing it for longer than I've been alive, so when he makes a recommendation about how he's going to fix something, I listen because his is a custom, specific answer to my question—not a generic averaged-out response. If I'm lucky I'll get a layman's lecture on the physics of leather, how some protective agents react to moisture over time, or how New York City concrete affects soles. It's the rare opportunity to meet an artisan, someone whose work I will immediately use. And that richness will never show up on a profit-and-loss statement.
The bottom line is this: A life steeped in curiosity is like a life spent with a sharpened blade. Life will present itself with its variety of circumstances, and if you stay curious and interested, you will be ready and adaptable for them. As creative people, remaining open and engaged is vital to being relevant, more now than ever before. It is when we are open, when we interact and question what part of our humanity is quietly being excluded from the everyday transactions of living, that we can begin to “customize” our personal values, decide more clearly how we want to live, what we want to cherish in the long term and what we will keep as part of our life's style—without losing something essential in ourselves.