Intellectual Curiosity: What is it and How to Use it?

Intellectual Curiosity

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During my Mechanical Engineering undergrad, I learned about the 5 Whys technique to determine the root cause of a problem. The technique involves starting with the problem and asking “Why?” five or more times to get to the root cause. This constant stream of questions can also be really helpful when learning a new skill. Acquiring knowledge and learning a new skill requires a healthy foundation of wanting to know more. Intellectual curiosity can help you peel the layers off to get to the heart of a topic and grow.

Intellectual Curiosity: Quick Look

What is Intellectual Curiosity?

Intellectual Curiosity is a marker of a person's inclination to acquire knowledge and learn more naturally. It refers to a deep desire to keep asking why and go beyond just surface-level knowledge. This makes learning a lot more organic and less like a chore.

Intellectual Curiosity highlights a person’s interest in learning and knowledge acquisition. It makes exploring a subject more natural by asking more questions. Being intellectually curious also helps in developing a beginner’s mind which can help you avoid being trapped by your expertise in a subject.

This characteristic trait has been practiced by some of the greatest minds. Albert Einstein was known for his rebellious approach to explore ideas and he believed in constantly questioning things.

β€œThe important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day.”

Other personalities like Richard Feynman, Benjamin Franklin, Charlie Munger, and Warren Buffett are some good examples.

Why is Intellectual Curiosity Important?

Importance of Intellectual Curiosity

Intellectual Curiosity can help in making better decisions, better learning, and even problem-solving. Being intellectually curious can also help you contribute meaningfully to your field. Let’s look at some of the reasons why it is important.

1. Makes Learning Better

Being intellectually curious makes you more involved with the subject and the learning process. Using a technique like Elaboration makes you intellectually curious about what you are studying because you keep delving deeper into the subject. Navigating through the different levels of learning as per the Dreyfus Model comes a lot more naturally. As per the model, navigating your journey from a novice to an expert has challenges at each stage. Your inclination toward learning a subject, makes it feel less like a homework assignment from a boring professor and more like a fun internal conversation. Research has also shown that Intellectual Curiosity or a “Hungry Mind” is an important indicator of academic achievement.

The Dreyfus Model also talks about how you start to apply the rules you learned to new situations. These contribute a lot to learning about real-world situations. The constant stream of questions helps you better navigate real-world situations which can help in monetizing your skill in the future.

2. Helps in Decision-Making

In an article titled, “The Business Case for Curiosity” in the Harvard Business Review, Francesca Gino said:

“When our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more creative solutions.”

According to the article, curiosity helps in avoiding Confirmation Bias: the tendency to avoid conclusions that prove our beliefs wrong. Being curious helps you be a lot more rational in terms of decision-making.

3. Helps in Problem-Solving

The article also mentions how cultivating curiosity in a business can help in handling external pressures and uncertainty. Without the continuous learning component, you tend to derive your solutions from a narrower knowledge base. However, curiosity and continuous learning can combine to help you expand your knowledge base. This wider knowledge base enables you to visualize a wider range of options which helps in better problem-solving.

In the book Good to Great, confronting the brutal facts is one of the principles that help a company achieve greatness. Confronting the brutal facts helps you recognize the underlying issues. Being intellectually curious helps in making better decisions and devising appropriate solutions. Read a summary of Good to Great here.

4. Leads to Better Employment Opportunities

As seen above, intellectual curiosity helps you become a better learner, make better decisions, and solve problems better. These are some of the traits that make you an ideal entrepreneur or employee. However, adding these skills to your resume or your LinkedIn profile is probably not going to make you stand out. Projects or past experiences where you have exhibited these traits will definitely help you stand out. Viewing situations as learning opportunities and coming up with creative solutions under pressure can be beneficial to your business or employer.

5. Helps you develop a Growth Mindset

You are challenging yourself and learning more along the way. You handle pressure well and you stick it out through tough situations. This helps you develop a Growth Mindset. Having a Growth Mindset is also an essential component of developing a Millionaire Mindset.

Your Intellectual Curiosity fuels you in becoming better every day. You face challenges better and also learn from your failures. This feedback loop of learning from your mistakes supercharges your knowledge acquisition.

Learning Better Using Reflection

Reviewing what you learned after you have learned something from a life experience or in a classroom is called Reflection. Reflection can be a great habit to develop in order to make more sense of what you learned. This involves delving deeper into what you learned, the key ideas, examples, and relating the new knowledge to what you already know. Reflection can also help in developing a beginner’s mind.

Reflection is one way to be intellectually curious and it involves several different activities according to the authors of Make it Stick.

  1. Retrieval: Retrieval involves recalling what you learned recently. Read this post to know how you can use Retrieval Practice to learn better. Combining Retrieval with other techniques like Spacing and Interleaving can help retain the information to recall when needed.
  2. Elaboration: Elaboration involves connecting what you already know to the newly gained knowledge. It can also help in retrieving what you have learned much more naturally.
  3. Generation: When you rephrase key ideas in your own words and also think about what you will do differently the next time, you tend to learn better. This is also one of the motivations behind using the Feynman Technique. Writing down what you learned can help you reflect better on a topic.

When reading or studying something, Active Reading is another skill that you can use to actively engage with the material. Stoking your curiosity and absorbing information becomes a lot more organic when you read actively. Read this post to learn more about Active Reading.

Intellectual Curiosity Examples

Here are some short examples of how intellectual curiosity can be applied in the real world. Because of its broad application and scalability, it can be used at home when you cook something or at a corporation with thousands of employees.

5 Whys

One of the techniques used to identify the root cause of an issue is the 5 Whys technique. It involves asking “why” the problem is occurring. Typically, you tend to identify the root cause by asking “why” 5 times but it is not a set number. It could take you more or less “whys” to identify the root cause. Let’s understand it better with a simple example.

5 Whys Example Infographic

Asking “why” 5 times led us to the actual root cause and not the surface-level issue. We usually tend to harp on the surface-level problem but using techniques like 5 Whys can make you see a little clearer and deal with the real issue.

Boeing: Learning from the Past

When Boeing first introduced the 737 and 747 planes, they came with some serious issues. In order to not repeat these issues with future products, they set up an employee group of senior and experienced employees called Project Homework.

Project Homework had to review and compare the development processes of the 737 and 747 models with the 707 and 727 models which are two of their most successful planes. They put together everything they learned in a booklet and all this experiential knowledge was to be used for future projects. The lessons learned were used to create the 757 and 767 planes which were the most successful and error-free launches in the company’s history.

How to Develop Intellectual Curiosity?

Let’s look at some ways that can keep you intellectually curious.

1. I Don’t Know

Saying “I don’t know” can be a great start to exploring a new subject. Exposing gaps in your knowledge can feel embarrassing at times. But it is much better than fumbling through a cooked-up response in front of experienced individuals. Even if you do manage to convince the people around you that you have the answer to everything, you shut yourself from learning and understanding the subject. “Experts” on TV or Social Media come out guns blazing to give their hot-takes on politics or macroeconomics. But how well-thought-out are those responses?

This projection of the breadth of knowledge you possess can also make you immune to contradictory information due to Confirmation Bias. Recognizing gaps in your knowledge can give you some direction on what you need to learn about going forward.

Charlie Munger once said:

β€œAcknowledging what you don’t know is the dawning of wisdom.”

2. Ask (Dumb) Questions

Just like saying “I don’t know”, asking “dumb” questions could make you feel that you are inexperienced compared to those around you. But it could also shut you off from understanding something better.

One of the driving factors behind being intellectually curious is asking questions. There might be people in the same room who are afraid to ask the “dumb” question for the same reason you are. Getting answers to your dumb questions is a stepping stone in developing intellectual curiosity.

Carl Sagan, in his book The Demon-Haunted World, emphasized the importance of asking questions.

“There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question.”

3. Do What Interests You

It looks easy to follow the herd in a lot of cases. But it eventually becomes just another fish out of water story. You could also have a fear of failing or just keep procrastinating on doing what you really want to. Doing something that you just don’t like only pushes you away from the subject. Following your interests and passions keeps you invested in the continuous learning process more naturally. Forcing yourself to learn something you just don’t relate to is futile. Having an inner scorecard can help you know and stick to what you need to do instead of following the herd.

Warren Buffett concludes a lot of Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholder letters by saying how he feels like “Tap Dancing to Work” because of his work and the people around him. Genuine love for what you do can propel growth which only makes you more curious about the subject. Derek Sivers, the author of Anything you Want, summarizes this really well.

“Whatever excites you, go do it. Whatever drains you, stop doing it”

4. Familiarize yourself with Diverse Topics

David Epstein argues in his book Range about how specialization is the exception and how generalists tend to excel. He studies successful athletes, performers, scientists, etc. to come to this conclusion. According to the case made in Range, generalists work on multiple interests and are more creative.

Having a diverse knowledge base helps you think on a topic from multiple angles. Thom Yorke, the lead vocalist of Radiohead, keeps trying to refresh the music he composes. When he feels like his music is getting stale, he tries to write music with an instrument he is not familiar with. This diversifies his music knowledge while at the same time it keeps him sounding fresh on every album.

5. Learn from Past Experiences

Learning from yourself, more specifically, your past self is a superpower in itself and can make you intellectually curious. Your past experiences are a mixed bag of positive and not-so-positive outcomes. The first step in learning from your past experiences is to acknowledge and accept reality (especially if things went wrong). Acceptance helps you delve into the real root of the issues.

Once you train yourself to trace back your steps after an experience (positive or not), you start picking up on things that work and those that don’t. When you learn from your past actions to grow, you inevitably develop a growth mindset which is an essential component of The Millionaire Mindset. Without training yourself to learn from your past experiences, you tend to fall into old habits and repeat the same mistakes again.

6. Learn from Others

Learning from others, especially people you consider to be successful can give you an inside look into their experiences. This could be learning from a friend of yours you admire, or even reading biographies. Biographies and Memoirs are some of the most detailed documents you can have access to, to learn from others’ successes and mistakes. Besides learning from them, it also gives you an opportunity to be inspired and work on developing your skills.

Isaac Newton was a successful physicist, astronomer, mathematician, and inventor. He believed that he could only advance in life because of the “giants” that came before him.

“If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants”

Intellectual Curiosity makes learning more natural and less like a forced assignment. Realigning yourself periodically to make curiosity a habit can go a long way in gaining a deep understanding of a subject.

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