“What is creative living? Any life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” Elizabeth Gilbert
My boyfriend and I like to go back-country camping. We hike into the woods for a few hours then set up camp far far away from other humans. It’s glorious. Our favourite part is exploring the area around our camp. We usually camp in the mountains so there’s always plenty of scrambling and hiking to be done and we feel pulled by a deep sense of curiosity. What’s at the top of this hill or this spillway? What’s around that next corner? What are we going to find? The photos in this post are from a camping trip last summer where we didn’t really know what we were getting into, but dove in anyway.
I’m sure you know the feeling of being magnetically drawn towards something that you want to know more about: an unexpected package that arrives at your doorstep, or a new piece of public art that catches your eye.
You probably also know the feeling of being drawn by something but feeling terrified of what might happen if you followed the impulse. You turn away and have that heavy feeling that you just turned your back on something great. You try to justify to yourself that you didn’t really want to know, but deep down you know that’s not true.
To me, curiosity is an amazing, energizing feeling. When it’s fully functional I feel pulled through life, curious about how the world works, about what might lie around the next corner, about how this might turn out. My creativity soars from one idea to the next. When things are going really well, I’m even able to look at my challenges with curiosity and they become a fun game to solve rather than the worst thing ever. I look at the uphill climb ahead of me and start walking, excited to find what’s at the top.
When things aren’t going well, however, fear starts to creep in and I stop acting on my impulses, opting instead for whatever feels safe and comfortable. I decide to stay at the bottom of the mountain, while others around me are taking in amazing views.
With everything we do, we’re either moving toward what we are interested in or away from what we are afraid of. If you’ve spend your life moving away from the things that scare you, you might not find the world to be a very interesting place. It might seem bland and uninspiring and you probably blame your circumstances for not offering up anything more exciting. If you look at a river and think, “So what? What’s one more river?” you might need to work on cultivating your curiosity. Underneath that nonchalant attitude you might find anxiety or fear: “That river seems pretty scary. Probably best to avoid getting too close, or even looking at it.”
But you don’t need to feel trapped by fear. You don’t need to twiddle your thumbs in the car while everyone else is off exploring. You can learn to pay attention to your innate curiosity, to start acting on impulses, and to start climbing your own mountains and exploring your own rivers.
How can you go about building your curiosity? Start small. From my experience curiosity needs to grow slowly to avoid overwhelm and burnout. If you try climbing a mountain on your first day you’re likely to hurt yourself and will avoid all mountains in the future. Start with the wild flowers around the base and work your way up.
Here are some other ideas:
Ask questions: If you’re talking with someone and they say something you don’t understand, or you want to know more, speak up. If you’re worried about sounding dumb (like I often am), think about this: chances are the person you’re speaking with will be so pleased that you care about what they’re talking about that they’ll happily answer your questions, and might dive deeper into the subject than they originally would have.
Talk to strangers: This is something I need to work on. Most of the time I feel quite content in my little bubble of solitude, but the few times that I have engaged in conversation with strangers, I’ve been rewarded with some interesting experiences. Early in the morning at the last Art Walk, a man stopped to look at my art. I told him I liked his jacket and he lit up and started telling me his life story – moving from LA to Montreal, professional ballet and boxing, garages full of art. It was fascinating.
Ponder mysteries: It’s easy to write something off that you don’t understand, or that seems over your head. But sometimes these ‘unknowable’ concepts can be huge sources of inspiration. In university I took a theoretical physics class. It was very low on math, and very high on mind-bending concepts like chaos theory and quantum mechanics. I left that class with only the barest understanding of how physics works, but with a head full of metaphors, ready to be deployed.
Investigate: If you see something intriguing at the end of an alley, or down a street you usually never take, go see what it is. Be safe, obviously, but don’t turn walk away from potential discoveries. Likewise, if you’re curious about something you’re seeing – why are there so many crows on this one section of my walk? – look it up and see if you can learn something. I learned that crows are highly social animals, with “families” that tend to stick together for many generations.
Don’t worry what people think: Last spring I kept hearing a bird call that I had never noticed before. I heard it several times in the same spot and was determined to figure out what it was. At first I felt self-conscious when I stopped on the sidewalk to locate the trilling song, but finally spotting it and identifying it (it was a house finch) made it worthwhile. Every morning I make a point of looking up at the sunrise as the bus climbs a hill into downtown. Others take my cue and look at it as well because they want to see what I see. Curiosity is contagious.
Take a new route: This is often cited as a good creativity booster, and I heartily agree. While it’s often easier to cultivate curiosity on foot rather than in a car, my brother and I had a great experience when we were driving around the United States. We’d used our GPS to plot a route from Missoula to Yellowstone and I was driving down I-15 when my brother told me to take the next exit. ‘Are you sure?” I asked, since it seemed to head off into farmers’ fields. He showed me the screen, and sure enough, it was telling us to exit. We looked at each other and shrugged, “Why not?” I headed off on a two-lane dirt track that soon narrowed to one lane as it snaked past ranches and started to climb high up into the hills. It ended up being one of the most scenic drives of the whole trip, and part of the historical Lewis & Clarke Trail. If I had decided that I felt safer sticking to the Interstate we would have missed it.
Curiosity is like a muscle you can exercise. Start paying attention to your own curiosity, and giving it a little more space than your fear, bit by bit. See what new places it takes you to.