My 4-Year Old Niece Reminded me of a Key Skill With a Simple Question
Eight things I do every day to practice curiosity deliberately
In India, it’s quite common to live in an extended family where two or more adults live in the same home. I live with my parents and my elder brother, his wife, and his two small daughters.
When COVID-19 hit the world this year, it meant his daughters could no longer go to school. My brother and his wife had to take added responsibilities of teaching both kids alongside a full-time job and managing everything else at home.
After a few days, I realized it wasn’t going smoothly, and they wouldn’t be able to sustain this for long. So I decided to take the responsibility of teaching one of the two kids. It helped us divide and conquer all the new responsibilities in these unprecedented times (yep, that phrase).
The niece I took responsibility for is 4-years old. Her name is Arohi, which casually means Ascending.
I have been helping her learn to read Hindi and English and do simple maths. I have always been passionate about teaching and helping others, and that’s why I chose the path of Corporate Learning and Development. At my work, I help create digital learning experiences for adults, but I have never taught a 4-year old.
As you might imagine, it’s a different ballgame altogether, but I have enjoyed teaching her. I learned two things while spending additional time with my niece:
- I CAN teach kids and am quite good with around them. My niece has made me a better listener, a calmer person, and taught me how to talk to kids in their weird voice and accent, which is fun but I hope I don’t talk like this during my office meetings.
- Kids are quite smart and curious. They are g at asking questions. They ask things that we submissively accept because someone told us so.
Today, while answering a question about the body parts in her GK book, she asked me a strange but valid question and reminded me of a trait we all should imbibe.
- Her: Uncle, I wrote, “two” for hands, legs, ears, and eyes but only “one” for the nose. Why do we have one nose but two ears, hands, and legs?
- Me: I paused for a moment and was thinking of a philosophical answer but ended up saying, “If you had two noses, you wouldn’t look as pretty as you do now” and then showed her a cartoon character on Google with two noses to prove my point. Probably not the most intelligent answer, but her question was a great reminder that we all should remain curious and never leave an opportunity to ask questions.
I wish I had retained my curiosity like her and continuously questioned the existing assumptions and systems. Of course, we shouldn’t question everything, but it becomes easier to come up with creative solutions when we do.
“I have no special talent, I am only passionately curious.”
— Albert Einstein
So I became curious about curiosity and started asking my friends and colleagues how they practice curiosity in their day-to-day life. Most of them said they don’t worry too much about it. This led me to an important question.
When and Why Do We Stop Being Curious?
We all are born with curiosity, but we lose it to varying degrees as we mature. Here are the four key reasons why we lose our curious nature:
- In school, we only learn to memorize facts and follow the rules. Outside school, we are forced to conform to the established standards and truths. People often reject us if we challenge accepted beliefs or behaviours. So to be accepted, we stop asking questions and quietly learn to Google everything.
- As adults, we are often chasing one thing or the other, so we don’t pause and question. We also become self-centred and have no time or energy to care for other’s views or question existing assumptions.
- We do not sleep or rest enough, so it makes us exhausted, and we often struggle to concentrate or think deeper.
- Our ego takes centre stage. We become proud of our knowledge and feel what we know is the only truth or the only way. This can work for some things but can also make us delusional and narrow-minded.
Why Should We Even Care About Being Curious?
It’s not like we have any free time left to question established practices.
In a recent study by Kang and colleagues (Kang et al., 2009), they found that curiosity enhances learning, consistent with the theory that the primary function of curiosity is to facilitate learning.
In recent years, curiosity has also been linked to happiness, creativity, satisfying intimate relationships, increased personal growth after traumatic experiences, and increased meaning in life.
In a survey of 3,000 workers in China, Germany, and the United States, we found that 84% believe that curiosity catalyzes new ideas, 74% think it inspires unique, valuable talents, and 63% think it helps one get promoted.
The real question is “how do we find our curiosity again?”
Here are Eight Things I Do to Practice Curiosity Every Day
1. Be conscious about being curious
Being curious doesn’t come naturally to adults. It’s a practice we need to bring back into our lives slowly. As with any practice, we need to be conscious about it in the beginning and deliberately practise being curious.
- Adopt the child’s mindset of a beginner. Act like a child, but don’t be childish.
- Develop an interest in something new. Curiosity starts with an interest, which leads to deliberately learning and practising.
- Take a conscious pause before accepting something and see it from a different perspective as kids do.
This brings me to the second point.
2. Spend time with kids and smart adults
- Spend time with kids and observe them. Learn from them the art of keep asking questions until they completely understand something. This article is the result of me spending time with a 4-year old.
- Don’t let the people smarter than you intimidate you. Go out of your way and join communities where these people hang and share — follow them on Twitter, LinkedIn, Medium and read what they share and recommend.
- Attend workshops, conferences, etc. (when we can meet in person again) and initiate exciting conversations. Ask them about how they reached where they are, what do they read, and what do they care about.
3. Learn the art of challenging assumptions and asking the right questions
At its core, curiosity is about asking questions and challenging assumptions. Asking questions is an art. To develop curiosity, we must ask the right questions, at the right time, and to seek the right answers.
There are seven different questioning techniques that you can use, depending on the situation you are in.
- Open question: Use at the beginning of a conversation to break the ice and get some information. These type of questions allow for longer answers and therefore reveal more information. These questions often ask for people’s knowledge, opinion, or feelings about something, and the responses are often more qualitative than quantitative.
- Reflective question: To steer the conversation or get someone back on track
- Probing question: To get more details on a specific point or to discover deeper insights
- Emotional question: To identify subjective factors or make the other person more comfortable
- Hypothetical question: To get a commitment to something
- Direct question: To challenge the other person
- Closed question: Use toward the end of the conversation to get an agreement or to come to a decision. These questions require a short answer, usually one word.
4. Keep asking ‘Why’ and ‘What If’ to challenge
Even if you do not remember different types of questions mentioned above, you can make these two simple yet profound questions your best friends to challenge assumptions.
Most of what we believe to be true is based on certain assumptions. If the assumptions don’t hold, the conclusions don’t either. A curious mind seeks to uncover assumptions.
It’s not easy or comfortable to ask ‘Why’ or ‘What If.’ That’s why most people simply accept things as they are.
All great innovations have been made possible because someone, somewhere asked a question.
If you can ask and answer ‘What If,’ figure out the solution, and unlock value by providing the solution to others, you will prosper in life.
5. Keep learning and expanding your circle of knowledge
Learning and curiosity go hand-in-hand. You can’t learn anything unless you are genuinely curious about it.
When we become curious about something, we voluntarily spend time in exploring answers and deliberately start practising.
On the other hand, if you aren’t naturally curious, simply reading new and exciting books will bring new perspectives and insights to your life, and in turn, will make you more curious.
This brings me to the next point.
6. Read outside your field
When it comes to reading, most people read books in their domain or comfort area. Reading is never disinvestment but reading widely and outside your domain can bring fresh perspectives and new ways of looking at things.
Reading doesn’t mean only books. If you spend your time on Medium, consciously subscribe to different publications and develop different interests.
If you want to make your reading more effective and fruitful, you should start writing about what you read in your own words. You will soon realize the difference between skimming a book and actually reading it. Writing makes you realize the holes in your understanding.
7. Read fiction too
Fiction forces you to see the world through a character’s eyes. You can become and live someone else — another gender, another age, another group and see the world through their eyes. It makes you more compassionate and empathtic too.
When it comes to reading, our first choice is nonfiction — self-help books, business books, books on personality development, communication, health, psychology, and relationships.
These are great at teaching us practical ways to deal with life and work problems; however, we shouldn’t neglect fiction books, filled with interesting stories, perspectives, characters, etc.
8. Listen more
Actively listen beyond the words someone’s saying. This means you need to shift your entire focus from yourself to the other person.
You will not only listen with your ears but also with your eyes, your heart, and your mind. Your natural body language, eye contact, and different clues like small gestures and short affirmative statements will help convey to the other person that you are listening.
When you listen well, you genuinely become open and interested in what the other person has to say. Consequently, you ask better questions and unlock better answers.
Curiosity is an essential trait of a successful person. It helps you unlock new and exciting possibilities when you start learning and exploring new things.
However, you need to be careful as curiosity is a double-edged sword. If you aren’t cautious with the type of questions you ask and the place you ask them, your questions can result in endless discussions and arguments.