I admit, I have the disease. I am consumed with curiosity. It drives a lot of what I do. It pulls me in different directions. I am afflicted with curiosity.
And I’m glad.
In one of his books, Jonathan Kellerman has a character say “Most people aren’t overly afflicted with curiosity. It separates the creative and the tormented from the rest of the pack.” I think he has captured the idea very well.
What is curiosity, really? Is it a learned skill or a inherent personality trait? Is it good or bad?
Dictionary.com says it is “the desire to learn or know about anything; inquisitiveness”. That is a good start. Like any fairly large concept, there is a lot more to it.
I like that it is presented as a “desire”. There is a longing. Something burns inside you causing you to pursue things. A variety of things. You never know where it will lead you.
Inquisitiveness is a great work, too. It implies exploration, searching, investigating. Curiosity is the basis of learning. I mean real learning, not what passes for it in our education system. Learning comes from wanting to know about something and working to figure it out.
I am no authority, but my thought is that some people have a greater tendency to curiosity than others, but it is a skill that most people could develop. If they really want to.
Curiosity starts with a question: what if, how, why? The desire to answer such questions and what we do about it can change us. Sometimes these questions are about something no one else has done. At least, we do not know if they have. The questions can arise because of something we have seen someone do and we wonder how it was done.
Regardless of what sparked the question, something compels us to dig or investigate or try things until we satisfy the need, scratch that itch. A simple question may be satisfied by a few articles found on the internet. Some lead us into years of investigation and experimentation and end up changing our lives. This is the danger and excitement of curiosity – we do not know where it will lead.
A drive or a diversion?
I am presenting curiosity as mostly good, because I believe it is, but is that always true? Have you ever been in a situation with a boss/teacher/parent where the answer is a cold “because I said so”? Have you worked in an environment that had written procedures to handle every situation and you could not deviate from them? Asking too many why or how or why not questions can get you in trouble in these places. There are places that intentionally stifle curiosity.
My reaction is that I have to get out of those situations. I get very frustrated if I can’t ask why and try something new, That is just me. I am driven by curiosity and am generally suspicious of rules.
In some cases curiosity can be a diversion from the path you need. Many skills require repetition and long practice. For example, martial arts or music or golf need an instructor to guide you and you have to put in the hours to master it. Too much curiosity while you are building your base knowledge can delay or interfere with your training.
This brings up the idea that there may be a proper time for curiosity. There is a tension and a natural balance between the right time and the wrong time. Sometimes you are not ready to ask certain questions. More preparation may be necessary.
A base for curiosity
This may be controversial, but I believe to be really effective, curiosity needs a good base of knowledge and maturity. It is something that builds over time and with great effort. The more you know, the more separate concepts you have, the easier it is to build on them and connect the dots.
When you start on the path to learn something new, you are a novice. You don’t really know much about the subject you are studying. It is great to have curiosity, let that motivate your study, but do not believe you understand it yet. Be humble enough to know that you don’t even know how to ask good questions yet. Be patient.
I subscribe to the model that your knowledge is a network of concepts. Learning something new builds on these concepts and ties them together in new ways. The wider your base of concepts the better you can see relations between new things. The more fertile your imagination becomes, allowing you to imagine possibilities that are not obvious to others.
It is a never ending process. I hope to be learning new things and seeing new possibilities until the day I die. The better the mix of knowledge to build on, the richer the environment.
Everyone has a different mix. In my case, I have a strange brew of things from photography theory and practice to artificial intelligence, software architecture, software development, user interface design, graphic design, sculpture, business, and general technology. Temper that with Christianity, raising kids, being married for a LONG time, and the lessons learned from making my way in the world over decades. I am happy to have this network of knowledge. I believe it helps my creativity and feeds my curiosity. It makes me the unique person I am.
Do you have to be curious to be a good artist?
This is a tough question to answer in a politically correct way. The simple answer is that I’m not qualified to answer it. I’m not sure anyone is.
A more realistic answer is that I don’t know, but I can’t think of a great artist who was not curious. Think of Leonardo daVinci. He was a scientist, engineer, architect, he studied color and texture and anatomy and the perception of the human eye. Few artists are so extremely wide ranging, but the ones I know of share an extreme curiosity.
In taking classes from artists as diverse as Peter Eastway or Karen Hutton, a theme that comes through strongly is that you have to explore and be driven by your curiosity. They assume that you will bring your own point of view and not imitate anyone else. And why would you want anything else? Your curiosity will draw you in a unique direction with a style that is all your own.
This is not a proof that curiosity is necessary. But it is hard to disprove it.
Give in to your curiosity
I strongly encourage each of you to give in to your curiosity. Allow it to lead you to new places. Be an explorer.
Personal projects are a good vehicle for trying new things. Pick a project that challenges you and stretches you in a new direction. Maybe a subject you seldom do. Maybe a new type of processing you never use. Set a time limit for yourself if that is the way you work. At the end, evaluate it and decide if you have learned anything valuable that you want to carry forward in your work. It does not matter if you end up with “portfolio pieces” from the project. It is the exploration that is the benefit.
Explore, reinvent yourself, follow your creativity, stay fresh. Don’t do things a certain way because you’ve always done it or because a respected teacher taught it that way. This is your art. Go your own way. Follow your curiosity.
I’m definitely tormented. I think I am creative in my own limited ways. It is curiosity that makes it happen. I hope I do not recover.