In theory, travel is associated with constant life-changing experiences, uncovering new, worldly perspectives that ultimately culminate in compelling and inspirational/envious stories for family and friends.
In reality, it can be a different story.
Travel often seems like an endless avalanche of booking accommodation, transport, attractions and in my case, meetings. It tends to end up weighing me down and then a single moment can cause me to crumble. In this instance, it was my PayPal account failing to work. I felt stranded, frustrated and alone.
My natural reaction was to run back to bed, hide under the covers and wait for the day to be over.
Instead, I knew I couldn’t allow myself to be defeated. So I had to create a plan. Practical plans are a really helpful way for me to avert disastrous moments like this. The focus of all my ‘practical plans’ is curiosity. The root of these meltdowns is often that I am too focused on myself and my own circumstances that I forget about the world’s beauty and wonder.
So my mission for the day was to learn something new and see the world from a new perspective.
I recently heard about the Limestone quarries outside Maastricht, in The Netherlands. I was curious about what they looked like, how they were formed and who was involved. I had my location sorted but before any good adventure is a very important break. Brunch.
I found a local favourite called ‘The Livin’ Room’ and had some avocado with an egg on toast. It was basically a classic Melbourne move, but I embraced it with open arms.
After the brunch jaunt, I headed outside and walked through some fields on the outskirts of town. As I was wandering down the streets a local graffiti artist had written quite simply ‘Ask Why.’ It repeated down the road in 5 different locations. I stopped my music and realised that this was exactly what I needed to focus on. Asking why.
We often think the phrase ‘why’ is exclusively for children. I am not sure when I ‘outgrew’ those simple three letters however it was time to reclaim them. Walking slightly taller and more empowered by these three letters, I arrived at the entrance to the cave.
The Zonneberg caves are in the next village and once measured 230 km in total and measure around 80 km today. It was originally a limestone quarry from the 1600s and was then transformed into a shelter for WWII. They now call it a cave although it is really an intricate labyrinth, that was also once a quarry. However, it was never used as a shelter, as Maastricht was liberated before it finished.
Almost 50,000 Maastricht residents were expected to be sheltered in the extensive cave network during that time. There was an evacuation area with a bakery, chapels, toilets (although there was not a septic system), a small hospital, water pumps and more.
We were led into the cave and immediately I felt a sense of unknown. This is often the best place for curiosity to form. I felt a flood of questions form… ‘Who worked in these mines?’ ‘How did they do their work without modern equipment?’ ‘Do animals live in here now?’ ‘What types of people came into the caves and who left?’ ‘What did they learn and what sort of quality of life did they have?’ ‘How many people have been lost and never found?’ ‘How did the cave become such an important part of the local culture?’
I thoroughly enjoyed the caves and learnt many things. There was a memorable moment at the end of the tour when our guide asked us to put one hand up against the limestone wall. He then turned off all the lamps and told us to find our own way out by following the wall. At this moment, most of my senses were deprived and I went into survival mode. I eventually made it out but I felt a feeling of focus and resilience form.
Empowered and excited by what I had just learnt and experienced, I wandered back into town. It sparked some curiosity about curiosity! So when I got back, I read up on why curiosity is important and how to become a more curious person. Here is what I found:
Why curiosity is important
Curiosity is defined as ‘a strong desire to know or learn something.’ I think the learning process is strongest when there is an element of exploration and self-discovery. Curiosity fuels this approach to learning and has a range of outcomes. According to the Atlantic, ‘In recent years, curiosity has been linked to happiness, creativity, satisfying intimate relationships, increased personal growth after traumatic experiences, and increased meaning in life.’
It is important at work as well. Harvard Business Review wrote an article last year called The Business Case For Curiosity.
When our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more-creative solutions. In addition, curiosity allows leaders to gain more respect from their followers and inspires employees to develop more-trusting and more-collaborative relationships with colleagues.Harvard Business Review 2018
Why we lose the art of curiosity
At some point, it seems our lives lose the art of curiosity. Maybe it is when life becomes too busy or the general blanket of tiredness covers our life. In a survey from the HBR author conducted of more than 3,000 employees from a wide range of firms and industries, only about 24% reported feeling curious in their jobs on a regular basis, and about 70% said they face barriers to asking more questions at work.
So, with the majority of the population working, here are some practical ways to incorporate curiosity back into our lives. I researched some tips for me but realised they may be helpful for you as well.
5 steps to get curiosity back in your day
1. Brainstorm all the things you are curious about
This is where the fun starts! With a blank sheet of paper, write down all the things you’re curious about. Then pin it up in your house somewhere that you can see as well and add to it whenever you think of something new.
Hint: If you get stuck, think about your daily routine and see what you come up with. It might be sparked by brushing your teeth ‘what is plaque made of and how does toothpaste help?’ or your daily commute ‘how much Co2 does an average train produce compared to a car per capita?’
2. Grow your curiosity confidence
This is adapted from Hal Gregersen’s Question Burst method. Either by yourself or with a colleague or friend, take the list of ‘curious things’ from tip #1 and pick one. Spend 4 minutes brainstorming questions you have about the topic. You can do it individually or together, but write them down to form a massive list. There are literally no stupid questions during this time!
When the 4 minutes is up, share them and discuss which ones are great questions as well as the rationale behind them.
Prioritise which questions you think are worth answering and commit to doing some rapid research to find the answer. Do this over a weekly coffee so you can share answers from the week before and also continue building your curiosity muscle! Hopefully, you will find new ways to ask compelling questions, which will increase your confidence when asking these questions.
Hint: If you get stuck in the 4 minutes, think of the ‘how’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘why’ questions and try to look at the topic from different angles.
3. Build it into your routine
From HBR’s The Business Case For Curiosity article: “Twice a week for four weeks, half of them received a text message at the start of their workday that read, “What is one topic or activity you are curious about today? What is one thing you usually take for granted that you want to ask about? Please make sure you ask a few ‘Why questions’ as you engage in your work throughout the day. Please set aside a few minutes to identify how you’ll approach your work today with these questions in mind.”
This group performed higher than the control group after 4 weeks of the experiment.
Hint: Set up a reminder in your phone with the above text in the morning and allocate 15 minutes to get ‘curiosity’ ready for the day ahead. This will set up your day to maximise curiosity.
4. Suppress the fear and ask it anyway
We have all had those moments in a meeting or in a tour where that thought runs through our head ‘everyone will think I am stupid if I ask that question.’ Chances are, someone else is thinking of the question you want to ask as well. One of my mentors once told me that early in her career she wanted to get better at asking questions. She was often too nervous so she challenged herself to ask at least one question every meeting. By doing this, she forced herself outside her comfort zone and built her capability to ask quality questions.
However, this fear goes both ways as well.
Hubspot’s blog about curiosity had a great piece of advice: ‘Listen without judgment’.
“Curious people are often considered good listeners and conversationalists,” explains Ben Dean, Ph.D. in a newsletter for the University of Pennsylvania. By suspending judgment, you’re ultimately allowing yourself to be more receptive to what someone is saying. You’re focusing less on what you’re going to say next, and more on the words and information they’re choosing to tell you — or not tell you. So next time you’re having a conversation with someone, just listen. When you take the time to truly absorb what they are saying, it’ll be easier for you to formulate questions, warm up to new perspectives, and learn something new that you may have missed otherwise.Quoted from Hubspot’s blog ‘How to Be a More Curious Person: 7 Tips for Becoming a Lifelong Learner.’
When we are curious about others and talk to people outside our usual social circle, we become better able to understand those with lives, experiences, and worldviews different than our own,” explains Emily Campbell, research assistant at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. More curiosity and empathy is a good thing — it can go a long way to making you a better marketer (and human).
5. Put your phone away (for a bit!)
According to Fast Company, ‘Curious people turn off their phones and focus on conversations, says Taberner.“It means not cooking dinner while talking to your families,” she says. “If you’re multitasking, you’re not creating space to be curious.”’
This is something I personally struggle with and have allocated a 30 minute time slot every day when I don’t touch my phone. I look out a window, do some classic people watching or eat lunch in a cafe. In this time, I allow my mind to wander and naturally ask questions. It has become my favourite part of the day!
Curiosity is something I need to nurture and am committing to continuing my curiosity adventure in 2019 for the sake of my travels, my mental health and my work!