For all of my life, every once in a while, I’ll read a book or watch a movie or in some other way take in a story — and it will stick. That is the closest I have ever gotten to real magic.
I don’t know how else to describe it. The story just kind of melts into me and becomes part of me. And whenever I come across it again, I recognize it as mine.
That’s how it was for me the first time I saw Meet the Robinsons. I knew it was my story. It’s based loosely on a picture book by William Joyce called A Day With Wilbur Robinson and everything about it makes me happy.
It’s about finding family and forgiveness and the incredible things that happen when you let your imagination fly — but mostly, it’s about curiosity.
There’s a Walt Disney quote at the tail end of the movie that hits me so hard every time. I’ve had it on my bulletin board for years, right above my desk where I work.
We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.
As a writer, I’m asked fairly often where I get my ideas. The answer is pretty easy. I have no idea. But if I dig a little deeper, the real answer is that the ideas are already there.
I’m just curious enough to pick them up and see what I can do with them.
Curiosity is a muscle. The more you use it, the more well-developed it becomes.
Think of it this way. Everyone is born with biceps, but some people work theirs enough that they wind up with big, strong, impressive arms. Some people are born healthy, to parents who also have strong arm muscles. They are surrounded from birth by people who want to help them build up their biceps. They have resources that allow them to spend extra time at the gym.
But even people who don’t have those privileges can figure out a way exercise their biceps.
The same goes for curiosity. Some people are born into homes full of books, to parents who prioritize question asking, with the resources to support their curious endeavors.
But even if you weren’t, it’s never too late to start to exercise your curiosity and build it up into an impressive muscle.
Here’s a little primer for developing and nurturing your sense of curiosity.
I think, if you have any dream or idea about living a creative, interesting life — it all starts here.
Say yes, first.
I’ve noticed a strange difference between my husband and I. Whenever an opportunity comes up, his knee jerk reaction is to say no. He instantly sees all the things that could go wrong, and he can’t get to yes until he’s worked his way through all of them.
Me? I say yes. It just pops out of my mouth. When someone asks me if I want to do something or some idea finds its way into my brain, if it sounds exciting — my knee jerk reaction is always YES.
Not necessary YES I’ll do it. But at least YES, I want to. YES, that sounds amazing, I want to learn more. YES, let’s see where this goes.
I think the first step to becoming more curious is learning how to say yes. I know that flies in the face of everyone else telling you to learn how to say no. I get it. But think of it this way. Learn to say no to the crap that you don’t really want to do anyway, so that when everything in you is screaming YES, you have the bandwidth to follow through.
I have always been that person that other people talk to. People just like telling me their stories. Probably because I love them so much. I really want to listen, and that draws in people who have something they want to tell.
When I meet someone who has a serious curiosity deficit, I can almost guarantee that in most cases, for most things, they think they already know all the answers. They don’t listen well, because they don’t think they have anything to learn.
It’s not enough to assume that people who disagree with you are just assholes. If you really listen to them, if you’re honestly curious about what makes them tick, you have the opportunity to affect them. (And be affected, too. Be prepared.)
Ask a lot of questions.
Children are innately curious. You can tell because they ask so many questions. Tons of them. And if you indulge them with answers, they just ask more questions.
Why? What if? Can this happen? What if I?
At some point, we stop asking. It starts to feel embarrassing. Answer become more important than the questions — we want to at least look like we have them. Adults tend to decide they’ve learned enough.
Questions are the roots of curiosity. Cultivate them. Welcome them from other people. And ask a lot of them.
Read — even if you’re not a big reader.
One of my favorite books of all time is Grace Llewellyn’s The Teenage Liberation Handbook. (It’s out of print, but if you can get your hands on a copy, I highly, highly recommend it. Even if you’re not a teenager or the parent of one.)
In it, she advises readers to go to a library and look at the children’s section for books on anything they’re interested in. Curiosity sometimes leads to deep dives, but it starts with skimming. How can you know what you’re curious about if you don’t get out there and check out lots of things?
Even if you’ve never been a big reader, if you want to cultivate curiosity, you’ll need to develop a taste for it. The thing is, reading is a skill. It’s not something you’re born good at or bad at. Just like anything else, you get better at it by doing it more.
If you are a big reader, you’re in luck. Lucky and curious. That’s an amazing duo.
Try to develop this habit: When sparks your curiosity, learn one more thing about it. If that’s interesting, learn one more thing.
You recognize what I’m talking about, right? Curious people embrace the rabbit hole. To develop your sense of curiosity, learn to foster the spark. Feed it a little kindling.
It’s okay to know a little about a lot of things. It’s how you figure out what you want to know a lot about.
Take a bite.
My father-in-law doesn’t like food. I know how weird that sounds, but it’s true. He would happily eat the same three or four foods every day, for ever meal, forever without ever tasting anything new.
In fact, he’s done just that for the last 76 years.
He likes spaghetti, but will not eat any other shape of noodle. He likes pork chops, but will not eat carnitas. He has not willingly put a vegetable beyond iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and corn in his mouth — ever.
He is the least curious person I personally know.
Curious people take a bite, even if they’re not sure they’ll like it. They never say they don’t like something they haven’t tasted. That goes for food, of course, but also for — everything.
The Teenage Liberation Handbook is my go to curiosity resource. It was written for teenagers who want to unschool themselves — and it changed the way I think about learning (for my kids, but maybe even more importantly, for myself.)
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic is not a book I expected to love. But I did. It’s about being aware enough to capture ideas when they present themselves.