One of the most courageous people I’ve ever met is my five year old cousin Max. He has no trouble sprinting across the road when cars speed by, which is why we have to hold his hand everywhere we go. He loves being thrown very high in the air, while I get nauseous just thinking about roller coasters. And he enjoys sticking his hands (and sometime other body parts for the matter) in the hottest, coldest, and stickiest surfaces he can find - from flames to ice to spiders.
Until a couple of months ago, I mistook his courage for stupidity. At least, that’s the narrative I was taught by society. “How would he know any better, he’s just a kid. ” Looking back at some of Max’s
worst best moments, that narrative didn’t really add up. In fact, it felt a little unfair because it implied that “Max did something stupid because he is ignorant.” The more “stupid” something a child did was, the more we attributed this to being young and ignorant. However, I realize now this framing is harmfully wrong. The way we need to be thinking about this is “Max is ignorant, so he did something stupid to learn about the world.”
For example, when Max put his hand near a flame, I focused more on the 20-minute episode of distracting crying that followed, rather than the twinkle in his eyes as he reached out for the flame to figure out what the hell it was.
So Max wasn’t blindly reaching for the flame. Max was reaching for the flame because he was curious. What does this feel like? What is this? What does it do?
In fact, everything that Max did, from touching a spider, to trying to run across the road was his system for figuring out the inner workings of the world. And he was fine with looking stupid because he was fearless. And more importantly, because nothing was going compromise his ability to figure out why things are the way that they are.
When we grow up, we develop a lot of baggage that hinders us from doing this. We become afraid of what our friends or peers will think about us if we ask something weird out loud. We become afraid of looking stupid. We settle for confusion rather than face the discomfort of trying to understand something that is confusing. It’s easy to admit that you don’t understand something well and even easier to convince yourself that you do.
But asking difficult questions that push you to the brink of your ignorance is uncomfortable. More than that, it’s hard. It’s hard to (figuratively) bang your head against the wall in different ways until you understand something. It’s hard to ask why something is true when you can just take it for granted that it is. But most of us still want to. It’s annoying when things don’t add up, when there’s an itch to figure it out. It was annoying for Max not knowing what a flame felt like. So why do we settle? Why do kids rarely ever settle but we as “adults” rarely not?
I think that the missing link is courage. Our fears associated with answering our questions stifle our desires to seek out answers. As children, we don’t have the same fears we do today. We’re not worried by what society will think. We’re not worried of being wrong - in fact we almost always are in the beginning. We’re not willing to settle. We just want to reach out and touch the flame.
I don’t think that curiosity is about being smart (although people who are curious are always very smart). It’s about having the courage to ask stupid questions. It’s about having the audacity to question why something works in a certain way. It’s about being unafraid to seek out answers at whatever the cost - no matter what our peers may think, no matter how much the answer may scare us, no matter what.
So, how do we tackle this if we don’t want to let our fears impede us from chasing our curiosities? I think that the first tactic is recognizing when this (fear of discomfort or looking stupid) occurs and having checks and balances when you don’t recognize it happening at first glance. Secondly, this means that curiosity can be developed! If courage is like a muscle, and the limiting factor of pursuing our curiosity is having the courage to do so, then we can systematically become more curious by forcing ourselves incrementally outside of our comfort zone. After all, figuring out the right answers is mainly about asking the right questions. When we have the courage to ask any question, we take one step closer to finding our answer.