Curious? Read It... (Review of "Curious?")

Curious? Read It... (Review of "Curious?")

Review of Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life

[NOTE: The negative effect of schooling on curiosity has long been a underlying theme criticism of contemporary education. Although this book is not about education directly, its author and others are actively looking for ways to apply its ideas to education.]

You are, above all, what excites you. So seek novelty; embrace uncertainty; and act on your curiosity to invigorate your life. Not sure how? Then read this book, which offers an abundance of practical strategies and advice informed by heaps of scientific research and a dollop of the author's personal experience.

This is not a book to plow through quickly. It took me about six weeks to read, mainly because the book contains so many insights that deserve careful thought and reflection*. (Also, as you read, it is well worth flipping back and forth between the narrative and the Notes and References (pp. 285-325) which provide literature references and occasionally further elaboration.) Many of the gems it offers are familiar ones, such as the advice to "surround yourself w/people who resemble the type of person you aspire to be" (p. 77), the value of meaning-making (p. 95) and finding purpose (pp. 238-248), or the principle of `satisficing:' (p. 257, 325). It's good to revisit these every now and then, and Curious? provides a good opportunity for doing this both through the narrative and via a series of exercises and tools in the Appendix (pp.263-283). For instance, although I've done many values clarification exercises over the years, I found the `top 10 values' exercise (pp.97-99) to be a good values `check-up' worth doing.

However, Curious? is more than a `best of' rehash of other self-help books. Many of its most useful strategies are novel or framed in a way which offers fresh perspective. For instance, in my experience (30+ years in the field), educators are particularly prey to the need to be "right" about everything, so consciously practicing asking stupid questions to learn things has been particularly fun for me (pp.23-25). The book offered numerous `aha' moments along the way, for instance the peak-end rule (p.83 - explains among other things why fun goodnight rituals are so enduring for children and parents). Applying the "find 3 novel things" experiment to a boring task (pp. 81-82) yielded a surprisingly useful insight on one occasion when I tried it; on another, weighing the laundry (~50 lbs. worth!) made a dreary chore a little more interesting.

Stuck in a "life trance" (p.66ff)? Regain work as a calling, delegate tasks to an interested person, do needed maintenance on your personal `wear & tear', self-renew through activities which relax instead of dull, and try something off your `identity radar'. Need some fresh insights on improving relationships? Figure out who's time- and energy-worthy, monitor whether the "conversational adventure" is two-sided (good) or one-sided (not so good), and make first encounters easier on yourself by remembering that you're responsible for only half of what goes on (pp. 131-145). Oh, and by the way, healthy curiosity leads to better health, curiously (pp.35-36).

Despite the cheery yellow cover, Curious? also recognizes that curiosity is not all sunshine and light; Kashdan devotes an entire chapter to the dark side of curiosity -- obsessions, sensation-seeking, et al. Offering a counterbalancing view is very rare in most books (particularly self-help ones); it's also more valuable than it may appear because it helps put greater focus on the real issue: not whether to "be curious" or not, but when to be curious and how much -- in other words, where are the boundaries?

I wish that the book had confronted these issues a bit more explicitly and directly -- for example, when does the need for thrills cross the line (pp.219-28)? -- but Kashdan deserves much credit for bringing the issue to the fore. For instance, he notes that optimizing the dance between our curiosity and threat detection systems is a lifelong learning process (pp.48-49) and that sometimes situations are more threatening than challenging when we believe that that demands of the task are greater than our available resources (p. 75).

Still, like curiosity itself, Curious? is not perfect. There were occasional stretches in the book that didn't do particularly much for me -- for example, I'm still rather fuzzy on the secrets to 'activating one's hippocampus' (pp. 55-56), and the author's fascination with Lee Wheeler's "meaning-making capacity" did not resonate with me (pp.239-41; 257-61). Even the book's yellow cover (playing off of the movie title "I Am Curious (Yellow)", I assume?) seemed a bit out of place, although perhaps it makes a lot more sense after reading about the author's teenage work experience (p.229). For that matter, the book's insistence that meaning and purpose are more important than happiness really didn't make sense to me either until I read the author's biographical sketch (pp. 236-38), a personal disclosure which makes it clear how the author arrived at this position.

Whether or not you share that perspective, Curious? is well worth the read -- not only the first time around, but it's easy to see how it will be valuable as a resource/reference book to return to when a useful insight is needed. Curious? Read it.

*it also took me a long time to read because I 'serialtweeted' this book last summer.

[review also posted on, July 12, 2009]