Curiosity is a superpower
And it's worth cultivating
It’s worth your time to get curious about curiosity.
Curious people are more interesting. They always have something new they’re learning about themselves, and they know how to ask more interesting questions.
Curious people are also more successful. I’ve learned firsthand the importance of hiring people who have a deep need to understand the world around them. Curiosity separates someone who does “good enough” work on what you ask them to do, and someone who uncovers brand-new opportunities.
The trouble, of course, is that curiosity is hard to teach. It can be cultivated over time, but it’s more of a mindset than a discrete skill.
Here are a few thoughts on what curiosity looks like and how to cultivate it.
What curiosity looks like
When most people think about curiosity, they think “breadth” – the accountant who loves hip hop; the aerospace engineer who knows about fusion energy; the janitor who solves differential equations.
It’s true that truly curious people will often end up knowing a lot about many different, totally orthogonal subjects, but there’s a problem with that definition: breadth is easy to fake. You can listen to a few podcasts and watch a few YouTube videos, then have a five-minute conversation about a subject in an interview. This is especially true for people with high verbal IQ; give me a day, and I’d be comfortable doing five minutes on literally any subject on national television. But not all good talkers are curious.
In my mind, truly curious people don’t just go wide, they dive deep, repeatedly. They are serial obsessives who learn about new topics with incredible intensity. They go well past the first page (or two, or three) of Google links; they find old textbooks, talk to experts, and uncover non-obvious stores of knowledge. I once got obsessed with how elevators were invented (long story) and found a connection to the Chief Historian of Otis Elevators, the oldest elevator company in the world. But curious people don’t stop at acquiring fun and random sources of new information – they pursue those searches purposefully, with the goal of building an accurate, complete, and grounded mental model of whatever they’re trying to learn.
Tim Urban is a great example. He got so interested in Tesla that he wrote 25,000+ words on the company. His piece started with the sentence “...what really is energy?” and included sections on energy consumption and production, how engines work, the economics of the auto industry, and more before it got into anything specific to the company. Tim later got interested in the question “why does society suck so bad” and wrote an incredible book that dove deep, repeatedly, and developed some useful concepts/frameworks to make sense of, well, everything.
Ryan McEntush is lesser known than Tim Urban (for now), but is equally curious. He has written great deep-dives on topics like batteries and critical minerals, and he’s writing a piece on nuclear power right now that is ridiculously well-researched. We recently had lunch and dinner together on the same day (also a long story), and talked about everything from nuclear fusion to modern rocketry to hypersonic planes. At one point, Ryan quoted the energy density of hydrogen off the top of his head. At another poiny, he asked a nuclear engineer (also at that dinner) what the output temperature of his prototype reactor would be. He’s a fun guy to talk to.
Tim, Ryan, and other curious folks I know don’t flit around at the surface level of lots of different topics – their curiosity would never allow such a thing. They feel a burning desire to understand, really understand how the world works, and that pulls them to find ground truth whenever a topic excites them.
It turns out that Tim Urban himself has thought a lot about what it means to “understand” something, and came up with a great analogy – knowledge is like a tree.
“I’ve heard people compare knowledge of a topic to a tree. If you don’t fully get it, it’s like a tree in your head with no trunk—and without a trunk, when you learn something new about the topic—a new branch or leaf of the tree—there’s nothing for it to hang onto, so it just falls away. By clearing out fog all the way to the bottom, I build a tree trunk in my head, and from then on, all new information can hold on, which makes that topic forever more interesting and productive to learn about.”
Tim and other curious folks will see a beautiful flower (Tesla), and trace it back – from leaves, to branches, to trunk, to roots – until they arrive at ground truth (what electricity is).
That’s a hard skill to master. But it’s crucial – and you can learn to cultivate it over time.
How to cultivate your curiosity
The good news is that curiosity begets more curiosity.
Learning is addictive: you start off and think you’re a genius who understands everything easily, then you realize how little you actually know and things are terrible for a while, then you start to slowly put the pieces together – and by that time, you’re building on bedrock. It’s an awesome feeling to really, deeply understand something that others find complicated, and especially awesome to help others understand what you find so cool about that topic. That pit of despair in the middle sucks, but emerging from it can be euphoric — and it makes you want to start over again with a new subject.
But that’s not real advice, just motivation. I can do you one better!
Here are three cheat codes for cultivating your own curiosity: one mindset to adopt, one strategy to pursue, and one tactic to try.
One mindset to adopt: the world is comprehensible.
It’s like the classic Steve Jobs quote:
“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you, and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”
You might think, “well, sure, everything was built by someone no smarter than Steve Jobs…” but just try out the belief for size and see how far it takes you.
Don’t know how your dishwasher works? I bet you could disassemble it and reassemble it in a single day if you really tried.
Don’t understand what you’re looking at when you right click inside your browser and click “inspect”? Audit a free course from MIT – they literally have all of their classes available online, for free. Or just ask ChatGPT.
It’s amazing how much knowledge is within your grasp, and if you can just once learn to understand a topic that you once thought inscrutable, you’ll realize that the barriers between you and understanding the world around you are actually much lower than you think.
So, seriously – just start with your dishwasher. How does it dispense soap? I bet you can figure that out, fast.
One strategy to pursue: find role models.
This is why I cultivate relationships with people like Ryan McEntush – hanging around curious people will inspire you to be curious yourself.
It can be uncomfortable to have people around you that really question you and test the limits of your knowledge. Some people might do that because they’re jerks, but the vast majority of curious people are just well-intentioned and addicted to learning.
This is a big reason why I love living in San Francisco – this place is an endless sea of interesting, curious people, and they’ve all found their own niche set of topics that they know a lot about.
If you don’t live in San Francisco, find startup people on Twitter and YouTube. It’s remarkable how openly people share what they have learned in blogs, tweets, and videos. Some great examples include Garry Tan (startups & investing), John Coogan (tech & geopolitics), and Joe Barnard (backyard rocket science). Of course, these recs are shaded towards my interests – but I’m sure there are many others out there for subjects that you find fascinating!
One tactic to try: share what you learn.
There’s no better way to learn than to teach, and writing down (or videoing) your thoughts is a great way to realize what you actually understand, and what you don’t.
This is why I wrote a book on science and religion – I thought that modern science had disproved religion, but it turns out that my thinking was actually quite shallow. This is also why I started my own YouTube channel. It’s not because I know a lot of things, but rather because I want to learn a lot of things. A regular practice of sharing what I’ve learned is a great way for me to stay rigorous as I pursue various bits of inspiration.
Making videos is sharing on hard mode, so try starting on Twitter, then migrating to blogs once you have more to say. Just sharing ideas on other people’s posts that you find interesting is a great way to start.
Unfortunately, without an audience, you end up just yelling your takes into the void for a while – but you’d be surprised how much even the remote possibility of a broader public audience can change your thinking for the better.
As I said before: just do it! I promise that you’ll find developing a practice of cultivating your curiosity worthwhile.
In the absolute worst case scenario, you’ll break your dishwasher. And that's a fair price to pay for cultivating a curious life.