Yee-Ming Tan, MAPP, provides executive coaching services and leadership development training to senior executives. Recent clients include: Cathay Pacific, Goldman Sachs, and Microsoft. Yee-Ming also publishes a series of tools, RippleCards, for people who choose to cultivate greater well-being in their lives.
Yee-Ming writes on the 23rd of odd-numbered months. Past articles are here.
I found this quote on a billboard in the City Hall Square in Copenhagen while on holiday there last month: Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity. Recognizing moments of fear or anxiety is simple enough but entering a state of curiosity is a real challenge for me, probably has something to do with my practical sensibility.
Recent research by Beerman and colleagues published in the Journal of Positive Psychology suggests that curiosity is one of five strengths closely related to life satisfaction (the other four are gratitude, optimism, zest and the ability to love and be loved). Although it ranked pretty high on my VIA profile (no. 8 on the Values-in-Action Strengths-Inventory), I don’t feel ownership with curiosity like I do with my top 5 strengths yet. So how might one go about developing this strength?
Christopher Peterson, the developer of the VIA method, suggests cultivating our strengths by first identifying and using them in new ways. Curiosity is defined in the VIA as:
Curiosity [interest, novelty-seeking, openness to experience]:
“Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake; finding subjects and topics fascinating; exploring and discovering.”
My A-ha Moment about Curiosity
I considered identifying fear- or anxiety-driven situations: that seemed like a good starting point. But then I had an a-ha moment in a most unexpected occasion. It was over a dinner with my workshop participants talking about customer profiling in luxury cosmetics marketing. Based on my buying behavior, I am definitely not an early adopter. Early adopters like to explore and discover new things and experiences. I am exactly the opposite. The launch of a new product cannot lure me to the cosmetics counter. I don’t get tempted to try a new brand of my favorite food in the supermarket. I like to order the same food on the menu in restaurants.
The a-ha moment for me was that I do possess a high level of curiosity but only in specific domains. I am not curious about material things but am highly curious when people are concerned. I want to know other people’s stories and what makes a person tick. I love to travel to different countries and experience the locals’ lifestyles. I love googling and checking out new websites to explore what is cool and interesting out there.
Specific Curiosity Exercises
This insight enables me to experiment with a more nuanced approach to incorporate more curiosity in my life especially in the here-and-now moments. Here are some positive psychology exercises I tried:
- Starting now, to always order a dish I’ve never tried before in restaurants.
- Pick a knowledge field I don’t normally go for. For example, my favorite website www.ted.com offers topics in many themes. Apart from my favorite themes, what makes us happy and how does the mind work, I make it a point to check out videos on themes I am least drawn to.
- Break my routine by varying the route to work or by sitting in a different wagon on the train.
- Try a new brand of food or toiletries when grocery shopping.
- Listen to different genres of music or to unfamiliar musicians.
- Hang around people who are high in curiosity and allow them to lead me into new experiences!
Once I intentionally suspended my preoccupation with being practical and resisted the tendency to ruminate on negative events, it became easier to treat the unknown as an adventure, which often leads to amazing encounters. Curiosity is still not a signature strength for me and it may never be, but the practice of cultivating curiosity has certainly exposed me to the richness of life, higher peaks and deeper valleys. Even when the outcome isn’t good, I will have wonderful experiences to add to my memory bank, and a good story to tell my friends!
Beermann, U., Park, N., Peterson, C., Ruch, W., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2007), Strengths of Character, Orientations to Happiness and Life Satisfaction, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(3): 149-156
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Collins.
Dean, B (2004) Curious About Curiosity? http://viacharacter.org/VIAClassification/MoreOnStrengths/Curiosity/tabid/118/Default.aspx
Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York: William Morrow.
Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004), Strengths of Character and Well-Being, Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 23, No. 5, 2004, pp. 603-619
Peterson, C. (2007) , A Primer in Positive Psychology, Oxford University Press, Pages 158 – 160
First two images courtesy of Tan Yee-Ming.
Last picture courtesy of Ripplecards