Home All Cultivating Curiosity: A Personal Experiment

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.

Her articles are here.

CuriosityI 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:

DiscoveryCuriosity [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.
  • RippleCards

  • 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?

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, 23 (5), 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

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Eleanor Chin 23 November 2008 - 8:57 am

I love this article! As a coach I am always working with my own and my clients’ curiosity and appreciate the practical exercises very much. As I read them, one thing that makes me curious 🙂 is “what does the research say about the interplay between curiosity and creativity?” Many of these exercise sound like ones that I use with teams to generate a creative mindset toward problem solving. Thank you for this great topic and article.

Senia Maymin 23 November 2008 - 3:52 pm

Hi Ming!

I love the original billboard!
I also really like your idea of going to check out those TED talks that you are not naturally drawn to.
It’s so interesting that you discovered the curiosity in various domains angle.

Thanks so much,

Jeremy McCarthy 23 November 2008 - 4:25 pm

Wow. Your article totally helps validate a theory I have been working on. In “The Happiness Hypothesis,” Jonathan Haidt (pp. 226-227) describes cross-level coherence stating that people are made up of three levels: the physical, the mental and the sociocultural. I believe each of our signature strengths operate across these three domains but in different ways in different individuals. You, for example would score high in sociocultural curiosity but maybe low in mental and/or physical curiosity.

I was thinking about this because I score very low in bravery, which is very counterintuitive to me because I love to take on physical challenges (surfing, mountain climbing, etc.) I believe that physical bravery should be one of my highest strengths but I must rate low on mental bravery (putting forth new contrary ideas) and sociocultural bravery (going against peer pressure, standing up for others). What does everyone else think?

Thanks for the stimulating article!

Senia Maymin 24 November 2008 - 12:18 am


That is SO INTERESTING! I don’t remember this cross-level coherence.

Have you read the energy work by Schwartz and Loehr (here and here)? They describe four levels:
* Physical
* Mental
* Emotional
* Spiritual (which is like focus and discipline)
(And Marie-Jo in the above article adds “Social” like you mention).

What a most interesting example with bravery!

Until soon, Best,

Yee-Ming 23 November 2008 - 11:37 pm

Hi Eleanor, thank you for loving this article 🙂

I do wonder about the link between creativity and curiosity. From my experience, curiosity does help with creativity although it doesn’t work on demand! Curiosity is being interested in something for it’s own sake, not with an expected outcome in mind. It works more like being exposed to new ideas, knowledge and experience (collecting the dots). The dots may or may not connect at a later time. When they do, that’s when my work benefits from curiosity.

Have you heard of Ken Robinson? Actually Sir Ken Robinson as he was knighted by the Queen. He talks about the link between play (playfulness) and creativity. There are many videos of him talking about creativity in education and workplace.

Best regards

Yee-Ming 24 November 2008 - 12:07 am

Hi Jeremy

This is really interesting. Found your examples (my curiosity and your bravery) really useful in illustrating how each strength is applied at the three levels. I now have a model to explain my experience. I do think this can be a great tool when trying to identify new ways of applying our strengths.
Will go over my VIA profile again to see how this model works on my other strengths, especially the top and lowest strengths.

Thank you.

Yee-Ming Tan 24 November 2008 - 12:20 am

Thanks Senia for letting me know about Schwartz and Loehr’s work on energy. Will read up on it.

Cheers, Ming

Ping Chu 24 November 2008 - 2:06 pm

Dear Ming:

I was impressed by your connecting the dots metaphore for the real benefit of being curiosity. As a businessmaker, I also believe that the ability to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity will be a key strength for the new Millennial Generation. Now, we know that curiosity is the driving force to culitvate this strength. Thank you for sharing your self discovery story.


Dave Shearon 24 November 2008 - 3:54 pm

Jeremy, I, too, find your idea of strengths manifesting differently in different aspects of life such as physical, mental, and sociocultural. I hope you’ll follow up on this; I’d like to see this developed.

Jeremy McCarthy 25 November 2008 - 12:13 pm

Thanks Dave,

I’m happy to share it once I’ve fleshed it out. I’m mapping out what I think each of the strengths looks like across each domain. I feel like every time I talk to someone who has a disconnect with how their strengths ranking appears it can be explained by differences in their strengths across these domains. I’m finding great anecdotal support for this idea, just need someone who is interested in testing it in research or in application.

Louisa Jewell 25 November 2008 - 7:49 pm

Hi Jeremy, this sounds very interesting. I’d love to hear more once you flush it out or if you need a listening ear, I’d love to talk. Bye for now, Louisa.

Yee-Ming 28 November 2008 - 11:04 am

Thanks Ping. It seems to me that apart from cultivating curiosity in life, perhaps we should also focus on not losing it in the first place, as children are naturally curious but lose it as we become grown up!


Ziz 16 November 2010 - 8:19 pm


I was just about to post a short post on being curious and would love to mention your post in my post if that is ok with you. Also, the image you have – may I use it as well?

I enjoyed reading the post – it’s very well written and sparks my curiosity.

Editor K.H.B. 17 November 2010 - 10:13 am


I’m going to answer for PPND. Yee-Ming can, of course, answer for herself as well.

As long as you follow the PPND reprint policy, you are welcome to reuse information in this article in an online post or in printed form. In particular, you need a link back to this article included in your post along with clear identification of the author and date published.

Thank you for the courtesy of asking!

Ming 17 November 2010 - 10:21 am

Hi Kathryn
Thanks for helping me to answer to Ziz’s request.

Ziz, I’m sure you’ll enjoy exploring curiosity.



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