The Dark Side of Curiosity for the Creative Mind (and How Wonder Can Help)
The other day I was onboarding a new client. Her client load is full, her team is growing, but she has ambitions to grow and expand her platform and ultimately scale her intellectual property. She has boundless ideas for new projects and strategies to do so, but none of them are gaining traction. This impasse leads her to believe that she lacks the smarts, business savvy, or leadership skills to succeed, but that’s hardly the case.
No, one real problem is that she – like so many of us– suffers from the dark side of curiosity. We become infatuated with the glimmer of potential in one idea, then another, and yet another, until our limited focus and capacity to execute ideas are spread so thin that we don’t have the energy to forward any one of them. We create in order to sate our inquisitive minds and in so doing, we often lose touch with the audience our work is meant to serve.
Our curiosity running rampant, we can lose track of the sense of wonder that inspired our work in the first place.
Whereas curiosity is an essential quality for any leader, entrepreneur, or creative-minded worker to foster, it can still lead us astray if left unchecked. That’s where wonder comes in.
Wonder is the wire tripper that can get us back on track. But first, what’s the difference between curiosity and wonder anyway?
Curiosity didn’t kill the cat – but it did create the mousetrap. (Click To Tweet – thanks!)
Curiosity begins with a question. It is a quest to bridge the gap between what we know and what we don’t know. Wonder, on the other hand, is sitting in that liminal space between knowing and not-knowing with attentive and focused awareness, and without judgment.
Wonder can be so hard to sit with because our brains are hardwired to close the gaps in our knowledge – and we take immense pleasure in doing so. In fact, research has shown that gathering information about a topic of interest or engaging in novel experiences fires up the same reward circuits of the brain as money or candy. At the same time, we often loathe uncertainty.
As you’re advancing your best ideas or dream endeavor, curiosity’s Pandora effect can manifest in a variety of ways. Our curiosity can lead us to kill time web surfing and Facebook scrolling when instead, we could be taking next steps on that signature workshop or program. It can limit our potential by diffusing our energy across too many projects at once. It can lead us down a rabbit hole of research and cause us to doubt our authority or deflate the ideas we hope to share with the world.
The problem is that if we get stuck in our curiosity and don’t make the leap from inquiry to action, we’ll never advance our purpose-led work. Fortunately, wonder can give us the strength to push forward with our bold ideas and advance the deep work that really matters, even when we don’t feel ready.
How Wonder Can Help (Re)Direct Your Creative Curiosity
Wonder momentarily dissolves our habitual ways of seeing, relating, and feeling so that for a moment we glimpse what is real and what is possible. Unlike awe or fear, wonder neither repels or attracts. It doesn’t inspire us to action but rather, it gives us fresh perspective. And when we’re feeling stuck in our work or overwhelmed with options, a different perspective is exactly what we need to better prioritize our projects.
It can be especially hard for leaders and knowledge workers to sit with wonder because we get so restless with not-knowing. We want to share our message in a way that brings people together, and emboldens them to take action but we think that in order to lead with integrity, we must become experts – and do so fast. The irony is that too much expertise (like too much curiosity) can actually hinder innovation.
So how do you learn to discern which projects to pursue?
Here are three tips to push past your curiosity and discern which projects really matter:
1. Consider a project’s wonder potential.
Before you begin to weigh the costs and benefits, outcomes and energy input, consider each project’s potential to fill you and your community with wonder. Ask yourself:
What exhilarating and perhaps frightening possibility underrides this project?
Would could happen if this project were realized?
What could possibly happen as a result of your pursuing this project sooner than later?
How does that possibility feel in the body?
In a culture that privileges thinking over feeling, this last question may seem out of place. But if we pay close attention to them, our senses can actually help us unpack complicated emotions to better understand how we really feel about a course of action: whether we’re pursuing an idea out of idle curiosity or abiding passion.
Somatic markers are what Antonio Damasio calls those sensations in the body that help us decide a course of action (The Feeling of What Happens). These markers light up key networks in our brain that help the brain’s amygdala and the right somatosensory cortex, for instance, converse with the brain’s executive functioning cortex. In other words, they are the linkages between emotion and sensation that inform our decision-making process.
Next time you’re facing a tough decision on whether or not to pursue a project, take a moment to reflect on it and note where you feel the possibility in your body. Does it feel like a flutter in your stomach or a stone? A balloon expanding in your chest, or a vise grip on your heart. You may find that your body is telling you something your conscious mind had not yet articulated.
2. Know when to kill your darling.
The purpose of writing – or creating anything really – isn’t simply to stroke the scribbler’s ego. A book, blog, or tweet is written for the reader as much as it is for the writer, so when we content creators disregard the audience’s needs for the sake of our own, we do them a great disservice. That’s why famed American author William Faulkner is purported to have said that in writing, “you must kill all your darlings.”
Our “darlings” are the sentences, brushstrokes, or verses that we create and are especially fond of. What Faulkner meant is that as creatively minded people, we have to be especially wary of our precious passages or most self-indulgent flourishes because oftentimes, they serve no one but ourselves. Even in writing these blog posts, I find myself digressing into a topic I know I find fascinating only to realize that I’m not delivering on my promise to you readers.
When we want to inspire other people with our endeavor and ideas, we strive to think beyond our own self-interest and to reflect on our mission. Next time you’re working on a passion project, stop to ask yourself: What purpose is this serving? Why this now? Who cares? Does this inspire wonder?
If you can’t think of a good answer for any of these questions, there might be a darling or two that you need to let go of.
3. Plant a seed of astonishment.
An intention is a conscious gesture to align your mind, heart, imagination, and body with whatever activity you’re about to begin. It is not a goal. A goal is something you measure and check off when you’ve completed it. Unlike with a goal, you let go of an intention’s outcome. I don’t mean that you forget about your audience or tribe or client or boss. Creating with tribe in mind and heart is essential. Rather, you focus on the process, not the reward.
Setting an intention is so much more powerful than setting a goal because an intention plants a seed, a suggestion that may manifest while creating that day or two weeks later. Intention can center the mind and imagination without restricting it. And neuroscience has shown that acting with intention – as opposed to merely going through the motions – stimulates more portions of the brain and can lead to actual, long-term changes in neuronal pathways.
Before you sit down to work on your next project or launch into your next deep dive, ask yourself: what (or who) am I creating for? Write down your response each time and you’ll soon notice patterns. You’ll be able to tell when curiosity fades and wonder takes root.
The next time you find your attention hopping from one possibility to the next, take a few minutes to wonder. Together, wonder and curiosity make an incomparable team on your quest to advance your best work.
If you want to advance your best work in the world, you know that writing is, bar none, the most valuable tool for you to broadcast your best ideas. You may not be sure which ideas you want to share or what conversation you want to lead, but above the din of the digital world and beyond the chaff of the blogosphere, you have something substantial and useful to share.
It’s time to stop hiding.
Now is the time for you to start standing up for the difference you want to make in the world. But how do you get your message out into the digital ether consistently, and in a way that will help you expand your reach and influence?
You Write to Lead.
When you write to lead, you dare to stand up, stand out, and stand for your ideas. In this book, I offer game-changing tactics to position yourself as a thought leader in your field.