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13 min read

Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It by Ian Leslie

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The second in a series of Better Impact Book Bites – A taste of great books worth consuming.

This Month’s Selection:

Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It by Ian Leslie

Book Background Information: Every other month I’ll choose a non-volunteerism specific book to share with you. I’ll relate the text to our field as volunteer engagement professionals (VEPs). Curious is an easy read and a relatable topic, even for someone who has not studied psychology. It discusses the different types of curiosity and explains (among other things) why the Internet has become a problem. It includes examples of interesting people who became super curious and changed the world. It’s not feasible to reference them all by name in this space, so you’ll need to get your copy to see who they were throughout history. These pages unpack the difference between diversive and empathic curiosity. According to the text, “Diversive curiosity might make you wonder what a person does for a living; empathic curiosity makes you wonder why they do it. “

Why This Book:

The prominent theme is we’re in need of more curious leaners. “Curious people take risks, try things out, and allow themselves to become productively distracted.” I loved this idea and wanted to share Leslie’s words to see if you agree. Recognizing why VEPs should remain curious in our work and in life seemed important to me, but Leslie points out being incurious about a topic can also be contagious. So be curious and keep reading! Let me know in the comments what you think of Leslie’s take on this connection to the human desire for intellectual and cultural exploration.

Who Should Read This Book:

I recommend parents take note of how these concepts relate to childhood and child-rearing. It caused me to pause and think how often my own children ask organic questions, and how I am responding to them. Am I proposing questions for them to consider and thoughtfully answer? I also think this is a great book for those who are trying to make sense of the world and whose mind may race at least once a day from a moment of curiosity.

Who Should You Gift This Book To: Gift this to someone who asks a lot of questions or is randomly interested in new topics of discovery. You could also gift it to someone who’s stuck in a repetitive cycle of life. This might be a breath of fresh air as they ponder their next move.

First 100 Page Do’s:

  • Do seek challenges. (Introduction)
    “Seek out experiences and information that make you think, challenge your assumptions, and pose puzzles.” Not everyone is likely to do this, but if you spot this propensity in someone, encourage it! In the field of volunteer engagement, we are fantastic at setting up policies, procedures, and systems. We let them run flawlessly. At what point do we pause and seek to challenge those systems? When is our time to be curious about why we continue to do what we do? In my trainings to leaders of volunteers I say we are what’s left of the profession after those who exited during the pandemic. We must stay relevant and challenging to leave any kind of footprint for the next generation of professionals.

  • Do feel the power of curiosity. (Chapter One)
    “Self-preservation is our most deep-rooted instinct, but curiosity is powerful enough to override it.” I saw this in the VE (volunteer engagement) field when the pandemic furloughed staff, and entire volunteer programs were shut down. There were pockets across the world where volunteer managers were allowed to problem-solve, be creative and dream about how their pandemic response could innovate for what was to come. Those opportunities to be curious, to research, and to pilot and experiment made all the difference for those VEPs to feel welcomed, to have curiosity, and actually apply it. When have you felt the power of curiosity?

  • Do pay attention to the cues of children, as that is where curiosity begins. (Chapter Two)
    “Infants often point to something to signal their interest in it. The child wants to know more about something and expects their parent to tell them about it. Before they are able to speak, they are asking a question with their finger.” This chapter has great stories about how curiosity begins in life and how we don’t have a fixed amount at birth. Our curiosity can “rise and fall through the day and throughout our lives.” I needed the reminder because even if I’ve felt incurious for a long period of time, I’m not maxed out!
  • Do think about how learning plays into your own curiosity. (Chapter Three)
    “[Learning] in its simplest form, it is this: we learn better when we find learning difficult.” This chapter brings up several points about learning, which were new to me. Referencing this notion from Robert Bjork – desirable difficulties – spotlights how we learn better when the learning is hard and why it feels counter intuitive. In adulthood, when do we seek out discomfort and challenge in learning? I heard from professionals who’ve recently received their master’s degrees that it was an incredible feat. But they’d never want to do again. It was hard and pushed them to the brink of their sanity. Did those challenges make them retain their information better and does the difficulty place higher value on the results of having the degree? As a CVA (Certified in Volunteer Administration), I also hear from professionals whose study habits vary widely. If you find the CVA core competencies and body of knowledge challenging, will it make you study harder? Will the person who felt challenged by the material pass at a higher rate than those who found the text less difficult? I don’t have the answers, but I’m curious.
  • Do ask yourself, “What do I want to learn?” (Chapter Four)
    Leslie tells us this is one of the most important questions of our lives and the one question the Internet can’t help us answer. “The web is easier to search than ever, but because it meets our desires so efficiently, it doesn’t necessarily stoke our curiosity.” When I train professionals about the many transferrable skills of their VE role, I find there are so many opportunities to learn and flex new skills as we lead volunteers in our programs. I started making my own graphics and writing book reviews mainly as a creative outlet far from spreadsheets and reports. I became curious and applied my curiosity to add more skills to my resume. I can take them with me wherever I go. I can also apply them in new ways at my organization or for a new venture like these Book Bites. What do I want to learn next? Hmm, great question!
  • Do come up with your own concept of “grit.” (Chapter Five)
    “Psychologists studying differences in educational achievement have been paying more attention to the question of non-cognitive traits, by which they mean something like personality, or character. The attitude students take towards the learning process and the habits they practice have a bigger impact on how well they do in school than previously accounted for. The trait that has gained the most attention from researchers is conscientiousness and its related qualities: persistence, self-discipline, and what the psychologist Duckworth terms ‘grit.’ I feel like grit can mean different things to different people. How do I show grit in my role as a VEP? I would love to see training on this topic.
  • Do laugh with me at this example. (Chapter Six)
    Roger Schwarz reminds us it’s not enough to ask questions. “We use questions as a disguise for statements we don’t wish to make outright – questions that are meant to prove how clever we are or how stupid someone else is.” You must be genuinely curious. He advises to adopt the “you idiot” test. Mentally recite to yourself the question you’re about to ask. At the end of your private question, add the words “you idiot.” If the question still sounds natural, don’t ask it. Ha!

First 100 Page Don’ts:

  • Don’t allow yourself to lose your taste for curiosity. (Introduction)
    “If you allow yourself to become incurious, your life will be drained of color, interest, and pleasure. You will be less likely to achieve your potential at work or in your creative life. While barely noticing, it, you’ll become a little duller, a little dimmer.” I know, this is a bummer! BUT it’s not too late to reclaim your desire to know more and to express your need for more information. I see when VEPs are not given the room for innovation in their programs or the planning time to map what they know and determine empty spaces for what’s missing. How does a professional explain to their leadership their desire to be curious is part of sustaining a healthy volunteer program? I’m curious if you might have an answer in the comments below.
  • Don’t let instant info kill your ability to gather knowledge. (Chapter One)
    Our digital world means diversive curiosity is constantly stimulated by streams of incoming messages. This means our capacity for the “slow, difficult and frustrating process of gathering knowledge may be deteriorating.” Where in our adult lives do we have discovery?

  • Don’t forget asking questions is an amazing skill. (Chapter Two)
    Being able to ask questions comes with a great set of skills. I often pause when I meet someone (either a volunteer or colleague) who asks me a fantastic question. It’s usually something I’ve never thought of before and leaves me stumped. Those moments send me down new paths. How did I not think of that? Why has no one asked me this question before? Why haven’t I asked it of myself?
  • Don’t forget to close the gap. (Chapter Three)
    Stay with me on this one about the knowledge gap theory. “Information, fuels curiosity by creating awareness of ignorance, which gives rise to a desire to know more. As soon as we know something about a subject, we start to become uncomfortably aware of what we don’t know, and that makes us want to close the gap.” Leslie is stating absence of information is not what creates curiosity, but a gap in our existing information does. For visual learners the book includes a few charts to go along with this chapter. I facilitate a volunteer management certificate program and most of the participants are under one year in their role. They signed up because they have a base knowledge to do their job, but now, they know there is more out there to learn. How have you filled a knowledge gap?
  • Don’t forget to pick up fiction titles too. (Chapter Four)
    What about fiction makes it so compelling? I’m a glutton for non-fiction since the pandemic started, but I was interested in this piece of research. When a professor compared 86 MRI’s he discovered there was “substantial overlap between the neural networks we use to understand stories and the ones we use to navigate our relationships. Novels offer us a kind of mental stimulation of real-life encounters, giving us useful practice in how to interpret the intentions, motives, longings, and frustrations of friends, enemies, neighbors, and lovers.” This series will remain largely non-fiction, but I encourage you to recommend correlated fiction titles in the comments!
  • Don’t outsource your curiosity! (Chapter Five)
    I’m guilty of mindless Internet scrolling: enjoying cat videos, looking up random facts, and browsing various streams on a whim. Leslie points out, “the Internet will effectively take over the functions normally performed by your instinct for inquiry. Your curiosity will be outsourced, and before you know it, you will forget how to practice it. The Internet is making smart people smarter and dumb people dumber.” Asking Siri for information is just too darn easy though! It’s why I’ve enjoyed reading so much over the last two years because the experience is offline, and I highlight things I might like to learn more about. I don’t use a search engine when I read a physical book. What are other ways we could keep our curiosity in-house?
  • Don’t underestimate the power of questions. (Chapter Six)
    This entire chapter is good. I never thought about question asking as a sophisticated skill, until I thought about what VEPs go through in the volunteer interview process. Light bulb! We do figure out – usually after trial and error – how to ask a closed or open question. I’ve been in tough volunteer interviews over the years where I kept having to regroup and think of a different way to ask the same question to get through to the person in front of me. There are tactful ways to get information from someone who’s either nervous, shy, or unfamiliar with the interview experience altogether. Have you previously considered the ability to effectively interview a volunteer as a superpower?

My Millennial Moment:

Oftentimes when I read a book, I pause and my age or my place in time offers context. As a reminder, “diversive curiosity makes us want to know what lies on the other side of the mountain; epistemic curiosity arms us with the knowledge we need to survive when we get there.” Leslie raises a large concern about the use of the Internet, and my generation may not connect with the issue he’s addressing. Does rampant use of the Internet squash curiosity and make us dumber? After I watch a YouTube video, do I then conduct my own research and keep pondering, or am I satisfied with the snippet and move on? If so, how quickly? What sparks me to continue a further knowledge journey? Leslie points out “by making it easier for us to find answers, the Internet threatens habits of deeper inquiry – habits that require patience and focused application.” I see VEPs mirroring the histories of our field – like I referenced in my From The Top Down review – and passing down our industry knowledge to new professionals. What will my generation pass down? We have to be adaptive, inventive, and imaginative to succeed in keeping our field vibrant and thriving. “Not being satisfied is what makes curiosity so satisfying.” You know?

Next 100 Page Do’s:

  • Do share in my appreciation for long-term memory. (Chapter Seven)
    This chapter has good information about memory, including many facts I did not know and its related research. I’ve heard, in order to create good content, we must consume good content. I consume a lot of content about the field of volunteer engagement and most if it (the better items) sticks with me and gets stored and then grouped together with older information to form “associative networks of understanding.” When I teach my VE certificate program, I feel like I’m diving into the ocean of training I’ve consumed over the years, and I can reiterate it to my new audience. “The emptier our long-term memories, the harder we find it to think.” I feel like I can answer questions on the spot because I have a catalog of long-term memories of volunteer engagement best practices. Lucky me! Leslie points out long-term memory is the hidden power behind cognition. “It is the source of much of our intelligence, insight and creativity.” There’s also a lot in this chapter again explaining the difference between diversive and epistemic curiosity.
  • Do brush up on empathy. (Chapter eight)
    I’m always up for a discussion on empathy, which is what I first considered when Leslie talked about empathic curiosity. “Empathy is more important than sympathy, because empathy involves making an effort to be consciously curious about the other person’s perspective.” If you read this book, you’ll see how curiosity is weaved into so many building blocks of relationships and how we relate to others.

Next 100 Page Don'ts:

  • Don’t give up. (Chapter Seven)
    “The most successful students aren’t necessarily the cleverest; they are the ones who don’t give up.” This chapter includes information from the book How Children Succeed by Paul Tough. He talks more about the role character plays in education versus intelligence with another reference to grit. We are all students in some capacity, whether we’re studying for our CVA or changing careers, or engaging in curiosity about something completely new. How do you keep your resolve to push forward?
  • Don’t forget to market your own talents. (Chapter Eight)
    This chapter predates the Great Resignation we’re experiencing across industries. But there are interesting correlations. “In the marketplace for talent, the people most in demand will always be those who offer an expertise few others possess.” I train on how VEPs can tell their professional story online and how they can boost their resume. We cannot forget the knowledge and curiosity we bring to the workplace could be the trait that sets us apart. I hope you have the desire to remain curious at work, now and in the future.

Things That Never Change:

“There are two sides to curiosity. One compels us to turn over stones, open cupboards, and click on links. The other makes us want to spend time finishing long novels and pursuing interests that have nothing to do with our self-interests.” Do you see living examples of this within your volunteer rosters? You may recognize those who move in and out of programs versus those who submit well-researched articles for your newsletter and pursue more arduous volunteer projects. It feels like the accumulation of specialized knowledge holds people in place for longer. Leslie theorizes curious people take risks, try things out and allow themselves to be productively distracted. I also wonder if curious VEPs view risk management in a different way. If they are given the freedom to pilot new programs because they express their curiosity so well, it becomes contagious to the rest of their team. Are they any better at maintaining the ‘many hats’ we wear? There will always be new volunteers entering programs around the world; this fact won’t change but what they find when they arrive might.

Final Musings:

The text includes some bits about puzzles, codes, and mysteries, which was super fun to read. From the lens of a VEP, I gathered insight into why volunteers try positions briefly and then move on, and why volunteers ask staff a lot of questions about their work etc. “Being curious means wanting to find out about things you DON’T care about and AREN’T interested in – things you didn’t know you were interested in until you found out that you are.” Have you had a curiosity come out of nowhere? Let me know in the comments.

Coming Up Next:

I’m looking forward to spotlighting a great volunteer management-specific book, which should be on every professional’s shelf. What’s your guess on the title?

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