June 2

Intellectual Curiosity: Not Just for Nerds

Intellectual curiosity: the official excuse for going down the Wikipedia rabbit hole at 2 a.m. - Unknown

The NY city school system had an established process to identify “bright” 10 – 12-year-old children in schools and place them in rapid advancement classes that would enable pupils to complete three years of schoolwork in two and a half. In 1940, they made one change to the process.

In addition to a high IQ, and other traits such as initiative, reliability and capacity for sustained work, students had to demonstrate intellectual curiosity to be considered “bright.” The result? An almost 33% drop in the number of eligible candidates.

Judging by today’s standards, the NY city school system’s process of identifying bright kids may seem arcane and laughably flawed, but the addition of intellectual curiosity as a parameter was definitely a step in the right direction. It helped shatter the myth that being born with a high IQ guarantees long-term success. Instead, it established the real driver in the quest for constant innovation and personal growth—intellectual curiosity.

What is intellectual curiosity?

The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper. Bertrand Russell

In June 1930, Yale University’s President James R Angell delivered the commencement address at Swarthmore College. He told the graduating students that the real purpose of their education wasn’t about simply making money or finding jobs. Instead, he believed the purpose of education was to release “in the life of youth, genuine abounding springs of intellectual growth…to touch and vitalize the budding mental powers of the adolescent.”

The critical test of a good liberal arts education, Angell said, was an “enduring vitality of intellectual curiosity, a persistent allegiance to the ideals of mental growth, and an unflagging interest in the world of ideas.”

Angell’s speech emphasized one concept in particular—lifelong learning.

Intellectual curiosity refers to a strong desire to explore and understand the world, driven by a genuine interest in learning and discovering new information. It is a quality that motivates individuals to ask questions, seek knowledge, and engage in critical thinking.

What does intellectual curiosity look like?

First, intellectual curiosity isn’t just for nerds. It is what keeps even the couch potatoes among us from turning into full-on human spuds. And it isn’t some esoteric concept either. To be intellectually curious, all you need to do is go beyond surface-level information and dig deeper to understand underlying principles.

Here are some ways to demonstrate intellectual curiosity:

Ask “Why?”

If you’ve spent time around 4-year-olds, you know how fun it can be, until you are peppered with “why?” questions. Tiresome as it may be for us adults, it’s those whys that help the child understand the world around them. Sadly, as we get older, we tend to simply accept information as it is presented without bothering to dig deeper.

Asking “why?” is the first step to intellectual curiosity. Here is an example of how it works.

If someone tells you a restricted calorie diet is a great idea for weight loss, you might survive on a diet of French fries and sodas as long as you stay within the calorie count. But then if you dig deeper into finding out how the body works, you’ll soon realize that not all calories are created equal, and that would put you on a path towards long-term wellness instead of short-term weight management.

Have an open mind

Prejudice is a great time saver. You can form opinions without having to get the facts. E.B. White

We all have our biases and bubbles and sometimes are too steeped in it to even realize there is a living and breathing world outside. Intellectual curiosity means we are open to different perspectives and are willing to challenge our own lifelong biases and beliefs.

Continuous learning

Intellectual curiosity isn’t a one-and-done affair. Rather, it’s a lifelong commitment to learning and skill development.

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Einstein.

If Einstein, a man universally acknowledged as one of our brightest, believed in lifelong intellectual curiosity, you and I should, too. We can never know enough.

How to develop intellectual curiosity?

Here are some strategies that can help foster and enhance your intellectual curiosity.


A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one. George R.R. Martin

Reading diverse material across disciplines and genres exposes you to different ideas and can help you make cross-functional connections that are at the heart of innovation and problem solving.

Retired United States Marine Corps four-star general Jim Mattis, who served as the US secretary of defense from 2017 to 2019, is a staunch believer in the power of reading. In his memoir, Jim Mattis says,

If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you…Any commander who claims he is ‘too busy to read’ is going to fill body bags with his troops as he learns the hard way.

Do something new          

Our lives are mostly routine and made up of a series of mundane tasks, one after another. And that’s not a bad thing. Routines are comfortable. Someone dealing with a life-threatening sickness wouldn’t hesitate an instant to trade places with you just to get a break. Normal isn’t boring.

But not so for our memories. Routine is recorded in invisible ink; our memories do not care about routine. That’s because there is no lesson to be learned from predictable, everyday occurrences.

On the other hand, out-of-the-ordinary events get us emotionally excited. We want to recollect how it felt when we fell in love for the first time or received the first large paycheck, or won employee of the year at the annual company conference. These experiences are what we like to reminisce about time and time again. They trigger dopamine hits and make us feel better about ourselves and the world in general.

So, stay curious. Actively seek out new experiences and step outside your comfort zone. Travel to unfamiliar places, engage in different cultures, try new activities, and meet new people. Novel experiences can spark curiosity and offer fresh perspectives.


Anyone who isn’t embarrassed about who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough. Alain de Botton.

In the 16th century, when tobacco was first introduced in England, it was seen as a reliable prophylactic against the plague. Kids were encouraged to use it and faced punishment in some schools if they didn’t take the required dose. Today, tobacco is a universally recognized risk factor for major diseases, accounting for over 8 million deaths worldwide, according to the WHO.

Skepticism is a trait worthy of cultivating when it’s paired with its healthy partner, intellectual curiosity. Being skeptical of what you hear is good, but even more important is to dig deeper and find out why things are the way they are.

In this age of soundbites and summaries, the ability to delve deep into a topic is an endangered skill. Former US Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, illustrated this with an example. He derided the simplicity of presenting ideas via PowerPoint, calling it “the scourge of critical thinking. It (PowerPoint) encourages fragmented logic by the briefer and passivity in the listener…It makes us stupid.”

Creativity and intellectual curiosity are the dynamic duo for growth and innovation. Our brains just don’t need fuel to grow. They also need to stretch to stay nimble. Curiosity, like yoga for the mind, helps facilitate those stretches.



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