Why Curiosity Is Your Best Guide to a Remarkable Future

Mountaineer looking over stunning view from mountain pathHave you ever wondered what to do with your life?

You have talent and skills. A little knowledge and experience. Maybe a job, maybe a few freelance gigs.

But what you don’t have is a Big Idea that fills you with passion and makes you want to leap out of bed in the morning. A mission that gives you a sense of purpose, a chance to change the world.

And without that, everything you do feels a bit disjointed. Interesting in fits and starts, occasionally exciting, but ultimately aimless.

So how can you find your Big Idea?

When coaching clients come to me with this question, I tell them about a writing class I attended years ago, with the famous poet Craig Raine.

The walls of his office were lined, as far as I could tell, entirely with 20th-century poetry. I was part of a group of undergraduates filling the room to bursting point, covering the floor as well as the chairs. And in that first lesson, he said something that has stayed with me ever since:

Writing poetry is like scraping wallpaper.

Pretty inspiring, huh?

Naturally, we were all curious to hear what he meant. When you start scraping out the wallpaper, he explained, a little tag flips up – when you pull the tag, usually it just comes off in your hand and you have to start scraping again. But sometimes you pull away a couple of feet of wallpaper, which saves you a lot of scraping.

Sometimes, as you get better at it, you get the satisfaction of pulling away a large strip of wallpaper that comes away all in one piece. And very occasionally, you pull one little tag and the strip of wallpaper snakes all the way up the wall and down again, round the corner and along the next wall, on and on until you’ve unravelled the entire room … and written Paradise Lost.

Now, all poets would love to write something as famous as Paradise Lost. But Raine’s point was that if you want a chance of unravelling the enormous long trail of wallpaper, you have to be prepared to do a lot of scraping, pull a lot of tags, and get used to most of them coming away with just an inch or two of wallpaper in your hand.

Pulling a tag, he explained, is following your curiosity, to see where it leads. In spite of the fact there are no guarantees. Even if, most of the time, it leads nowhere.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. Because to be curious, you have to admit that you don’t know what you’re doing, or where you’re going.

You probably have more pressing demands on your time, and plenty of more sensible options on the table. When someone asks you what you’re up to, it’s hard to justify doing something out of sheer curiosity.

But if you keep pulling those tags, and trusting your curiosity to lead you where it will, you are liable to make some interesting discoveries. Every so often, your curiosity will develop into interest, fascination, enthusiasm.

Once in a while, you’ll discover something amazing.

And if you keep following your curiosity, as the years go by, you’ll learn something even more remarkable than these flashes of insight. Bit by bit, as your curiosity brings you knowledge, skills and experiences, you’ll start to notice unexpected relationships and synergies between interests you thought had nothing to do with each other.

You’ll find other people with similar interests, and situations where your combination of skills and knowledge is exactly what’s required, even though you could never have anticipated it.

You’ll start to fit the pieces of the jigsaw together, and catch glimpses of an emerging bigger picture.

When you get to this stage, you’ll have a newfound respect for your curiosity. It will start to seem less like a will-o’-the-wisp and more like the prompting of your creative unconscious, intuition, Muse, higher self, personal genius or whatever else you call it.

Almost without realising it, you’ll have discovered your passion, and be well on the way to finding your Big Idea.

In the course of my career I’ve pulled all kinds of tags, including poetry, hypnosis, copywriting, psychotherapy, systems thinking, meditation, entrepreneurship, martial arts, foreign languages, intellectual property law, organisation theory, social media, internet marketing, business models, time management, public speaking, graphic design, improvisation, mythology, screenwriting, juggling and archery.

If you asked me what the common theme was, I’d struggle to tell you. A lot of my interests didn’t lead anywhere very much. I can barely juggle with more than three balls, and I hope my life never depends on my skills as a martial artist.

But when I look at the big picture, it’s amazing how many interests I’d written off as dead ends turned out to be really useful later on. For example, I thought I’d given up copywriting years ago, not realising how useful it would be when I was running my own business online.

And when I look back on my patchwork career, I don’t see how I could have created a business like Lateral Action without having had such a wide range of interests.

So these days, when a new idea piques my curiosity, even if I can’t see any relevance to my other activities, I give it the benefit of the doubt and follow it up. Just for the hell of it.

How Curious Are You?

How likely are you to follow your curiosity?

What discoveries has your curiosity led you to make?

Have you ever pursued an apparently irrelevant interest, only to find it really useful later on?

Photo by ilker ender.

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 26-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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  1. Really great post, Mark! It reminded me of something that one of my favorite professors told my class once: “I’ve met a lot of very successful people in my life, and the one thing that they all had in common is that they were all intensely curious people.”

    Thanks for sharing this thought with us!

  2. I call that thing that pulls all those those seemingly disparate elements together “The Invisible Thread”. It sews together your unique life 🙂

  3. Thanks for this Mark! Curiosity is key – it led me to travel to feed my interest in other cultures. It pushes me to play with all the elements of being a knitwear designer – the yarns, the colors, the shapes, to name a few – to see what happens (I rarely know beforehand). It got me writing when I needed to find my place in an expat life. I’m now weaving together these three threads to create a new venture. The thought “Hey, what if…?” does truly get me out of bed each morning to pursue my Big Idea.

  4. Hi Mark! What a wonderful post – I agree completely: Curiosity is key. In fact, I would go so far as to say that curiosity can save the world. I opens the doors to learning, to understanding others, to understanding ourselves, and it opens the doors to a joy-filled life. It is not without risks, but they are so worth it.

    Thank you for a wonderful piece!

  5. Hey Mark,

    I can relate to the scraping wallpaper analogy with creating poetry, and music.

    Curiosity is often stifled. I never liked that, particularly as a child when the remaining words of “curiosity killed the cat” were left out: “satisfaction brought it back”.

    I have pursued a variety of areas too: reiki, hypnotherapy and self-hypnosis, freestyle wrestling, herbalism, copywriting, online marketing.

    With wrestling in particular, I learned that you had to devote time every day to build up the neck strength and overall flexibility to fight. When I got out of the habit, I lost momentum. The same with writing. Experience is important, but working the muscle is too.

    Innate curiosity should be welcomed. Questions don’t always lead directly to answers, but they lead away from limiting beliefs and stagnation, and that is always a good thing.


  6. Such a fascinating post with intriguing metaphors!

    So we strip away ‘the wall-paper of life’, bit by bit, by all kinds of actions and endeavours, and we see a picture emerging but as we keep peeling it further we may discover that the picture is part of a larger picture, which itself might be part of an even larger picture …

    or that there’s another layer of wall-paper under the surface wall-paper …

    Life is an uncovering.

    But who’s drawing the picture? Ourselves? The universe? Both? None of the above? I’m so CURIOUS! 😉

  7. really enjoyed reading that post Mark. somehow it’s giving me permission to keep following my passions. so grateful for curiosity and your thoughts on it today,

  8. I love the wallpaper analogy – will pass this on to my poetry students. Much food for thought all round, and many of them struggle to find what their passion is.

  9. Mark:

    A moving post on many counts. Today, not coincidentally, I asked a client 15 questions to assess whether or not she was ready to take an entrepreneurial leap. It dawned on me later that I should have added, “Are you intellectually curious about things that perhaps only you seem to be curious about? And do you follow up?” Something like that.

    Thanks for the story, the memorable image, and the insight.

  10. Curiosity they say killed the cat, I doubt.

    My curiosity is what has kept me going for years now. For me though, I found my purpose early and my curiosity was more about how to fulfill it. So my venturing was to figure out the best way to fulfill purpose. The curiosity led me to search, in searching I began to learn and in learning ideas began to flourish.

    On the idea part, I have learnt that it’s ok to move with the flow. Like Steve Jobs would say; “the dots of our lives can never be connecting looking forward, they are only connected looking backwards.”

    When you feel it is right, go ahead. Sooner or later, that seemingly odd puzzle will fit into the rest perfectly.

    • I found my purpose early and my curiosity was more about how to fulfill it.

      That’s a nice way of looking at it. I guess curiosity is a big part of the entrepreneurial vocation.

  11. I love this, Mark! The analogy of wallpaper is one that I never would’ve thought of, but that gives me a very clear picture of the process– much clearer than I’ve had before.

    I think this applies not only to discovering your deep interests or “big ideas,” but also to the persistence that’s required to keep your “big idea” alive once you’ve found it. You keep chipping away, again and again and again, until you hit something that really resonates with someone or that helps to “snowball” the effect. Many of the things you create or do for the sake of your “big idea” may pull off very small pieces of wallpaper, but if you keep at it, sooner or later you might unravel an entire wall 🙂

    Perfect and inspiring piece!

    • I’d never have thought of the wallpaper analogy either, but Raine is very good at unexpected comparisons.

      I think this applies not only to discovering your deep interests or “big ideas,” but also to the persistence that’s required to keep your “big idea” alive once you’ve found it.

      Agreed. Sounds similar to Tito’s experience (above).

  12. Great article.