How To Be Intellectually Curious

Last week I participated in a lively, invigorating conversation with a roomful of university students. I was privileged to be the guest speaker in a class studying administration in nonprofit organizations.

The instructor gave me a heads-up that the class was highly motivated so I’d better “bring my A game.” She promised I’d be impressed with the students’ intellectual curiosity.

Intellectual curiosity? Coming from a teacher, that’s a pretty high compliment. I was eager to find out what she meant.

Sure enough, the students electrified the classroom with their galvanizing intellectual curiosity. For more than an hour we talked and learned from each other. I even made written notes on things they taught me.

In the days afterward, I kept asking myself how one becomes intellectually curious. What are the characteristics? To answer that question, I mentally stepped back into the classroom to remind myself what transpired there. Here are three things I observed:

  1. They asked good questions. The students were genuinely curious. They asked probing, insightful questions to explore and illuminate the world around them. Though they were mature young men and women, they retained a magical, childlike curiosity. If moving into adulthood means they will someday have more answers than questions, then I hope those students never grow up.
  2. They didn’t expect me to have all the answers. We had a vibrant, interactive conversation because none of us unrealistically expected anyone else to have all the answers. We talked with an unspoken realization that together we had a collective wisdom that surpassed what any of us individually might bring to the table. We somehow knew that we were each mosaic tiles—individually colorful and unique, yet able to create a bigger picture only when our combined perspectives were viewed as a whole.
  3. Our curiosity was not quenched. I often feel cheated when a good conversation concludes prematurely with a quick, neat and easy solution. When I left the students, their questions remained in my mind. For days afterward I wrestled with issues we talked about. I trust that they also left our discussion having more questions than they had before we began. After all, a worthwhile conversation continues to ripen long after the verbal exchange has ceased.
Yes, the instructor was right. I was impressed with the intellectual curiosity of her students. Without a doubt, these young men and women will leave an indelible mark on this world if they retain their curiosity. If they keep asking good questions, they will remain forever young.

I hope we all remain forever young and forever curious. To that end, I share an old Bob Dylan song, modified only slightly for the purposes of this blog post. Here is my wish for the students, and for each of us:

May God’s blessing keep you always,

May your wishes all come true,

May you always do for others

And let others do for you.

May you build a ladder to the stars

And climb on every rung,

May you stay forever young intellectually curious.

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