TEDx Talk: The Art of Curiosity

A sneak peek at a TEDx talk I gave at a TEDx Conference on Curiosity in Philadelphia.

Recently I gave this talk at a TEDx Conference on Curiosity in Philadelphia. (This link is just a first look, it’s going up on TEDx YouTube Channel soon.) As I prepared for the talk, it dawned on me just how vitally important curiosity is in my own life, and in the lives of the superachievers that Josh and I interviewed for our book on what it takes to succeed.

Curiosity draws us to something or someone. It informs us. It drives us when our project seems unwieldy, or our endeavor, too taxing, or saying hello to that person sitting next to us at the conference seems so hard..

Our curiosity was the genesis of “The Art of Doing.” And while interviewing the three dozen high achievers in the book, Josh and I quickly discovered just how much being curious underpinned the ten principles and practices that these high achievers shared. 

Ultimately, curiosity is a defining factor in success. As tennis champ Martina Navratilova told us, “It was curiosity that got me into the game and curiosity that keeps me interested.” 

 (Enjoy, I’ve included a transcript and I’ll post a link to more talks on curiosity from the conference as soon as it’s available on the TEDx channel!) 

TRANSCRIPT: Camille Sweeney “The Art of Curiosity,” TEDx 2014

When I was a kid, my family moved around. I went to 5 schools in 7 years. One was a Catholic school in Atlantic City New Jersey in a neighborhood called Ducktown because decades before the Italian guys who lived there wore their hair slicked back in DA’s. Like the Fonz. Ehhhhh.

That’s me. That’s my sixth grade teacher, Sister Raquel.

Sister Raquel wasn’t like the other nuns who’d make us “sit with the devil in the coatroom” if we acted up in class.

Sister Raquel wasn’t exactly the Flying Nun or Maria from the Sound of Music. We weren’t singing: raindrops on roses together….But in her class, something remarkable happened to me.

Sister Raquel would invite people to come meet us. Regular people from the community—a baker, a cop, a doctor. And she’d encourage us to ask them questions about their lives and how they did their jobs.

One time, our visit was from a girl not much older than us. It was a shock. Just months before, her father had shot up his wife and kids and then killed himself. The girl had been blinded by a bullet to the head. But she’d survived. I could feel that in our classroom, she was wary of a roomful of strangers. We were wary of someone who had suffered so much. What could we possibly ask her? A boy in the front row started off: “Are you back in school?” he asked. Not yet, the girl said. “Did you have to move?” someone else asked. “Yes,” the girl said. My turn came. I was nervous. But I was a voracious reader so I decided to ask the girl about the book she had clutched to her chest. “Do you like to read?” I asked. She nodded. I thought that’d be that. But the girl spoke up. “It’s hard to read now,” she said, “I’m just learning Braille.” Well, I was only 11 and I’d never felt Braille, so I asked: “Can I feel it?”

On the page were little bumps. And once I’d felt it—all 38 other kids had to feel it too! Everyone rushed up. Sister Raquel couldn’t stop them. Surrounding the girl, we felt the pages of her book, and asked her more questions.

I remember that moment. In our curiosity…we’d made her one of us.

Now curiosity is a funny thing. In the classical world, someone who was curious was considered a hazard to society. Think Pandora. Pandora’s given a box by the Greek gods, filled with secret “gifts.” And they tell her, “Never open the box!” Well, duh, of course she’s going to open the box. And when she does out flies all the evils of the world. Only Hope is left inside.

The Christians were even crazier about curiosity than the ancient Greeks. To them curiosity was a sin, a moral vice that started with Eve listening to that snake and ripping off the tree of knowledge and ran straight through to the early scientists condemned as heretics.

But a culture, a company, a classroom that inhibits curiosity suppresses inquiry. And we know that when no one asks questions, there is no progress. The status quo remains.

Eventually there was a shift in attitudes about curiosity. Guys like Leonardo Da Vinci proto-hippies really, felt free to not only feel curious—but to act on their curiosity. How? They didn’t rely on ancient texts. Da Vinci observed the world for himself. With an open mind. He turned his attention with care to a mind-blowing range of topics from aerodynamics to zoology.

Now being a word nerd (and thanks, Mom, for making me study Latin), I looked up the Latin root word for curiosity, cura. Cura—that means “care.” The same root as curator, one who looks after obligation or objects with care.

Back in Da Vinci’s day those who spent their time in this caring accumulation of knowledge, collecting objects in elaborate curio cabinets, and recording their insights, were admired for having “a habit” of curiosity.

So what is curiosity?

Researchers curious about curiosity have located it deep in the center of the brain in an area known as the caudate region. We’re wired for curiosity to give us pleasure! One pair of neuroscientists even recently coined a new term for us…Now we’re not just omnivores or herbovores, we’re infovores. ….And that includes my husband.

A few years ago, after a particularly rigorous yoga class, he came home with an idea for a book: “What if we go straight to people who’ve achieved amazing things and ask them, how do you do what you do and how do you do it so well?” My caudate region must have lit up like a disco ball. We got right to work. We made a long list of people we were curious about. And yeah, we high-fived after each person said YES!

We had the Dog Whisperer, the head of a billion dollar company, a hostage negotiator, a tennis champion, an opera diva, an astronomer who’d started the world’s largest search for extraterrestrial life. And many more.

At first our goal was: Hey, let’s find out what’s unique about these people. But in our thousands of hours of research and conversations, to our surprise, we kept finding their similarities. Including their habit of curiosity, tenacious and focused on their area of interest. It was one of the most decisive factors not just in their success but also in their happiness. They had made an art out of their curiosity.

Engaging with these people was like being part of some giant curiosity feedback loop. We were so curious about these people whose curiosity had led them to take big risks and do great things. And, in turn, we hoped, by telling their stories that we’d inspire others to follow their own curiosity to take big risks and do great things.

We’ve heard a lot here today about curiosity. To me, curiosity is a beautiful thing. The good news is, we don’t have to make ourselves be curious, we can just let ourselves be curious. It doesn’t matter if you’re a scientist or a sculptor, a CEO or a sixth grader, as I was when I met that girl, ask yourself: Am I really following my own curiosity? Because it’s the people who follow their curiosity with care, and who cultivate a habit of curiosity, who make a difference.

Make an art of your curiosity—ask more, read more, think more, debate more and share your results with an open heart – like many of you are doing here — and with hope, the last thing left in Pandora’s box.

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