What do Sherlock Holmes, Albert Einstein, and the Bushmen hunter gatherers of the Kalahari all have in common?
They all use the power of curiosity to achieve success!
Human beings are learning machines, driven by the urge to explore, wonder, ask questions, and get curious about the world.
If you ever doubt this fact, just watch any 2 year old child in action and observe what they do.
All children in their natural state have this innate curiosity, which can be developed and applied to any goal.
- Investigators & detectives like the great Sherlock Holmes used curiosity to develop uncanny powers of deduction and crime-solving.
- Albert Einstein pondered the mysteries of the universe, driven by his insatiable desire to know, and sparked a revolution in human understanding about physical reality.
- The Bushmen use their curiosity to unravel the mysteries of wild animals through tracking & bird language, and survive with nothing in one of the harshest environments on the planet.
These skills are all the result of being free to observe, ask questions, form theories & test assumptions over and over again.
In each case, the full potential for learning would not be possible without being deeply curious.
But if everyone is born with innate curiosity, then why aren’t more people reaching their full potential for being curious learners?
Let’s take a closer look.
Why Aren’t People More Curious?
This is a question I first started pondering around age 16.
At that time, I was attending the local public high school and it would be an understatement to say that I was incredibly bored.
My classes were boring.
My teachers were boring.
Everything was just so boring!
And I couldn’t stand it.
It drove me crazy to the point where I had to find other ways of satisfying my need for exploration.
- I actually taught myself basic chemistry because I wanted to make fireworks & distill alcohol in my closet.
- I started a music recording business because I loved sound and producing tangible works of musical art.
- I would devour books on any topic that interested me from science & philosophy, to computers & electronics… and especially how humans can reach their full potential in life.
It was lucky that my mom was an early childhood educator who intuitively understood the value of free play & exploration.
She tolerated my bizarre and specific interests, and managed to keep me engaged with enough school work to graduate.
But I was never able to shake this feeling that there was something very wrong with the education system.
I became acutely aware of the significant disconnect between how most people learn, and how human beings are supposed to learn.
Most Education Is Not Led By Curiosity
The modern school system is really a perfect example of an environment that does NOT encourage curiosity.
As you probably are aware, most schools teach that there’s one correct answer and if you don’t get the correct answer then your answer is wrong.
You sit inside concrete walls with very little sensory stimulation & opportunities to explore.
The result is that people grow up with early learning experiences that are incredibly boxy.
But I truly believe it’s not that you actually lack curiosity… It was simply never allowed to develop fully.
A lot of this has to do with environment and the setting in which curiosity is either encouraged or discouraged.
- Curiosity is a subtle ability that gets passed down, almost by osmosis through the environment and encouragement we get by our teachers & mentors…
- It doesn’t take long to realize that most people grew up in an environment where curiosity wasn’t encouraged or developed.
- Most people have developed strategies for learning that depend on memorization and regurgitating other people’s ideas as opposed to exploring their own ideas and getting curious about the world.
Many people intuitively understand that something is a bit broken in the way modern schools develop the minds of young people.
But what is the alternative?
I wanted to know how I could develop my mind to it’s fullest potential.
So I searched far and wide for everything I could find on learning psychology, anthropology & human cultural evolution.
On my quest for leading the best possible life, I eventually came to the conclusion that going into nature is the best way to awaken curiosity.
It all has to do with some very obvious reasons that I’ve devoted the last 13 years of my life to studying & sharing with my students…
How To Increase Curiosity With Nature
The natural world is a very different learning environment from a typical school system because you get to choose your own adventure.
The world of plants, birds, trees, animals & all the cycles of an ecosystem are like an all-you-can-eat buffet for the senses.
It gives you the opportunity to wonder and to ask questions.
You get to explore things from an incredibly free position simply by going outside.
It’s no mistake that Naturalist Intelligence is considered it’s own intelligence style by developmental Psychologist Howard gardner.
Nature is the ideal environment for developing curiosity & intelligence because human beings evolved for this exact purpose.
In fact, the entire purpose of our human bodies & minds (at least in a worldly sense) is to survive in nature.
How do I know this?
This is just plain common sense if you look back at human history.
Everybody knows that before we were farmers & merchants… we were hunters & gatherers.
The majority of our history has been spent in nature.
Our brains evolved in that exact survival situation.
- We learned to track prey and avoid detection on the hunt.
- We learned when the songbirds are giving alert calls for lions & tigers.
- We learned which plants & wild foods are safe to eat.
And we did all of this without books, computers, or internet.
If you stop and really think about what that means… it’s a pretty incredible accomplishment.
It’s a well known fact that human beings are not the strongest or the fastest animals in the woods.
We’re actually pretty slow and weak when compared to things like leopards & Hippos.
But the one thing we do have going for us is our big curious brain. It really says a lot about the potential of that mass of grey matter between your ears.
These days humans tend to use their senses and brains to watch TV, or crunch numbers, or send emails.
But that is not what the human brain is designed for!
Awakening Natural Curiosity
I first discovered my own natural curiosity from books and articles about the benefits of connecting with nature.
It was apparent though that in order to really get those benefits, I needed to actually get outside and engage.
My goal in writing this today is that hopefully at some point, you will take your own steps to cultivate naturalist intelligence outside, and get these benefits for yourself!
It’s easy. It’s fun. And it will make you a calmer, more intelligent, and successful person.
How I Got Started…
My journey into natural curiosity began with a daily routine of sitting outside on the lawn next to my house, usually for about 20-30 minutes.
This practice is called a Sit Spot.
Literally anyone can take a few minutes every day to sit quietly outside and observe what’s happening.
It might sound very simple, yet everyone who tries this activity is amazed by the abundance of birds, plants & natural elements that normally go unseen.
It sounds funny… but I can honestly say that sitting on the lawn literally changed my life!
It was the first time I had ever slowed down enough to really tune-in with my surroundings.
I still didn’t know the names of any plants, birds or trees, expect for the occasional robin and dandelion flowers.
But I could feel my physical awareness stretching, simply because I was allowing myself space to be present with the land.
This is the first step to increasing curiosity with nature.
You sit quietly and observantly outside… and things slowly start to hook your attention.
At first it might be a new bird, or the sound of wind blowing through the treetops.
If you sit there long enough, eventually something will hook your attention that is so bizarre and mysterious that it captivates your entire being.
For me it was the sound of a Barred Owl.
Learning To Be Curious From A Barred Owl
One day, early on in my daily Sit Spot practice, I heard a noise that completely stopped my world.
I heard these crazy monkey-like noises of Barred Owls calling out from the distance, and it was love at first sound.
Here’s a little sample:
It was the craziest sound I had ever heard.
And at that time, I had no idea what it was.
It was unlike anything I had ever encountered before.
But it caught my curiosity, and sent me on a quest to discover the identity of these crazy sounds.
This is where the real power of nature shows it’s face.
On the surface it all feels like fun-time & exploration.
But internally, my brain was lighting up with the emotion of curiosity & excitement.
My senses were being stimulated and integrated in a way I had never experienced before.
And every-time I heard that sound, I would wander into the woods and search for where that sound was coming from.
I went to the Internet and I looked up all kinds of different nature sounds until eventually I did discover the identity of those crazy sounds.
And when I finally realized this was a Barred Owl, it only made me even MORE curious & excited to explore deeper!
Not only did I have this really crazy sound coming from the forest… but it was a really cool animal that was out there.
It’s an owl, that’s so cool! I had no idea there were owls living right in my own neighbourhood…”
It blew my mind that I had been living there for all those years, without realizing there were owls in my own backyard.
In fact, there were probably owls living around us that entire time and I just never noticed them.
Why didn’t I notice them?
I never noticed them simply because I wasn’t paying attention.
So it made me wonder,
What else have I missed? What else have I been missing all these years?”
It got me really thinking about the possibilities of everything there was to explore right in my own backyard.
Here is where it all ties back to awakening curiosity…
Do you see how all this learning is coming directly from curiosity & observation?
No one was telling me to do this.
No one was holding my hand & answering the questions for me.
Yet I was expanding my worldview, and my nervous system was being refreshed by feelings of passion, curiosity, and new discovery.
Over the coming months, I continued learning about the Barred Owls and gradually exploring deeper into the forest.
Until one day I was sitting at my Sit Spot when a huge Barred Owl landed in the tree next to me about 10 feet away.
It was so close.
I’m sure I must have had a look of shock on my face as this owl landed there.
I had never been this close to a wild animal before.
I was so close that when it flew away, I could feel the wind from its wings brush against my face.
That moment has stayed with my as a vivid memory for more than 12 years now.
It was the real life proof that I was discovering a deeper knowledge of my environment.
And the amazing thing is that 90% of the learning came simply from curious exploration, sensory awareness & daily observation.
I was learning directly from nature itself!
Nature taught me how to think, how to make observations, form theories, test theories & reach conclusions.
And it will do the same for you too, if you give it a chance.
The rest of this article I’d like to share some easy steps for how you can do this too.
If you want to increase your curiosity with Nature, how do you actually do it?
Step 1: Adopt A Sit Spot
The first thing I always suggest is to start a daily Sit Spot practice routine.
The idea here is simply to go outside and sit quietly in nature, open up your senses and observe the birds, plants, trees, animals, seasons, etc.
With repetition, gradually you’ll train your senses & observation skills to become aware of more and more subtle patterns in the local environment.
Doing Sit Spot will develop your naturalist mind and bring you to a much more tuned-in, intuitive or instinctive experience outside.
Important: Just don’t make this any more complicated than it actually is.
I’ve noticed that people often try to complicate Sit Spot, and then wonder why they aren’t making progress.
Start with just 5-10 minutes and see how it feels…
- It’s normal to have moments when you feel bored or antsy, especially if you live a very full life, always on the go.
- It does take a certain level of mental & physical relaxation to really activate your naturalist intelligence and connect with the landscape on a deeper level.
- To get over that hump you can practice relaxation techniques, give yourself lots of time to wind down, go wandering in the forest, and let go of your expectations.
- Eventually you want to work up to sitting quietly for at least 20-30 minutes or even longer.
Little by little, you’ll find yourself becoming drawn into nature during moments of authentic curiosity with the plants, birds & trees around you.
You might hear an interesting sound, or an animal will approach you. You might become mesmerized by pollen or fluffy seeds blowing in the wind.
When that happens. Just continue focusing on that spark of curiosity.
It will pull you out of your self-absorbed personal thinking, and get you focused on the world for a change.
What do you feel in those moments when you become absorbed in nature?
This is your curiosity emerging!
Step 2: Open Your Senses & Observe
Now that you’re outside, there are certain practices you can do to enhance your experience and make it more likely for curiosity to emerge.
You can never force anything to happen, but if you take the right mindset then you will begin to experience what I call “A Moment of Spontaneous Captivation With Nature”.
I’m constantly reminding my students to keep their attention & focus on the external, sensory world.
What are you seeing?
What are you hearing?
What are you observing?
It probably drives folks crazy, but there’s a very good reason why I do this.
Pretty much every person alive in modern times has spent their entire life focused almost exclusively inside their own head.
A good example:
Whenever I go for a walk with someone in a park, I’ll see birds, squirrels, plants, trees, all co-existing together and telling a story.
- I’ll see tracks in a mud puddle and it tells me where the deer are hanging out.
- I’ll hear bird alarms in the distance and catch the signs of a hidden owl or sneaking cat nearby.
- The plants & trees tell stories about the season & history of that land.
- I can tell whether the forest has been cared for or neglected, and the overall density of animals living there.
The forest speaks volumes to those who pay attention!
It’s all connected together in a way that can be read and understood in the same way that you might read a book.
But do you know what most people see when they walk in the forest?
Pretty much nothing!
It’s almost like people have become addicted to their own thoughts & ideas. And it interferes with the ability to see, hear & observe.
Woa! Did you see that bird? That was crazy!”
“Oh, no I didn’t… I was thinking about (my job, my friend, my dog, my school project, etc).”
It’s very tempting to become absorbed in your own thoughts, especially if that’s what you’ve been practicing all your life.
To awaken your curiosity, you need to step outside your own world and enter something bigger.
When you notice yourself going into your imagination or internal dialog, just pull your attention back to the outside world.
You can do this with certain exercises to encourage the growth of your senses individually & all together.
Even just for a few minutes every day… open your senses, and focus on the outside world.
My sensory awareness article shares some great exercises you can practice at a Sit Spot.
Step 3: Ask Questions
Being curious is deeply linked with a willingness to ask questions.
It’s a fact that people who are curious ask more questions than anyone else.
And on the flip side, people who ask more questions eventually become more curious too.
The real trick is that you have to allow yourself to wonder, and ask questions for their own sake and be okay with not knowing the answer.
This is one of the most difficult steps because you need to sit with the unknown.
This all goes right back to our early learning experiences at school and home.
- Did you grow up in an environment where you were always expected to have the “correct” answer?
- What happened if you didn’t know the answer to a question?
- Were you scolded and forced to study harder?
- Or were you encouraged to think and explore and ask more questions?
The fact is, whenever I ask my nature mentoring students a question… I couldn’t care less whether they have the answer or not!
In most cases I will intentionally ask questions that are beyond their current ability because it lights a pathway towards growth & exploration.
The value of a question really has nothing to do with finding the answer.
It has to do with how that question leads you to think, explore, re-evaluate, and look more closely at how you see the world.
You’re not gonna be able to always find the answer.
And that’s perfectly okay!
I like to think of questions as more like prompts for awareness:
What am I seeing?
What am I hearing?
What am I observing?
What am I curious about?
What is happening with the trees, plants, birds?
What is this telling me?
If you go to a Sit Spot and ask yourself those questions… I guarantee you will see more than if you went outside without asking those questions
What am I observing?
I’m observing a bird feeding on the ground.
What is it telling me?
It’s telling me that there’s some sort of food source over there. I wonder what that bird is eating…
What’s happening with the plants & trees here?
It’s a suburban backyard. There are a couple trees and shrubs around the edge. This bird is underneath the shrubs. I don’t know the species, but it’s some kind of evergreen shrub.
Could there be seeds or insects under there?
Definitely could be. I’ll have to explore 😉
Step 4: Go Slow And Steady
The key with all this is to take it slow.
I’m constantly encouraging my nature mentoring students to take the long-view.
- Just imagine how much further you’ll be after just one week of practice…
- Then imagine how much further you’ll be if you spend a whole month observing nature every day…
- Now imagine what you can accomplish in a whole year, even without amazing discipline…
When I first started out visiting my Sit Spot, I was super inconsistent. I would go every day for a week and then I’d get distracted for a month.
But honestly, it really doesn’t matter if you get distracted from time to time, as long as you eventually come back to what’s important to you.
Consider this: Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly!
So here’s your mission:
- Set aside one 20-30 minute block over the next week
- Go outside and sit down somewhere
- Consciously relax your mind & body
- Practice some sensory awareness exercises
- Just see how it feels & notice what you observe
This is the exact recipe I started with, and still use today for increasing my own curiosity & naturalist intelligence.
Try it out and let me know what happens!