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Curiosity vs Conformity

“Curiosity… is insubordination in it’s purest form.” – Vladamir Nabakov

It’s becoming increasingly common for leadership coaches and innovation experts to espouse the benefits, and even necessity, of curiosity. And yet we also know, as I explained in a previous post, that education systems and workplaces typically discourage curiosity.

Why is this? What is it about curiosity that is so repellent?

Curiosity, actually, has a very long history of being seen as dangerous; we all know the aphorism, “Curiosity killed the cat”. The Greek myth of Pandora is the classic tale of curiosity gone awry. Zeus commissions Haephaestus to design ‘Pandora’, the first woman, as a trap for Prometheus in revenge for his stealing fire. Zeus then gives Pandora a gift on her wedding day, a beautiful jar, but forbids her from opening it to see the contents. As we all know, Pandora’s curiosity gets the better of her, releasing all the evils known to humanity. Another even more familiar creation myth is also a tale of the danger of curiosity: the story of Paradise. Eve cannot resist the temptation to eat of the apple of the tree of knowledge, the result of which is humanity being expelled from Paradise by the angry God, to live and work ever after in toil and suffering.

The stories of Pandora and Paradise have quite a few things in common. In both cases curiosity is represented by the feminine, in both cases curiosity is related to contravening a masculine authority, in both cases there is a punishment for stealing a transformational power that only the gods can have (fire and knowledge), and in both cases the punishment is permanent and catastrophic.

Evidently, according to the myths, there can be a very high price to pay for curiosity.

What is the authority that would punish curiosity?

Mario Livio states it plainly in his TedTalk ‘The Case for Curiosity’: “Who is it that doesn’t want you to be curious? Totalitarian regimes. People who have something to hide.” Trump - Media the enemy of the peopleA powerful indictment against those who reject questions! What is that totalitarian regimes do the world over: claim that the Free Press – the questioning corps – is the enemy of the people.

Curiosity – the virtuous cycle of questions – is revelatory: it wants to know… its got to know. And so, where there is much to hide, it is most unwelcome, and so it is that this essay opened with Nabakov’s exclamation that “Curiosity… is insubordination in it’s purest form.” So curiosity, in the context of political oppression, can be a cognitive Molotov cocktail.

Curiosity is typically challenging to an insecure status quo. In classrooms and also boardrooms ‘the way things are done’ can prove to be immutably resistant to change. Curiosity may question ‘the way things are done’, and make those who benefit from the way things are done feel vulnerable. This feeling of vulnerability is rarely welcome. Furthermore we live in a culture in which teachers and managers are expected to have answers. Any really good question is hard to answer… but rather than provoking a thoughtful reflection, or discussion, or avenue of exploration, in an insecure culture it will provoke a fiercely defensive rebuke.

There are, however, much more subtle, and possibly more powerful, ways in which curiosity is suffocated. If – as we learned in a previous essay – anomalies, misfits and deviations heighten curiosity, we can also say that habit and conformity suppress it. And we are indeed creatures of conformity. The renowned and somewhat disturbing series of experiments done by Solomon Asch in 1951 demonstrated with great clarity the fact that a majority of people will literally deny the evidence of what they clearly see with their very own eyes if it risks social alienation, even amongst a group of strangers. Put in a room with a small group of actors who were instructed to all agree on a patently false statement about a chart they were shown test subjects would – despite evident discomfort – almost always agree with ‘the group’. Conformity can be a great silencer of questions than threats of imprisonment.

In Susan Engels’ book ‘The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood’ she discusses a complex and subtle array of cues by which adults – parents and teachers – encourage or discourage curiosity in children. She describes how “different avenues of influence converge and blend to create an overall environment that may be more or less conducive to children’s curiosity”. “Although curiosity leads to knowledge”, Engel writes, “it can stir up trouble, and schools too often have an incentive to squelch it in favor of compliance and discipline.” (1)

Cultures of conformity – whether in homes, classrooms, tribes or workplaces – are just such ‘overall environments’. Culture is made up of webs of significance, nests of commitments, cycles of behaviour and paths of influence which mesh and blend together to create an overall environment. Cultures also have, like any organism, an immune system which a poignant curiosity may provoke, releasing the antibodies of defensiveness, shunning, demotion, degrading, expulsion, aggression, etc.

(1) Excerpt from Susan Engels, ‘The Hungry Mind’ @ Salon.com


The Neurology of Curiosity & What Makes Us Curious

How does it feel when you are searching for the possible answer.” – Matthias Gruber

Curiosity: NeuroChemical Learning Overdrive

Probably the most exciting frontier of psychological research today is the field of neurobiology. With an exponentially rapidly evolving panoply of new tools with which to observe the brain in action and analyze its chemistry and network circuitry, we’re making extraordinary discoveries that have great ramifications beyond the field of neurology.

Your brain on curiosity

How does it feel when we are curious? There’s an urge, an excitement, a stimulation; curiosity is energizing! And what’s happening in our brain when we are feeling this way? Curiosity activates the mid-brain and the nucleus acumens which are part of the dopaminergic circuit (1), the brain’s ‘wanting system’. These are the areas of the brain involved when we anticipate rewards like money or food or sex. Essentially curiosity behaves in the brain like a hunger, recruiting the same brain areas whose function is to maintain motivation and drive towards a reward – in this case a cognitive reward (2). As astropohysicist Mario Livio puts it bluntly, “Satisfying our curiosity is like having good sex.”(3)

The activation of curiosity also activates another potent combination in the brain, that of the hippocampus and its communication with the mid-brain. The hippocampus is the area of the brain associated with memory and particularly with forming new memories. When this area of the brain is activated in relationship to the part of the brain associated with motivation you have a very simple and massively important result: learning. “Curiosity energizes us via the brain’s wanting system so that we go out seeking new information and curiosity helps us to make our memories stick.”(4) The obvious import of this? If you want learning to happen, find a way to make folks curious about what you want them to learn.

Curiosity’s Learning Vortex

Black Sheep Excuse Me - outliers anomalies

Outliers & Anomalies

Memory researcher Hans Gruber discovered that curiosity not only dramatically increases the retention of information that a subject is curious about, it also significantly increases the retention of ‘incidental information’ that ‘happened to be present’ while a subject is curious. People who are experiencing a surge in curiosity don’t just remember more about the topics they’re curious about, they remember more about everything happening while they’re in a curiosity surge.

If optimal learning is achieved when curiosity is activated, the obvious question is, “How do we activate curiosity?” Astrophysicist Mario Livio, in his TED talk on ‘The Case for Curiosity’, says that there are two things that activate curiosity: surprise, and what he calls ‘confounded evidence’. When we are surprised we have an expectation, and this expectation is foiled by something else happening. Curiosity naturally surges to comprehend, and fill, the void between the expected and the unexpected: ‘surprise’ is a temporary cognitive void. Extreme outliers, anomalies and non-conformity – anything that breaks an expectation or pattern – are also a form of surprise and activate curiosity.

Confounded evidence’ occurs where there are a multitude of possible answers to a problem, or multiple possible futures to a situation. The instigation of uncertainty arouses curiosity (5) and, as research psychologist Susan Engel writes, curiosity “can be understood as the human need to resolve uncertainty.”(6)

Curiosity and the Knowledge Gap

There are two extremes in which people have very little curiosity: people are not curious about something they already know everything about; and people are not curious about something they know nothing about. Curiosity is most active where there is a knowledge gap. The greatest masters of optimising the potency of that knowledge gap are storytellers and game developers. The power of suspense is its leverage over curiosity; we just gots to know! And the power of gaming is the drive to know what’s on the ‘next level’; we just gots to level up! And, let us not forget, perhaps the grand masters of seducing curiosity… BuzzFeed… “Evil or not, Buzzfeed headlines work because they evoke an overwhelming sense of curiosity.”(7) writes digital marketer Ahmad Munawar.

The neurology of curiosity – tied so deeply to dopamine, the brain’s motivation and reward chemical – demonstrates how ancient, intrinsic and important it is to human evolution. It also demonstrates its current significance in how we can face, and excel in, our current immediate challenges, obstacles and disruptions.


(1) Dopamine has traditionally been associated with ‘pleasure’, and with ‘pleasure seeking’, but it is now being more directly associated with a basic ‘drive’ or ‘motivation’ which includes wanting and desiring, but also seeking and searching.

(2) Hank Pellisier writes in his article ‘Cracking the Code on Curiosity’, “Research suggests that dopamine should now be more associated with our need to discover things, of wanting to know more, than making us feel pleasure. It keeps us motivated. Dopamine drives our goal-directed behavior. It causes us to want, desire, seek out, and search. It may have kept cavemen alive.” http://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/cracking-the-code-on-curiosity/

(3) ‘The Case for Curiosity’, Mario Livio. TedXMidAtlantic.

(4) ‘This is Your Brain On Curiosity’, Matthias Gruber, TEDXUC Davis Salon

(5) Curiosity researcher Daniel Berlyne characterized it as “an optimum amount of novelty, surprisingness, complexity, change, or variety.”

(6) Susan Engel in ‘Cracking the Code on Curiosity’

(7) ‘The Buzzfeed Guide to Sending Irresistible Email’, Ahmad Munawar

Why Do We Lose the Desire to Follow the Quest-ion?

“The important thing is not to stop questioning… Never lose a holy curiosity.” – Albert Einstein

Probably the two things we associate most with curiosity are children and questioning.  We remember childhood as a time of openness and inquisitiveness, we observe children approaching even the most mundane things with a sense of awe and wonder, and as parents we weather the barrages of questions that follow.  They have a fervent and intrinsic desire to know and learn. Renowned child psychologist Jean Piaget wrote that curiosity is “the urge to explain the unexpected” and for infants almost everything is unexpected.

But what happens to us?  Once upon a time we were all children, with that wonder in the world around us, that intrinsic desire to learn and know, and that willingness to follow any question about anything that stirred our fascination. Is the main thing that separates children from adults joy in discovery, in the desire to know, in curiosity?

Numerous studies have demonstrated the precipitous decline in ‘questioning’ between the ages of 4 when children will ask as many as 300 questions in a day (1), and their entry into middle school when they’ve almost stopped asking questions at all. Part of the answer lies in natural neural development. From infancy to early childhood there is a cosmic explosion of billions of neural pathways and networks wiring themselves together in hyper-complex adaptive systems; it’s all growth growth growth.  But then this process slows down and enters into a new era of trimming back, called ‘synaptic pruning’. However, ‘synaptic pruning’ does not adequately explain what Warren Berger, the author of ‘A More Beautiful Question’, described as the drop of questioning off a cliff.

So, what else happens at that age?
First off, as comedian Louis CK demonstrates in this brilliant scene from ‘Lucky Louie’, answering the barrage of ‘why’s’ that can come at any moment from a curious 4 or 5 year old can get pretty sublime. It’s also pretty exhausting, and overly busy parents, struggling to conform to their own productivity driven milieus, just can’t ‘go there’.

But beyond weary parents, a great many researchers have demonstrated that this decline is due in very large part to the systems that children enter into when they are old enough to attend school.  The education system is not designed to cultivate curiosity. If anything, in fact, it’s designed to discourage questioning.  Children are rewarded for knowing answers, not for asking questions, and the goal of education is not to learn to explore and learn, but to ‘get the right answer’ (2).   As Developmental Psychologist and Curiosity researcher Susan Engel puts it, “Curiosity that is ubiquitous in toddlers is hard to find at all in elementary school”.

Current education systems, worldwide, grew out of the industrial revolution and are designed to produce human resources that will efficiently and successfully find work and ‘be productive’ in an industrialised environment. “Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity.” says Sir Ken Robinson, in his renowned TED talk ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity?’.  That ‘commodity’ would be a relatively docile, malleable and compliant person, highly literate in abstract mathematics and written English.  That is, a manageable person well adapted to the work force of an industrial culture where managers want answers to bottom-line problems – fast.  But let’s face it, curiosity, by nature, isn’t docile, malleable or compliant so it’s no surprise that curiosity has it’s wings clipped in school.  As Einstein put it so very succinctly, “It’s a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” I propose that for many, it doesn’t.

Children born today will be leaving high school in the mid-2030s.  Who dares to predict the nature of the culture into which these children will be emerging from school? Few today dare to predict what the world will look like in five years, let alone twenty. What we may be able to say with some certainty is that they won’t be emerging into an industrial culture anything like the one for which the formal education system was designed (3). We are faced with a shocking degree of uncertainty and unpredictability; a great unknown.

And what is the most intelligent attitude towards the unknown?  The very aptitude that is determinedly clipped in the process currently called education and ‘literacy’: curiosity.  Curiosity, the intrinsic desire to know, is *the* most essential character impulse in the face of the unknown. Intelligence itself follows curiosity which, like an impetuous scout, dares into the dark to cast light and map paths and possibilities. Success based on the necessity to ‘have all the right answers’ is antithetical to the ‘quest’ of curiosity. How can you possibly have the right answers when you’re entering the unknown? It’s an absurd notion.

The ‘questing’ heroes of the chivalric romances – Gawain, Lancelot, Galahad – were called ‘knights-errant’.  To ‘err’ meant ‘to be wandering in search of something’.  The linguistic migration of the word ‘errant’ from ‘a noble quest’ to the ‘incorrectness’, ‘deviation’ and just plain ‘wrongness’ of ‘error’ is a powerful indicator of the cultural stigma against ‘quest-ioning’ and curiosity.

Curiosity is following a quest-ion.
Curiosity is a dynamic of ongoing inquiry.
Curiosity is a virtuous cycle of recurring, adaptive questioning.
Curiosity is also the evolutionary strategy by which humanity became the dominant species on the planet earth.  Given the the extraordinarily disruptive uncertainty of our global future, curiosity may be the aptitude that enables humans to continue to evolve (4). Surely this is a compelling reason to integrate the cultivation of curiosity into educational curriculums and workplace cultures everywhere.


(1) According to Paul Harris, a Harvard child psychologist and author, research shows that a child asks about 40,000 questions between the ages of two and five.
(2) “In school, we’re rewarded for having the answer, not for asking a good question.” – Richard Saul Wurman, founder of TEDTalks.
(3) The World Economic Forum claims that we are in a ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. I would argue that it’s not an ‘industrial’ revolution at all; maybe it’s a biological revolution, or a digital revolution, or a virtual revolution. But ‘industry’, as the great economic engine which upholds nations, is in it’s final throes…
(4) Hopefully to evolve beyond ‘dominance’ towards symbiosis and sustainability.


Why Curiosity?

curiouser & curiouser

I have no special talents.  I am only passionately curious.
– Albert Einstein

The World Economic Forum – backed by an outpouring of mildly panic stricken white papers from big name organisational consultancies (1) – hails our era as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We are already riding the rising wave of an increasingly complex fusion of technologies – digital, biological, material, social – which will disrupt, revolutionize and transform almost all spheres of human culture and conduct.  Artificial intelligence, blockchain encryption, genomics, 3D printing, driverless vehicles, ‘the internet of things’, nanotechnology, biotechnology, quantum computing, renewable energy systems; any one of these innovations will have a profound impact on technical, social and organisational structures as we currently know them. The combination of all of them emerging simultaneously is, lightly stated, mind-boggling (2).

We’re entering an era of hyper-complex rapid change which will be experienced by most as serial disruption.
How to cope?
How to manage?
How to navigate intelligent pathways through tumult?

Social researchers and organisational experts from the Harvard Business Review (3) to Brene Brown (4) are proclaiming the value of curiosity to successfully navigate the turbulent cultural vicissitudes of the early 21st century.

But, what is curiosity?

Curiosity is the human trait that has enabled a physically feeble species with an exceedingly lengthy and vulnerable infancy to become completely dominant.  It’s the drive that has led to every important invention and exploration that humans have engaged in, from pre-digesting food by cooking it over a fire, to sending a vehicle (called ‘Curiosity’) to Mars. Curiosity is a dynamic of ongoing inquiry, a virtuous cycle of recurring, adaptive questioning. It’s a proactive journey of questioning, rather than a reactive defensive entrenchment.  Curiosity is a call towards something, rather than a flight from something.  Curiosity is not driven by crisis, but by wonder and awe, and it’s a drive that’s inspired people to take extraordinary risks and endure extraordinary hardships. As James Stephens wrote, “Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will, indeed, it has led many people into dangers which mere physical courage would shudder away from…”

I would like to pose that curiosity is the characteristic best adapted to resiliently navigate the kind of emergent complexity and serial disruption that we face as a species existing on an astonishingly unlikely finite living system.  Curiosity is the most useful response to what is known in strategic leadership as VUCA; Volatility/Vulnerability, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.  It’s a key to innovation, productivity, agility, continuous renewal, well-being and fulfillment.  It responds mindfully to crises, it discovers opportunities in obstacles, it enables the release of outmoded habits and patterns and is a core element of basic resilience. But, oddly enough, curiosity is not taught in schools or places of employment, and, in many cases, it’s actively discouraged.

Why would we discourage curiosity, when it’s many benefits are so very obvious?
Is curiosity dangerous?
What, really, is curiosity?
And, if it’s of value, how do we cultivate curiosity?

This post is the first in a series in which I’ll explore these questions.

We’ll go on a journey exploring wonder and respect, conceptual bubbles and perception blinders, disruption and hard transitions, habit creation and dissembly, resistance and innovation, and vulnerability and creativity.  We’ll look at the nature of ‘questioning’, the neurology of curiosity, the relationship of curiosity to ‘mindfulness’, and how habits and preconceptions can suffocate curiosity.  We’ll look at curiosity and learning, and curiosity as a disruptor and a rebel.  We’ll explore vulnerability, experimentation and failure, and curiosity as a navigator.  Finally, we’ll dip our toes into the real question….how do we ourselves, and our organisations, become more curious?

I hope you’ll join me in this curious ongoing investigation and become, in the words of Lewis Carrol’s Alice, “Curiouser and curiouser”.




(1) Age of Disruption. Are Canadian Firms Prepared. Deloitte.

(2) Above and beyond the exponentially increasing speed of technological innovation we are already dealing with the increasing effects of climate change, resultant mass migrations, increasing inequality, and increasing ethnic division demonstrated by the rise of terrorism, nationalism and authoritarianism.

(3) Tomas Chumorro-Premuzic, Curiosity Is as Important as Intelligence. Harvard Business Review.

Warren Berger. Why Curious People are Destined for the C-Suite. Harvard Business Review.

Todd B. Kashdan, Companies Value Curiosity but Stfle It Anyway. Harvard business Review.

(4) “The rumble begins with turning up our curiosity level and becoming aware of the story we’re telling ourselves about our hurt, anger, frustration, or pain.” – Brene Brown

“Failure can become nourishment if we are willing to get curious, show up vulnerable and human, and put rising strong into practice.” – Brene Brown


‘Disruption’ is asking the Question, ‘Who Are You’?

Disruption painting

Last month I attended and gave a workshop at ‘Berlin Change Days’ – a conference full of an extraordinary diversity of bright, creative and highly progressive ‘Change Agents’ – whose theme this year was ‘Disruption’.  The conference opened with a mock trial of ‘disruption’, debating whether the word still has credence and traction, or whether it has become a washed-out meaningless buzzword from its overuse in contemporary ‘innovation’ and ‘entrepreneurial’ parlance.  In a deft and creative move the organizers had an artist-provocateur disrupt the trial itself, demonstrating the word in action.

What really is ‘disruption’?
What has to happen for ‘disruption’ to occur?

Disruption painting

Collaborative painting done during workshop at Berlin Change Days.

The word itself opens with the intrinsically negative connotations of the prefix ‘dis’. In Roman mythology ‘Dis’ is the ruler of the underworld, and Dante carried that forward in the Divine Comedy in which the ‘City of Dis’ encompasses the sixth through the ninth circles of Hell. Today, when you ‘dis’ someone, you’re insulting them. ‘Dis’ is followed by the word ‘rupture’ which indicates a ‘break’, ‘burst’ or ‘breach’.  A ruptured spleen is a medical emergency, a ruptured pipe is one that is broken.  ‘Rupture’ is not so much a change word as a word connoting severe damage requiring emergency action.

So, ‘disruption’ is no ordinary change.  Nor is it the change necessarily resulting from an innovation, which is where we see it used so often today in entrepreneurial circles. While a new and innovative idea may have a significant impact, does it actually ‘rupture’ something? If an organisation can adapt to the innovation – by changing tactics, by buying it up, by hiring expertise – it’s not ‘disruptive’.

To break it down, disruption requires two core elements. Firstly there needs to be a functional identity: a clearly defined organism or organisation, an operating system or a set of rules, a score or a choreography of some kind.  Secondly we need an intrusion that challenges the functional identity with sufficient force that it ruptures some aspect of its core process such that it cannot continue functioning without ‘radical’ (emergency) procedures.

Real disruption is a wound to the integrity of an identity.

Band-aids don’t work on ruptures. Recovery from real disruption requires more than ‘repair’ or ‘replacement’. In fact disruption isn’t asking for ‘recovery’, a return to a previous mode of operation, at all.  Response to real disruption requires radical adaptation, structural transformation, a change in identity.

Disruption is asking a question.
The question that disruption is asking is ‘Who are you?’
How you navigate that question determines the path of your evolution.
Will you react or respond?

Will you deflect, dismiss, resist, deny or hide?
Or will you recognise it, meet it, acknowledge it, bear it?
Will you be willing to wrestle with it and, more importantly, with yourself?
Will you seek to understand it and, more importantly, seek to understand yourself?

From a theological perspective ‘disruption’(1) has a strong correlation to the ancient Greek word ‘apocalypse’.  ‘Apo’ translates as ‘out from’, and ‘kaluptein’ is ‘cover’. The word uniquely combines a sense of catastrophic termination with revelation and disclosure. Really answering disruption’s challenging call requires diving into a deeper level (the sixth through ninth level?) to ‘discover’ and ‘uncover’ deeper more intrinsic core strains and veins of meaning from which can emerge (emergent-cy) new vigorous forms and paths forward.


(1) Interestingly, Japanese contemporary artist Moriko Mori defines ‘Rupture’, in her Rebirth exhibition, as “the state between death and rebirth”.

In Tibetan Buddhism the ‘state’ between death and rebirth is called ‘Bardo’ and is the subject matter of ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’. Tibetan Buddhist scholar and teacher Chogyam Trungpa reinterpreted Bardo as simply “that which exists between situations” asserting that the spiritual and psychological processes that we go through in periods of extreme disruption are very much akin to those that we go through at death.


Curiosity and Vulnerability

Curiosity is a dynamic of ongoing inquiry requiring that you reveal that you don’t know something.  Your seeking to know something reveals the limits of what you know: that’s what real questioning is.

openheartopenmindCuriosity may also require that you reveal that others don’t know something, and we all know folks who are pretty attached to having all the answers.  They may not like the feeling they get when they don’t have the answers; they may feel challenged, and they may react in an unpleasant way.

Curiosity does more than just expose someone’s ignorance about something; it can threaten to expose something that is being hidden.  If this is the case one can expect to encounter resistance, obfuscation, evasion and even aggression.  This ‘something that’s being hidden’ may be something dangerous, something corrupt, around which there’s a wall of shame[1]. Or it may be an injury, a deep wound, an old painful trauma that’s never healed (shame is, itself, a wound). But, it can also be something beautiful: an extraordinary talent, a passion, a deep love, which is too frightening to expose.  There are many reasons that things become hidden.

So curiosity is a state of unknowing, and requires the admission of unknowing: to be curious we need to be humble and vulnerable.  Because it can expose ignorance, corruption and injury curiosity can be perceived of as dangerous, and this makes curiosity vulnerable to reaction and repercussion[2].  But curiosity also creates vulnerability: its nature is to expose, and it creates vulnerability in those whom it disrupts with its questions.  This may not be their choice; they are put in an uncomfortable situation which may feel ungrounded and out of control.

Because curiosity requires and creates vulnerability, it requires bravery and courage[3].  Bravery and courage are the attributes of warriors.  So, to remain steadfastly curious, you need to be a warrior.[4]

[1] “I ran into this thing that absolutely unravelled connection in a way that I didn’t understand and had never seen…it turned out to be shame. And shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?” Brene Brown ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ TED Talk

[2] Maybe the most archetypal of stories of the perils of inquiry is the Paradise story which opens the Old Testament. It’s not hard to interpret the terrible price Adam & Eve pay for succumbing to the temptation to eat of the Tree of Knowledge as the price paid for ‘wanting to know’.  In this light ‘curiosity’ is depicted as the Original Sin precipitating The Fall, leading to the banishment of the first humans from the Garden of Eden. – Genesis 3

[3] “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.” – Rainer Maria Rilke ‘Letters to a Young Poet’

[4] For Chogyam Trungpa ‘warriorship’ was nothing more than demonstrating the persistent courage to leave the safety one’s own perceptual ‘cocoon’. The way of cowardice is to embed ourselves in a cocoon…perpetuate habitual patterns. When we are constantly recreating our basic patterns of behavior and thought, we never have to leap into fresh air or onto fresh ground.” – Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Chogyam Trungpa

Curiosity & Vulnerability Pt 2: When is it safe to be vulnerable?

We held our first Curiosity Lab on ‘Curiosity & Vulnerability’, viewing Brene Brown’s ‘The Power of Vulnerability’, and then launching into a fascinating discussion, with some marvelous attendees.

Brene Brown’s talk, which is truly worth a watch is, at heart, about the life affirming and revivifying benefits of living vulnerably.  She clarifies that this takes courage, and reminds us that the roots of the word ‘courage’ come from the French ‘couer’, meaning ‘heart’.  For her the definition of courage is “to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.”  Which is also what it is to live vulnerably.

What keeps us from living this way is, according to Brown, uncertainty with regard to our own self-worth.  People who have intrinsic self-worth believe that what makes them vulnerable makes them beautiful.  People who lack this sense of self-worth find vulnerability excruciating.  For them vulnerability risks exposure to criticism, bullying, ridicule, loss of status, ostracisation … simply stated, fear and pain. They don’t experience vulnerability as liberation, but as a potential avenue to disconnection and isolation which, as Brown drives home, are the foundations of shame.  Shame is the gatekeeper of our personal prison cells and bunkers. It chokes out our vulnerabilty.  Brene Brown is a bold advocate of vulnerability.

Miriam, one of our bold participants in the Lab, persisted in posing the question,
“When is it safe to be vulnerable?”.
I’ve been following this question for a few months, and don’t anticipate this particular expedition to end anytime soon.  You could say easily enough that ‘it’s never safe to be vulnerable’ because the very nature of vulnerability is uncertainty and risk.  But the results of someone telling the story of who they are will be very different depending on what their story is, and who they’re telling it to.


What does the bullying lion in The Wizard of Oz lack?
“Why, you’re nothing but a great big coward”,  says Dorothy
on seeing how terrified he is after she gives him a slap for bullying Toto.
“I haven’t any courage at all”, says the Lion, “I even scare myself.”  
But why is, after all, Lion so afraid. [1]

Cowardly Lion

There are good reasons for getting anxious about vulnerability.  There a cost for telling “the story of who you are with your whole heart.”  Your story may challenge cultural norms, shatter parental expectations, fray peer relationships, or alienate your employer. It may isolate you or, depending on the story, leave you in danger.  Loss of status, loss of work, criticism, ridicule, bullying, ostracisation, alienation, intimidation, violence … these aren’t fictions. These are real, and most of us have seen them or experienced them, and it can teach us to keep our mouths shut, our true natures ‘in the cupboard’, and our souls enclosed.

 Unlike Scarecrow,
Lion does have a brain,
and maybe he’s using it the way that life’s taught him.  


I don’t want to be naiive about vulnerability.
We live in a broken world where people are hurt, and hurt people hurt others, and traumatised cultures are traumatising.  The expression ‘pecking order’ – a reference to group hierarchy – comes from how chickens determine who rules: by pecking the weaker ones to bits.  The corporate and political worlds are said to be ‘full of sharks’.  From schoolyards to monasteries, from house league teams to corporate boardrooms, from cop shops to prison cells, from anonymous strangers on public transit to the person with whom you share your bed: we all have hurts, and we all have the capacity to be hurtful and to take advantage of another’s vulnerability for our own gain.  There are some people who are so emotionally and socially damaged that this is almost the only way they are able to be in relationship: by finding and exploiting vulnerability.

So when is it safe to be vulnerable?


 More importantly,
Lion is willing to challenge his fears to pursue what he most needs.


I heard an amazing episode on Radio Lab the other day.  The story of Stu Rasmussen, a transgender person from a tiny town in conservative evangelical USA who became…. the mayor.

How did that happen?

Stu, who had lived in the town all his life and ran movies and took tickets at the only theatre in town, started by painting his nails blue. Not pink, or red, but blue.  Then, some weeks later, he painted them pink.  Then, piece by piece, he donned articles of women’s clothing.  Each carefully staged gesture of transformation produced a new burst of gossip and the potential for ostracisation.  But Stu was tactical, and new the town extremely well, and furthermore, everyone knew Stu as a trustworthy, helpful, kind person.


So the Cowardly Lion, in search of what he most needs
– courage –
and through many trials and tribulations,
makes it to the ruler of his Kingdom, the Wizard of OZ,
where he fully expects to receive what he wishes for.  

We normally think of curiosity as risk-taking, and this is why we’ve associated it with vulnerability.  But it’s worth considering here that Stu Rasmussen must have had a generous measure of curiosity to so successfully strategise his ‘coming out’[2] in a town so culturally antagonistic to his gender choice.


 There Lion discovers that the wizard-tyrant ruling over his Kingdom
is a frightened little man with a lot of smoke and mirrors
who has absolutely nothing to give him.



Stu understood the culture he lived in. He had it well gauged. That level of understanding takes focussed curiosity: an absorbent watchfulness, an openness to information and new understanding, a concerned interest in and care for the people of the community. That curiosity led him to the careful and deliberately patient strategy that would allow him to – eventually, and not without very great trials and real danger – “to tell the story of who he is with his whole heart.”


Almost nothing.
The wizard-tyrant has a medallion for bravery,
for setting out with a cast of misfits to find his courage.

And he has the insight and humility
– aka wisdom –
to bring Lion to see that he always had what he sought for.
His search for courage took courage.  



Curiosity is the opposite of blind faith:
it’s reconnaissant, observant, watchful, interested.
It’s gathering information through careful observation.
It’s questioning the situation you’re in with an open and non-judgemental mind.
Why is curiosity like this? Because, believe it or not, curiosity is rooted in care.
The word curious come from ‘cure’, and from ‘care’.
Curiosity is about caring.

Gabor Mate, in lecturing on addiction, regularly reiterates that the word ‘vulnerability’ comes from the Latin, ‘vulnerare’, meaning ‘to wound’.  For Mate, “To be a human being is to be profoundly vulnerable. And there’s nothing that you can do to make yourself invulnerable.” I agree, you can’t ever be invulnerable. But, by engaging your curiosity, you can be less or more vulnerable in situations that may be perilous, in keeping with your own limitations.
That is, while caring for yourself.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z2itQkiQUOE

[2] Stu has persisted in identifying as a heterosexual male.

Exploring a Curiosity in Mindfulness

I’ve seen a lot of chatter about mindfulness recently. It seems to be “in fashion” right now. I have seen it referenced recently for change activity, I’ve also seen it as part of wellness packages and employee assistance programs. It’s definitely something that is permeating to the surface in many ways. My first confession here […]

When Vulnerability Is Aggressive

Another theme in Nik’s post on Curiosity and Vulnerability, is being curious about what lays hidden beneath, causing “resistance, obfuscation, evasion and even aggression.”

vulnerability-aggressionIn an idle moment, my daughter Googled ‘Millennials are…’ The top adjectives linked to her search were: idiots, lazy, spoiled, entitled, useless.

It is belittlement on an industrial scale reflecting unchecked vulnerability. The narrative runs counter to a more hopeful truth. A White House report: 15 Economic Facts About Millennials, found Millennials “are a technologically connected, diverse, and tolerant generation. The[ir] priority on creativity and innovation augurs well for future economic growth, while their unprecedented enthusiasm for technology has the potential to bring change to traditional economic institutions as well as the labor market.”

Without curiosity, it is hard to stop the pungency of negative judgements seeping into our worldview and behaviour. The duty of the curious is to peek behind the sentiments to discover the sources of vulnerability that lay beneath.

Armed with understanding, it becomes possible to ask the producers and the normalizers of derision: “What is it that you really want and, when you get it, then what?” It takes us to the nub of conversations that must be had if new possibilities are to be made likely.

In the case of Millennials, it begs the question: what is the cost of subjugating their  “creativity and innovation [which] augurs well for future economic growth”? Will today’s squelchers regret their sentiments when, in their dotage, they come to rely on this maligned generation? Millennials are but one example. Anti- sentiments lock out people and possibility; also it bolts the rest into a delusion of security amidst a sea of disruption.

Left unchecked, industrial scale aggressive vulnerability is pernicious, detrimental and shortsighted. The value of curiosity is that it has the power to peel off the blinkers of certainty; that necessarily produces a new kind of vulnerability until we adjust enough to make use of the opportunity. Finding ourselves “in a dark maze” (Bayo Akomolafe), we mustn’t miss seeing the importance of these intersections of vulnerabilities.

Add your thoughts and questions in the comments and click  to find out about the next Curiosity Lab potluck!

Curiosity Lab: Curiosity & Mindfulness with Eugene Peng

December 11 @ 12:30 – 4:30 pm

Dec. 11, 12:30 – 4:30
Spadina Centre for Social Innovation,
215 Spadina Ave., Toronto
Potluck Lunch @ 12:30

Curiosity Labs or open to all & free of charge.


Eugene Peng


Take a breath.
Inhale………….. and exhale………..

When’s last time you allowed yourself a moment like this?

Many of us get in a frenzy around the holidays. This next Curiosity Lab on Mindfulness offers us an opportunity for a respite, a pause, to experience what it’s like to rest fully in the moment.

In the moment of pause, we get the space to respond rather than to react. We shift from the states of “I can’t” or “I have to” to “I could” or “I want to”.

We let go of what we think we know, and become genuinely curious about how things really are.

We let go of a life on automatic — lost in managing the future or ruminating on the past — and start to awaken to new possibilities.

And when we become mindful in connection with each other, we start to see each other as who we really are, instead of how we label each other.

We invite you to join us in this next Curiosity Lab for a series of activities to activate our sense of curiosity, aliveness, and connection in the present moment.