“Following the Breadcrumbs:” The Many Rewards of Curiosity

I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk by the writer Elizabeth Gilbert. She is one of those speakers who naturally brims with magnetic soundbites, seamlessly spilling a long string of insightful gems you wish you could snatch up and pocket for later reflection. But one thing she emphasized that stood out to me most was her belief that the way to pursue any goal or achievement is by following your curiosity. At one point she asked the audience, “How does it make you feel when you hear someone say “go find your passion and pursue it with everything you have? How many of you find that stressful?”

In a conversation with On Being, Gilbert elaborated saying “I think curiosity is our friend that teaches us how to become ourselves. And it’s a very gentle friend, and a very forgiving friend, and a very constant one. Passion is not so constant, not so gentle, not so forgiving, and sometimes not so available.” She explained how she pursues her own creativity (which has led to best-selling books, international acclaim, and being named one of Time’s 100 most influential people, among other things) not necessarily by searching the sky for lightning bolts but by looking at the ground and “following the little breadcrumbs of curiosity.” She argued that the initial interests that take us somewhere meaningful aren’t always large and grand, and we can easily miss or ignore them.

It may not set your head on fire. It may not change your life. It may not change the world. It may not even line up with previous things that you’ve done or been interested in. It may seem very random and make no sense. And I think the reason people end up not following their curiosity is because they’re waiting for a bigger sign. And your curiosities sometimes are so mild and so strange. And so — almost nothing, right? It’s a little trail of breadcrumbs that you can overlook if you’re looking up at the mountaintop waiting for Moses to come down and give you a sign from God.

The idea that we can take a gentler, kinder approach to our own curiosity felt like a breath of fresh air. When it comes to my own creativity, or the bigger, more overwhelming, questions of what I should be doing with my life, my energy, or my focus, my attitude is typically anything but gentle and curious. Usually, I get caught up listening to a “critical inner voice,” that’s poking at and pressuring me with thoughts like, “You don’t have real drive or direction. What are you even good at? It’s so much work to get started. Do you have anything to offer? What if you try and fail?” Most of us are familiar with this line of thinking. We’re perfectly comfortable feeling the pressure to produce, to contribute, and achieve, yet, how often, in a given day of responsibilities, do we take the time to simply follow our curiosity? Do we allow our minds to wander? Or wonder? Where would it lead us if we did?

Lately, when I drive my 3-year-old to daycare, he fills our commute with endless stream-of-consciousness questions that seem to sprout from nowhere but lead our conversation down a twisted path of topics – everything from “who do you think would win a fight between a tiger and a t-rex?” to “where does the music [coming from the car speaker] live?” to “what makes it so our bodies grow?”  to “why is the sky so blue today?” As he asks, question after question, he seems completely at ease and engaged, enjoying every minute of his own curiosity. He particularly lights up when, on rare occasion, I’m able to provide an answer he can wrap his head around.  There’s likely a lesson we can all take from a child’s uninhibited, unrestrained commitment to their curiosity. And everyone, from artists to scientists, will tell us there are many benefits of doing so.

For example, recent neurological  research revealed that curiosity can improve our brain’s ability to learn and memorize. In an article by Greater Good Berkeley “Six Surprising Benefits of Curiosity,” the author cited research showing that “curiosity helps us survive’” as “the urge to explore and seek novelty helps us remain vigilant and gain knowledge about our constantly changing environment.”  They continued to reveal that curious individuals have been found to be happier. They achieve more. Curiosity leads to greater empathy and understanding of others.  It creates more opportunities for personal growth and to create intimacy. Unsurprisingly, it strengthens our relationships. It even improves healthcare when doctors show more genuine interest in what their patients have to say.

Perhaps one of curiositity’s greatest gifts is that it encourages us to have a more open attitude toward the world around us, which would naturally lead to more knowledge, understanding, connection, compassion, and more ideas. If we are looking to be inspired (or simply energized) in our everyday lives – be it personally or professionally – perhaps our immediate goal should simply be to connect with our curiosity. Maybe that means more walks in the park, more drives with our toddler, more conversations with strangers, more asking of questions, more listening to of answers, more or less Googling, more or less social media. Whatever following the trail of breadcrumbs means to you, that’s yours alone to enjoy. For me, there was joy, relief, and real-life inspiration to be found in the permission to honor the smaller daily journeys I’ll allow myself to pursue, and to find this equally valuable and as rewarding as whatever the destination may be.

 And there’s really no better person to capture this idea than Elizabeth Gilbert:

Sometimes following your curiosity will lead you to your passion. Sometimes it won’t, and then guess what? That’s still totally fine. You’ve lived a life following your curiosity. You’ve created a life that is a very interesting thing, different from anybody else’s. And your life itself then becomes the work of art, not so much contingent upon what you produced, but about a certain spirit of being that I think is a lot more interesting and also a lot more sustainable.

About the Author

Carolyn Joyce Carolyn Joyce joined PsychAlive in 2009, after receiving her M.A. in journalism from the University of Southern California. Her interest in psychology led her to pursue writing in the field of mental health education and awareness. Carolyn's training in multimedia reporting has helped support and expand PsychAlive's efforts to provide free articles, videos, podcasts, and Webinars to the public. She now works as an editor for PsychAlive and a communications specialist at The Glendon Association, the non-profit mental health research organization that produced PsychAlive.

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