If you were to ask me what qualities I most admire in another, it would be these: curiosity and skepticism.
I place a high value on kindness, intelligence, and a sense of humor. However, in our modern world, some traits would seem to be predecessors for bringing others to fruition.
“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”Albert Einstein
Curiosity originates from the late-14th century. Meanings included: careful attention to detail, skilled workmanship, inquisitiveness, and a desire to learn. While some may define curiosity as nosiness, my preferred definition is “interest leading to inquiry.”
Interest leading to inquiry.
When we stop to think about it, this world is a strange place, filled with interesting people, partaking sometime-bizarre behaviors. There exist books and museum on every topic imaginable. There is more knowledge available at our fingertips than ever before in history, and far more than a single individual could consume.
We don’t have all the answers. But we don’t need all the answers if we are willing to ask some questions. We can foster our curiosity by looking for new and novel ways of doing things, taking a new route to work, listening to understand, and asking others for their opinions. It offers the opportunity for acquisition of knowledge and a better understanding of both others and the world.
“Skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found.”Miguel de Unamuno, Essays and Soliloquies
Skepticism originated from the 1580’s word sceptic, defined as “doubting the possibility of real knowledge,” as well as “inquiring, reflective,” and “to reflect, look, view”. In modern times, skepticism an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object, the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain, or the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt.
True knowledge is uncertain and, thus, judgement is suspended.
When you were a kid, did you get frustrated by your parents answering your questions with phrases like “That’s just the way things are,” or “Because I said so”? That curiosity and subsequent inquiry is an opportunity to learn. It supports collaboration, inquisitiveness, and a high standard of evidence, making it a valuable tool for problem-solving.
Skepticism is responsible for every technological advancement in the world. At each turn someone questioned what they observed and refused to accept the traditional answer. They went to find out for themselves.
It can also help when dealing with someone who may be trying to take advantage of you, as asking tough questions and picking apart claims can highlight where people might either be misinformed or actively trying to deceive you.
Finally, respectful disagreements and conversations can allow all parties to come up with the best solutions to difficult problems.
Curiosity + Skepticism
Curiosity and skepticism are the highest caliber of character traits. When we recognize and accept that true knowledge is uncertain and then choose to withhold judgement, we give ourselves fertile ground on which develop an interest and begin our inquiry in the direction of truth.
Curiosity plus skepticism is a recipe for open-mindness. Receptivity to other ideas and new experiences is, I believe, foundational for a good life.
Intelligence is worthless unless one can step back to question and verify what it is that they have been taught. The lessons taught in school textbooks are not necessarily the truth, but instead “the truth” as defined by the author or publisher.
Kindness may be misdirected if we don’t exercise some skepticism in our interactions. It may be valuable to ask ourselves what the other person has to gain from the interaction, and consider whether the scales are evenly tipped.
Humor often arises from a discrepancy between what we are taught and what we discover. The ability to laugh also offers a salve when that difference is painful.
“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Had you asked me just yesterday, I would have said that any partner, friend, or child of mine should be kind, first and foremost. However, the more I muse on the topic, the clearer it becomes that my own selfless kindness opened me up to pain and heartbreak in my youth. I was kind to a fault. I was a doormat, oft taken advantage of and unable to speak up for myself.
In retrospect, I’m discovering that it’s my own newly-exercised combination of curiosity and skepticism that has tethered my kindness and kept me from straying too far into the fields of selflessness.
In quality assurance, we verify and validate: we check that a product or service meets required specifications at the start and then review at set intervals to confirm that it continues to fulfill its intended purpose. I believe that curiosity paired with skepticism offers a similar benefit in life: continually checking in with ourselves and our environment provides the opportunity to revisit, revise, or reinforce our beliefs, understanding, and interactions. The practice of critical open-mindedness builds our awareness, confidence, and sense of connection.