I got an email from the Explorers Club last week, giving tribute to former astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn, who had died the day before, at the age of 95. It included an excerpt from the acceptance speech Senator Glenn gave in 2013, when the Explorers Club awarded him its Legendary Explorers Medal. In his remarks, Glenn extolled the virtues of curiosity:
“Exploring is another way of saying ‘curiosity in action,’ and if you think about it, there haven’t been any advances made in civilization without someone being curious about what’s out there - what’s around the next bend in the road, or over the next hill, or beyond that forest over there… and so on.
“This kind of curiosity is far more than just wanting to go and look at some new scenery someplace - it’s an attitude…
“Our whole history has been one of dragon pushing. Pushing dragons back off the edge and filling in those gaps on the maps.”
Glenn’s comments resonate with me, but for more reasons than just the ones he articulated. Yes, curiosity is what drives explorers of all kinds forward, expanding our body of knowledge–not only with regard to physical maps and territories, but in realms of science, medicine, and even human psychology. But the need to explore exists on a personal level, as well.
In my research on the development of authentic voice, one of the big themes that’s emerged is that an authentic “voice”–meaning the expression of our most authentic self, reflecting our core values, personality, dreams, passions, priorities, and individual thoughts and feelings–is not just something we “find” inside ourselves. It’s also something we develop and curate as we move through the world outside.
How do we know who we “truly” are? There are some traits we’re born with (researchers estimate that 50% of personality traits are “heritable,” or inherited/hard-wired). And even by the time we’re old enough to contemplate the question of who we are (and are not), we’ve developed another set of preferences, traits, and values. But who we become throughout the rest of our life; what our authentic voice evolves into, is more dependent on our own explorations. And if we don’t have a sense of curiosity about what might exist beyond the next corner, either within ourselves and our capabilities, or in the world at large, we’re not likely to do much of that exploration.
In many ways, finding (or developing) our true self is a lot like finding a passion. It’s less often an intentional search as it is a process of stumbling on something that resonates with us, inflames our sense of injustice, or fascinates us so intensely that we’re drawn to follow it further. We become more involved in it, and at some point we realize that part of who we are is someone who cares deeply about this particular activity, issue, problem, or possibility. When people ask me how to find a passion, the number one piece of advice I offer is to mix up their routines. Try different routes home, different activities, different social patterns and groups. Explore. And approach those experiments with the attitude of an explorer. Constantly ask yourself, “What do I think about this? What is it about this that appeals or repels me? What does this teach me about myself?”
But to do that kind of exploration requires a couple of essential elements. First, you have to have a sense of curiosity. You have to wonder what might be out there that might resonate more with you than what you’re currently doing. I had a friend who asked me once why I felt compelled to explore the world; travel to Africa and the Amazon and interview the people I found there. “There’s lots of interesting people right here at home,” he said. That’s true, of course, but the people right here at home are more homogeneous than people from an entirely different culture, landscape, and political/social/ethnic history. I was curious about very different parts of the world; he was not.
I don’t think you can necessarily take an incurious person and make them curious. I suspect that may be one of those heritable traits we’re born with (or not). However … there are a whole lot of other people who have a latent sense of curiosity that they never act upon, because they’re nervous about taking steps outside their comfort zone. And that’s the second essential element: you have to scrounge up the courage and energy to get out of your comfy chair and routine and step out into something new and unknown. That’s the only way to discover if, perhaps, your true self could blossom into something even more colorful, or you might find a passion that would bolt you out of bed in the morning with excitement.
One of the big universal truths of life is that we don’t learn a lot in our comfort zones. In fact, the longer we stay in comfort zones, the more our comfort zone and world shrinks, leaving us even less able to adapt to, and thrive in, a changing world. (I wrote about this, and Professor Jordan Peterson’s research on it at the University of Toronto, in the Atlantic a few years ago.) To avoid that fate, we have to find the courage to act on our nascent curiosity to see what else might exist, or be possible, in the world beyond our knowledge and borders–intellectually, as well as physically.
I don’t say that lightly; overcoming both comfort and fear is a tough task. But more often than not, if we open our minds and find the courage to explore new thoughts, perspectives, and experiences, we discover that what lies beyond the borders of what we knew is not dragons. It’s colors, abilities, and experiences that enrich our lives, make us stronger and more capable, teach us valuable and pride-inducing things about ourselves, and enhance our understanding of this thing called life on earth. It also helps us find that elusive but powerful weapon known as our true, authentic voice.
John Glenn was right. The only way to fight back the dragons, and find the gold at the end of the rainbow, is to embrace the curiosity we all had as children and step bravely into new territory. After all, what we find there might just be our selves.