Most people don’t recognize the name of explorer Bjarni Herjólfsson.
In 986, sailing from Norway to Greenland in a trip to visit his father, storms blew him so far off course that when they finally let up, he and his crew had no idea where they were.
When the weather cleared, they were relieved to find land. But instead of the familiar mountains and glaciers of Greenland, it was forests.
His crew begged him to land and explore this new area. But anxious to reach his intended destination, Bjarni turned the boat around and headed back out to sea, making it to Greenland a week later.
Years later, he recounted his story to a friend. A friend who decided to buy Bjarni’s ship and use it to retrace his route. His friend was Leif Erikson. And that strange land Bjarni saw, was Canada.
Today, Leif Erikson goes down in history as the first European to set foot on the American continent. Because Bjarni’s curiosity didn’t get the better of him.
Embrace Your Curiosity
“It is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all,” wrote polar explorer Ernest Shackleton in his chronicle of the adventure that nearly cost him his life.
Curiosity is often overlooked as a critical skill. It’s labeled as the antithesis of productivity and the plague of wandering minds.
In fact, many of our early stories on curiosity are warnings against it’s evils. Icarus is punished for flying too close to the sun. Pandora releases the world’s evils. And Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden because they can’t keep their hands off an apple.
Curiosity challenges the authority. It isn’t content to merely do as its told. Or to accept the idea that there are many questions we have yet to answer.
The curious are not willing to accept the message of conformity and blind obedience that bureaucracies preach. And they’re unwilling to comply with a world that demands we always have an opinion and sees changing your mind as a weakness.
So it’s easy to see how curiosity becomes distraction. A frivolity that pulls us from the focus needed to turn out our daily tasks.
Yet as Bjarni and countless others have found out, curiosity – and a willingness to embrace the unknown – is what inspires true accomplishments. It’s the difference between choosing safety and venturing out into the unknown. In his talk from The 99 Percent, Andrew Zuckerman gives his insights on creativity and managing a fear of failure. His point on the importance of curiosity in driving accomplishments and spurring on the creative process resonates with anyone who’s struggled to develop work that doesn’t align with their interest,
“What gets projects done for me is not inspiration. I have no idea what inspiration really is. I know that I get really curious about things, and when that gets mixed with rigor, a project gets completed. And that’s basically it, it’s that simple. When curiosity and rigor get together, something happens. And when one of these things [isn’t] there, nothing happens, or the project doesn’t really reach people.”
We often believe that when the time comes to seize that crucial opportunity, we’ll recognize it. Yet most opportunities don’t present themselves as great opportunities. Otherwise someone else would have already taken them.
It’s through our own curiosity that we find these new developments. As Isaac Asimov put it,
“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…'”
Yet curiosity – that willingness to explore into the unknown – is a developed practice like any other. It’s cultivated in the choices and behaviors that we reinforce every day. And as Annie Dillard wisely reminds us, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
How did you follow your curiosity today? Where did you choose to explore?
Take these opportunities. Because while they may not all take us to some undiscovered continent, a life spent pursuing your curiosities is bound to be a good life.
Stay curious. Keep exploring.
Or as Steve Jobs closed one of the greatest commencement speeches of all time, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”