Use this combinatorial question equation if you want to be more curious

Learning to be curious is the most impactful thing you can do to live a more creative life.

I have no doubt about this notion, because time and time again my exploration into the history of creative research indicates that, when it comes to creativity, curiosity is everything.

Really it isn’t hard to see why this is the case. If you can learn to be more curious, the possibilities for inspiration are infinite. The world is too large, too full of magical details, to be uninspired. If you’re stuck, just look around you. There are endless details to consider, an unfathomable amount of stories and perspectives, and more information and things you don’t know you don’t know than you will ever know.

So how do we learn to be more curious and enable ourselves to identify and pull out insights from the infinite possibilities around us?

This is a particularly daunting question for those of us who have found a comfortable and reliable routine in our lives, where poking holes in the world around us feels like more effort than its worth.

In his 1994 paper titled “The Psychology of Curiosity” psychology professor George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon explains that curiosity is not simply a state of being, it’s an emotional state caused when “attention becomes focused on a gap in one’s knowledge.”

In How to Stimulate Curiosity, author Annie Murphy Paul gives us three ways to promote curiosity in our every day lives:

  1. Ask more (and better) questions.

  2. Fill your brain with some level of “existing” knowledge about many different subjects.

  3. Communicate with others about your curiosities (and knowledge)

For the purpose of this article, I want to focus on the first point of Paul’s article: focus on asking more, and better, questions.

Chasing answers feels good. When we stumble on an answer to a question, we feel accomplished and better-off. Yet answers stifle our ability to see possibilities, even if our first answer is wrong. Paul explains:

“Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham notes that teachers — along with parents, managers, and leaders of all kinds — are often so eager to get to the answer that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question…Yet it’s the question that stimulates curiosity.”

To be curious, we must focus on asking more questions.

How do we ask better questions?

The easiest way to ask questions, I’ve learned in my own life, is to remember the “5 Ws” which are: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. Any of these, combined with the five senses (sound, sight, touch, smell, and taste), and you create an endless equation for questions to ask about anything in the world around you.

It’s a little difficult to explain this process, so you’ll have to use a hang in here with me as I try to give you an example of how this combinatorial question equation works. I promise you this is worthwhile to understand.

If you’re sitting at a desk, for example, you can use the modifiers (Five Ws and five senses) together to ask questions about the very desk in front of you:

What + Sound = What types of sounds can this desk make? If I hit it vs. tap it, or if I drop something onto it, or what sound would the desk make if it were dropped from a building? What is it about the materials in the desk, or the way it was crafted, that influences the possible sounds it can make? How do these sounds remind me of my work? What do they have in common and where are they different?

You don’t need to worry about actually coming up with answers, what matters more than anything is being able to ask many questions. The more questions you ask, the more you’re likely to uncover about what it is you’re actually exploring, which (for the sake of creativity) can be more insightful than answers.

We can further add to our question equation by simply adding one additional modifier, in this case adding “who” to our question about the desk and sounds:

What + Sound + Who = What types of sounds did the person constructing the desk possibly hear? What sounds did a delivery person, or the person assembling the desk hear? Who would be able to recognize the make and model of the desk if you were to tap loudly on it? Would you be able to recognize the sound if someone tapped on the same type of desk near you in a year?

The combination of possible questions, paired with the remarkable number of things around us, means our curiosity can truly be limitless. This possibility for endless inspiration through curiosity is true of the work we do as well, not just the world at-large.

If you’re a writer, for example, you can use this question equation to draw out details that can help craft what it is you’re trying to write, or to help spark ideas for insights as you go.

Rather than writing about what something sounds like, you can instead write about what the sound feels like reverberating off the inner ear, or what types of tastes the sound would be if it were a taste, or who is more likely to recognize the sound, or what colors the sound would be if funneled through a spectrum, or how fast or slow the sound is traveling.

When you look at the world through this lens of combinatorial questions, you’re undoubtedly going to encounter things that draw your attention more than you realized was possible. As Annie Murphy Paul wrote in her article: “It’s the question that stimulates curiosity.”

Ask more questions and you’ll encounter a world of inspiration you might have otherwise been overlooking. Make it a game and use the combinatorial question equation of Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How paired with the five senses of sound, sight, touch, smell, and taste, to see just how many unique things you can uncover about the world around you (or your work).

You might be surprised at how magical everything around you is once you start asking more (and better) questions about it.

Read this next: At the heart of creativity: curiosity and uncertainty