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We must become curiouser and curiouser

April 23rd, 2021 by dk

You’ve probably always been considered one of the smarter ones in a room. Me too. (I’m talking here to newspaper readers. Sorry, Facebook followers.) We read a lot. We remember enough of what we read to bring what we’ve learned to conversation.

We grew up in a world that rewarded memory, resourcefulness, and analytic skill. If you never spent hours in a library, combing through the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, you were born too late to understand our dilemma. (Google it.)

We trained ourselves to be well informed across a wide range of topics, or the imposing expert on a narrow set of problems. In either instance, people paid us attention and respect if we could articulate the best answers. In the top-down model of informational power, we’re known to pollsters as “opinion leaders.”

For most of us, it’s worked out pretty well. We got hired to do rewarding work. We influenced decisions made by others. We got into good schools. We attended interesting parties. We earned respect. We made something of ourselves, in a world where “ourselves” was something that somehow required “making.”

If that doesn’t sound absurd — maybe even dangerously absurd — this column is a warning for you. The world has shifted under our feet in ways that are as profound as they are unnoticed.

The emerging world will no longer reward us for good answers. The supercomputers in our pockets have access to more memory and expertise than any of us. We’re in another John Henry moment. Machines outperform us. Siri or Alexa or Hey-Google are waiting to answer any questions people may have.

My point here is a hopeful one. Our place atop the information hierarchy is only threatened if we don’t adapt. We made the rules. We can change them. But we’ll have to move quickly. Changes are accelerating. Answers have become alarmingly easy to obtain, but they require something first from us. They need good questions.

Certitude is less valuable now than curiosity. Memory is handy, but empathy is essential.  Finding things out has never been easier, but only for those who know exactly what they don’t know. Facts can be gathered and stored with inhuman efficiency, but a warehouse of data itself has no life. A questioning human still animates it.

Only good questions can put all those answers to good use. A professor in grad school gave us this warning: “Whenever you cannot find any good answers, consider whether you might be asking a bad question.”

So what makes a good question? That depends on the context. If you’re undertaking an experiment or building an argument, your question must taper the possibilities. That’s slightly misleading, because most of us don’t argue or experiment much.

Our questions usually occur in conversation. Any good answer will prompt more questions. And then there’s no telling what might be revealed! You may even exit the inquiry more curious than when you entered — a worthy goal. If getting invited to interesting parties still matters to you, curiosity is how you’ll make those parties more interesting because you’re there.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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