When I was four years old, my brother and I would climb into bed next to my mom each night, one on either side, listening intently while she made her way through a few pages of Little House on the Prairie. With a German accent I didn’t yet know she had and mispronunciations I didn’t yet know were funny, she’d read slowly, running her finger underneath each word as she went.

I both cherished and despised this nightly ritual. While the books were marvelous—all fluttering bonnets and rugged adventures—I was perplexed by the ease with which my mom turned those strings of letters into beautiful words and sentences. How does she know what they say?

It was the most infuriating thing in my little life.

A quarter century later, this insatiable curiosity—the desire to be in on the joke, to see the answer, to have all the pieces to the puzzle—remains one of my guiding principles. It’s what turned me from a discontented writer into a content strategist, from a doer into a questioner.

It’s likely that you’re familiar with this as well. Whether you work as an editor, publisher, writer, strategist, or other content person, odds are that curiosity—the desire to know all the things—propelled you to where you are today.

Yet curiosity is tricky. It’s the first thing that pushes us forward, but it’s also one of the first to hold us back: to keep us from shipping good ideas because we’re too busy lusting after unachievable ones.

If we want curiosity to take us further, this first principle demands a second look.

Curiosity in content work

Back in 2010, Ahava Leibtag listed curiosity as the number one trait a content strategist should have—the trait that “allows us to see how all the different pieces fit together.”

It’s no surprise—after all, it’s difficult to make content work for our users and organizations without both asking questions and caring about the answers. Each day, whether editing or evaluating, writing or wrangling teams, we ask:

  • Why is this here?
  • What’s important?
  • Who cares?
  • What next?
  • What if?

As Australian graphic designer Alex Charchar recently wrote in The Manual #2, creative work comes from “the impact of all that surrounds us,” and it is only when we “cast our intellectual and experiential nets wide—and wider still” that we can cull our varied influences into effective approaches:

We are not simply stylists or specialists but expert practitioners who can translate an organization’s abstract concept into a meaningful message that evokes the desired response. It’s curiosity, then, that makes for the magnificent creative.

Curiosity is the prerequisite—the force that exposes us, in Charchar’s words, to “new ways of solving problems, expressing answers, and thus speaking to the world.” Without it, we’d never slog through content audits or create workable publishing plans or research rich, meaningful stories or do anything else worthwhile in our field.

Left unchanneled, curiosity can also lead us into a variety of traps.

Shallowness

When we are curious about everything, we often wander through every topic that interests us without settling in to make any of them our own. This can turn us into dilettantes who take on too many clients and dabble in too many subjects, unable to give anything the attention it deserves.

Indecisiveness

When undirected curiosity takes over research and discovery processes, it can lead us further and further afield as we explore ever-widening circles and increasingly distant tangents. When we find ourselves constantly extending our inquiries, we become unable to move from researching or interviewing to decision making and problem solving—and we sacrifice the opportunity to apply what we’ve learned.

Dissatisfaction

When we are curious, we want more: more information, more knowledge, more success. That hunger can turn on us, leaving us feeling let down by every project we finish because it wasn’t, somehow, “more.” When we discount our successes because they don’t measure up to our constantly expanding ideals, we lose the chance to celebrate our work, to take stock of progress, and to share our ideas with others.

When we fall into these traps, we become victims of our own curiosity. Rather than using it to inform and strengthen our decisions, it becomes nothing more than a crutch that allows us to avoid the hard parts: making tough calls, fixing problems, getting on with things.

If curiosity is our first principle, then we now need to learn to make it principled—to foster curiosity that pushes our work forward, instead of holding us back.

Building better curiosity

In mathematics, first principles are called axioms—self-evident starting points from which further logic may be derived: through any two points there is exactly one line; if a = b and b = c, then a = c.

Axioms alone do little to solve problems. They are only the building blocks of mathematical inquiry: the foundations upon which centuries of theorems and proofs rest. The same is true for our curiosity. It’s simply a starting point—a beginning to work from.

By concentrating our curiosity where it matters, we can build on it more effectively, exchanging the infinite world of wandering and wondering for a more useful one where we get things done.

Let’s stop doing everything our curiosity asks, and instead start asking some things of it.

Make space for depth

Recently, I did a bit of editorial work for a client in the radiology field, admittedly, a topic about which I know little. While looking up what, precisely, the difference between a CT scan and an MRI was, I clicked on a link to information about barium, often used in these procedures. That led to revisiting the entire periodic table, which led to visits to a half-dozen Wikipedia pages about basic chemical structures. Fifteen minutes later, I realized I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing.

As my curiosity took me further and further from the task at hand, what did I gain? Nothing but tiny morsels.

Sound all too familiar? Then you may be a dabbler, too.

Tidbits about a thousand topics are great for cocktail parties and business lunches, but this digressive approach yields only the shallowest knowledge. Instead, we must carve out time to go deep into the topics that interest us most—and not necessarily because we will become specialists in them. Rather, channeling our curiosity toward depth allows us to seek connections between ideas, to sort through complex data, and to draw our own conclusions—skills we’ll need for every project we touch.

This requires us to sometimes restrain ourselves from the lure of endless links, yes. But much more importantly, we need to make space in our lives for this sort of curiosity to flourish: time to take a class, read a book, or study a language. When we do, we’ll be more capable of tapping into topics quickly and understanding them more fully, our minds trained to prefer depth to breadth.

Focus the questions

Any strategy work requires that we ask questions: of colleagues, clients, users, and the content itself. But questions alone don’t move us closer to decisions—and in fact, sometimes they keep us from them.

Take the content audit, for example, a staple of content strategy research and discovery work. At their core, our audits document answers to a series of questions about each piece of content associated with a project: Where’s it from? Who made it? Who manages it? When was it created? Has it been updated? Are people using it? Is it working?

The more questions it attempts to answer, the longer the audit takes—and the more time we put between recognizing there’s a problem and actually solving it. To stay on track, we must learn to frame our questions in ways that cut to the core of the problem—that begin by casting our nets “wide—and wider still,” but narrow quickly, pinpointing answers along the way.

Yet once we’re in audit mode, it’s easy to start over-documenting, adding new analysis points for every interesting piece of information you find—until we have an Excel file so far-reaching it’s overwhelming to complete and unwieldy to work with.

Margot Bloomstein’s call to build a message architecture before we audit can help prevent this. By clarifying the messages we want to send, we can more easily select audit criteria to match, such as voice and tone, topic depth, and calls to action. It’s also often helpful to split discovery work into two phases: the open period, where we gain a broad view to identify the shape and scope of the problem—where we allow ourselves to go broad—and the closed period, where we dig into the specifics.

Get uncomfortable

Curiosity is inherently unsafe, always forcing us out of known lands and into unexplored regions. What drives us forward is a desire to push past this discomfort: to get to know our unknowns, and to become comfortable within them.

But it’s precisely this desire to get rid of the discomfort that leads to our dissatisfaction—because the fact is, you can’t eliminate unknowns. The moment we reach a plateau, a new peak will always emerge in the distance: another user test to run, another source to interview, another approach to try. If I could just figure this out, I’d be sure.

Rather than staring forlornly at all those paths not yet taken, we need to learn to thrive within this discomfort—to accept that we don’t have all the information, and to take action anyway.

Mastering our curiosity

I don’t remember learning to read. It just happened one day: I ran up to my father waving a copy of Bugs Bunny and the Blue-Ribbon Carrot and proudly recited the entire tale.

The triumph was short lived. Out of my small victory unfolded a million new challenges: unfamiliar words to master, strange dialects to understand, complex concepts with which to grapple. I had devoured one book, but it wasn’t the one I craved.

Curiosity keeps us hungry. It leads us to tackle new challenges when the easy questions have all been answered. It makes us wonder how things could be better—even when they are, if we’d just pause to admit it, pretty damn good already.

Yet we also need to get things done: to assemble the story, document the plan, and fix the workflows. We need to master the Blue-Ribbon Carrot, not spend all our time wishing it were the Little House on the Prairie.

When we channel our curiosity, we can joyfully inhabit the space between what we know and what we do not—the space where pragmatism and idealism meet.