I haven’t done a whole lot of thinking about this, and it’s not really a topic that keeps me up at night or anything… but to my mind, intelligence is pretty closely related to curiosity. It is for me anyway: if I’m curious about something, then, generally speaking, I want to learn more about it. The more I learn, the more I want to learn, so it’s something of a virtuous circle. That was definitely the case for me at school (hate maths, love history) and it remains very much the case today. To be honest, I probably spend a lot less time reading textbooks now and a whole lot more time delving around in wikipedia and IMDB, but the principle is still much the same.
I once saw a book in a discount store called something like “The Bluffer’s Guide to Dinner Party Conversation”. I was curious about what tips this book could possibly have, and so I picked it up for a quick look. The book opened up onto a page about Beethoven, and started something like “Ludwig van Beethoven was a composer born in Bonn in 1770, He was deaf, you know!”. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why this was useful information for a dinner party, If you met someone who wanted to talk about Beethoven, then why would you feel the need to pretend you knew what you were talking about if you did not? Would you not be better propping up your end of the conversation by asking a few questions yourself so you could learn without bluffing? And if all the useful information you are going to learn from the bluffer’s book is that he was a composer and he went deaf, then is the person you’re talking to likely to be impressed by that knowledge? Hardly.
Curiosity: You don’t need to know anything much about any particular subject to learn something from a conversation with someone who does, do you? All you need to be is interested enough to find out.
This came to mind when I was making some small talk with some colleagues before the start of the meeting the other day. Both of the guys I was with are probably in their late-40s. One suddenly started talking about the Ramones. Of course, I was more than happy to pick up this conversation, but before I had much of a chance, the other guy shut the conversation down:
“The Ramones? Who are they?”
“They’re band from the 1970s”
“Never heard of them”
“Really? Seminal punk band. Pretty much kicked the whole thing off in the mid-70s”
No response. He just shrugged. As far as he was concerned, the Ramones were a chat cul-de-sac.
It wasn’t so much that he hadn’t heard of the Ramones as the fact that he didn’t have the slightest interest in hearing about them. I was born in the year that the Ramones started, but I’m interested enough in music that I have followed the threads of my taste back to bands like the Ramones and beyond. My favourite ever artist, Scott Walker, was most famous in the 60s, but my life would be so much poorer if I hadn’t been curious enough to discover him after hearing a friend play a record of his on the radio. Still, not everyone has a passion for music, eh? Apart from idly wondering what kind of music this guy was interested in (Michael Buble, perhaps? Robson and Jerome? Subo?), I put the whole thing out of my mind.
…and then I had another conversation with the same guy whilst waiting for a meeting the very next day. A different colleague had just asked me if I thought her 8 year old son would enjoy the Tintin film, and I was waxing lyrical about how much I had enjoyed it, although, to be fair, I grew up reading the books, so…. At this point, this other fellow chipped in:
“Tintin? What’s Tintin?”
“You’ve never heard of Tintin?”
I’m pretty convinced already that this guy isn’t the shiniest pebble on the beach: he’s one of those people who seems to always mention the fact that they work silly hours - in at dawn, out late and always logged on at the weekend . He does work hard, to be fair, but I’ve often wondered how so much input can lead to so little quality output…. And I rather think his basic lack of curiosity provides me with the answer. Not knowing about early American punk groups and a fictional Belgian boy detective is one thing, not having the wit to be at all curious about them is something else.
He’s just been promoted, obviously.