Separating Curiosity from Creativity

Can you be creative without being curious?

I find myself curious to learn the answer to this question. On some level it seems like asking if you can enjoy peanut butter without peanuts. Loads of creativity scholars tell us that curiosity is what drives creativity. But what if forces in our lives reduce our level of curiosity?

What does it take to help our creative thoughts take flight?
What does it take to help our creative thoughts take flight?

I want to live in a world with more curiosity, not less. Intellectual curiosity can help you succeed in college and nail a job interview. It also makes you far more interesting to talk with at a dinner party. And it leads to the kind of whole-brain thinking that inspires creative output. But I would feel more comfortable if I knew that society’s volume and quality of creative output was not directly correlative with our level of curiosity. In other words, I don’t want creativity to be a dependent variable of curiosity.

What is driving my concern? It is a nascent fear, one I’m almost hesitant to commit to words. It is a theory that will invite ridicule from the evangelists of the modern age. But I can’t help but think that the latest breakthroughs in technology could dampen our curiosity.

A company that derives its name from the word for a very large number–1 followed by one hundred zeroes–has hired as its director of engineering Ray Kurzweil, the visionary who predicts we are approaching a “singularity” where we become one with machines. Now it would be too easy to list the parade of horribles I envision from my consciousness being consumed in a global network of artificial neurons. But Kurzweil’s employer will benefit from his research in artificial intelligence because it will be able to better predict what we want to ask before we ask it. That, folks, is the future of online search.

All of us carry in our pockets now a device that would like to claim it can answer every question. We don’t even have to type it in; we just speak into it and it spits out its answer. This capability has ground to a halt more than one interesting dinner party conversation because one party will confirm their hypothesis with Siri. But perhaps more is lost with this capability than simply a fun exchange of hypotheses over starter salads. Search engines want to predict our questions. Maybe knowing that answers to basic facts are within reach will change the way we ask questions.

Someone first has to ask the unanswerable question.
Someone first has to ask the unanswerable question.

Creativity may be the result of curiosity, but curiosity is all about asking the seemingly unanswerable question. A smartphone tells us what is; it cannot tell us what might be. An open-ended what-if question cannot be answered by a search engine, at least not until Kurzweil melds our brains onto smart chips. But what if we are becoming so satisfied by receiving instant answers to our questions that we stop asking ones that can’t be instantly answered?

By the way, when I asked that popular search engine the opening question of this post–Can you be creative without being curious?–there was of course no direct answer.

Now you know why I hope that creativity is not dependent on curiosity. If access to ever-greater knowledge inadvertently dulls our curiosity, at least creativity will continue to thrive. We’ll need those creative thinkers, to provide us some distractions from our devices and to spice up our dinner conversations.

ADDENDUM, MARCH 5, 12:45 PM ET: One thing I do know is that The Artist’s Road has some of the most intellectually curious and creative readers a blog could ever want. I’m loving the thought-provoking comments I’m seeing here already, only a few hours after posting.

27 thoughts on “Separating Curiosity from Creativity

  1. Wow… a profound and intriguing post, Patrick!

    I think it’s entirely possible for curiosity to be separate from creativity – and indeed, I would argue that large chunks of society do it already, quite naturally. Those people that believe everything they read in the papers, for example, or believe everything on the corporate-sponsored news channels – or declare that all gay people are abominations and will burn in Hell, simply because a big book written two thousand years ago (and edited a few times since then) sort of maybe says so…

    I think creativity not only drives but elevates curiosity, which then in turn stokes the fires of creativity. Curiosity in isolation is asking something like Siri a question and then obediently absorbing whatever answer it spits back like a sponge. But creativity working in tandem with curiosity will look at that answer and immediately think of other questions off the back of it – or even question the truth of the answer. And having worked in software engineering, I would say we’re a long long way from building any kind of AI that could answer every question a creative person would ever ask. Trying to build a machine like that would be like trying to make a unicorn!

    So whatever people like the Borg King Kurzweil have got planned for the future, I don’t think we need to be too worried. Sure, such gizmos might prove to be an intellect-anaesthetic for the curious who just want answers… but it’ll never quench the thirst of the Creative Curious.

    Resistance is not futile yet, Patrick. You, me and our fellow dreamers will never be assimilated! 🙂


    1. Oh my how I love the Borg reference! 🙂

      Thank you, Wendy, for assuring me that the singularity, if coming at all, is not as close as Kurzweil would have us believe. And you make an excellent point about what can result when creativity is separated from curiosity, namely individuals who don’t think for themselves.

      I think my one concern is that I believe that the instant satisfaction of a Siri answer may in fact lead us to simply start absorbing answers like sponges. I particularly fear for so-called “digital natives,” who don’t know a world without instant answers to questions (and who aren’t always taught to question those answers). But Nancy points out children are also innately curious. So maybe they’ll hold on to that once they get their first smartphone and sustain a world of intellectual curiosity.


  2. davidbgoldstein

    Last month, a guy asked me a question in the supermarket. He showed me a balloon with some French words printed on it and asked me if I could translate.

    I dusted off my high school French and took a guess that it said “My Friend” and then verified with a translator app on my phone. His unchecked curiosity could have landed him in some hot water with his valentine.

    At best, access to general knowledge saves us from fouls and brings up our game to a higher level. With knowledge we become less curious about what is known – and knowledge is an ingredient for creativity too. This is just what Siri told me, your question is more complex than this and deserves more thought.


    1. Agreed that knowledge is an ingredient for creativity, David. One of the articles I link to above mentions that you can’t really be curious if you know absolutely nothing about a subject (I would push back on that a bit) but that you can become very curious once learning a little bit.

      Your comment is helpful because I don’t want people to get the impression that I am opposed to knowledge, or access thereto. And by golly I look stuff up all the time (but then again I used to love spending lazy childhood days flipping to random pages in our home encyclopedia set).


  3. Luanne

    What a thought provoking question. I am a really curious person, and I think it feeds my creativity. My mother has always said she isn’t creative. I never thought that was true; however, she has rarely acted upon any creativity and she is the most incurious person I’ve ever known (I think).


    1. The anecdote about your mother is very interesting, Luanne, suggesting a correlation if not causation between a lack of curiosity and a lack of creativity.

      As I’ve talked about on this blog before, I’ve spent a lot of my professional life engaged with creative people. I’ve also come across some people who claim they aren’t creative and yet are very intellectually curious. Usually a further conversation will reveal that at some point someone, intentionally or not, squashed their sense of being creative, but it’s always the case that they can tap in again to their creativity. I have some experience facilitating that process. I do not know, however, how to make an incurious person curious.


      1. Luanne

        Exactly: it seems impossible to make an incurious person curious. Her memory is also very bad, and she doesn’t seem bothered by that. That would drive me mad.


  4. You do some fantastic thinking here.

    Curiosity is not about answers, it’s about questions. The authentically curious mind looks for answers only in its search of deeper and better questions. That’s why people don’t suddenly lose their curiosity once they have attained a certain threshold level of knowledge. The people who know the most about the world tend to be that way because they are continually curious. Answer-driven people are anti-curious in the same way that people who complain at the size of their meal in a fine restaurant can’t ever really appreciate good food. They mistake satisfaction for appreciation and don’t understand that eating is about accepting and enjoying the meal while it exists, rather than looking forward to the end of it. Google culture makes it ever easier for answers people to gorge themselves on the feast of knowledge but it can never really touch question people.
    Creativity, likewise, is not about what is to be created, but what is being-created. it’s about living in the moment of creation and not being unsatisfied by the struggles of the creative process. For a person who wants the finished product, consumerism offers a much more efficient path than creativity but for the artist, that intangible sense of the beauty of creation flowing through them can never be beaten by anything that the internet offers.


    1. pjreece

      Smokes… you talk about ” living in the moment of creation,” and there you’ve described the domain of curiosity. Could curiosity be the mental aspect of the ongoing Big Bang? Ever expanding. What is Life! if not living on that leading edge?


      1. I like that turn of phrase – “the mental aspect of the ongoing Big-Bang”, I shall definitely be using it at dinner parties. That’s the whole point of curiosity isn’t it. I don’t know who it was that said science is thinking God’s thoughts after him, but you’ve just brought the sentiment into the 21st century. I suppose we could maybe hope to incorporate siri into the metaphor as the digital expansion of the Big Bang, in which case we need not to make the error of mistaking digital curiosity for mental curiosity. We are not nodes!


    2. Great comment here, you’ve got me thinking. I will confess I probably focus too much on the end product of creativity; it comes from spending a good deal of my professional life advocating for artists, and their output is a quantifiable demonstration of their contribution to culture and the economy. But as someone dedicated to living an art-committed life, I completely resonate with your focus on being in the creative moment. And of course I completely endorse your focus on questions, not answers.



    So long as there are children, curiosity will endure. My son’s first full-sentence question, asked when he was 2 years and 1 month old, was “Where do green balloons come from?” I’m still wondering where that question came from. If I Google it, there is no answer which satisfies the question, as it was asked. Guess what? I was curious, and checked in the baby book to find out when the question was asked!

    The sense of wonder in children seems to live on in many creative people, most of whom have not lost that sense of wonder. They are the curious and the creative.

    Several visiting authors at the school where I used to teach provided this advice for budding writers in the audience. “Ask yourself ‘What if…?’ ” As authors, this one phrase can take us out of a writer’s block and into a brave new world of imagination. What if a mouse could ride a motorcycle? What if a spoiled brat got washed overboard on a sailing junket? What if a house were blown away in a tornado with a child inside? It is the question that leads the imagination to find new plots, to invent new settings and to develop new characters.

    Perhaps there IS curiosity without creativity. I think it’s called being nosy. But I don’t think it works the other way. I believe creativity is the response to spoken or unspoken questions which are closely related to “What if…?” What if I mixed this mineral with oil and tried to color something? What if I dripped blobs of different colors of paint on a canvas on the floor? What if people could type their name into a machine and find out who their ancestors were?

    What if each of us who writes posted a sign saying “What if…?” over our desks?


    1. I always thought green balloons came from St. Patrick.

      I love this contribution to the discussion, Nancy. I believe it was Picasso who said “It took me 4 years to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to paint like a child.” As I mentioned to Wendy above, it is the mind of a child that we can turn to for that innate curiosity.

      I like the “What if…” question. There’s another phrase that’s passed around in creativity circles–particularly useful in brainstorming–that is “Yes, and.” Too often we say “Yes, but,” or worse, “No.” I think yours and mine are similar; it’s about being open to possibility.


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  8. Patrick, my dinner time revelations have come to a grinding halt because of Siri.When you refer to innovations through modern technology, there certainly has been a giant leap forward. It is interesting though that the things we imagine today are therefore realities of tomorrow and subsequently we need curiosity to conjure things beyond. We will always be curious and creativity is essential. My own view is that creativity is an expression of an inner need to hold memories, tell stories and project ideas. We can be curious of creativity, but maybe we can only be creative ‘about’ curiosity. I have a brother in law and we make a perfect couple, in that, I am curious and ask questions, he on the other hand loves to answer questions and is creative in doing so. Great talking point. B


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  10. I don’t think I’d have a thing to say whether in my essays or short stories without a deep curiosity about people and what makes them tick. This was a great post and a very worthy conversation here.

    Also–it’s very clear when I’m speaking to someone who lacks curiosity. And it’s pretty painful. They’ll look at me like “why are you conducting an interview.” And I want to be like, “This is called a conversation. I ask questions. Then you ask questions. And that wouldn’t feel like an interview.”


    1. Oh Nina, how awesome it would be if you flat-up said that to the incurious! I’d want to be there to witness it.

      Yes to your thoughts on writing. Lopate in The Art of the Personal Essay notes the best essays often feature the writer still unsure of his or her position and essentially debating it right in front of us. It’s far less interesting to read the pedantic work of someone who is so sure of his position he has shut off his curiosity to learn more about the subject.


  11. In my opinion, curiosity and creativity are closely connected to one another. If you know only a couple of things and decide to stick with them, how much creativity can you get from them? Discovering new things has a lot to do with creativity, I think.


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