Cultivate a Learning Mindset Part 2

Written by Simon Matthews

May 12, 2022

How can we develop our capacity for curiosity and learning?

In Part I of this article, we looked at the benefits of being curious and having a learning mindset. In Part II we’re going to look at how you can cultivate more of that in your life.

One of the best ways to begin the process of increasing your curiosity is to notice the things that are in your immediate environment all the time (and which you often probably look straight past) and begin to wonder more about them.

For example, after the wind blows, why do the leaves always seem to pile up in one particular part of your yard? When you watch a fan spinning, why does it sometimes look like the fan blades are beginning to spin more slowly in the opposite direction? How does your dog know you’re about to take him for a walk, even when you haven’t yet picked up the leash? Or, as I apparently asked my father as a very young child, “Where does the light go when it goes out?”

The more we begin to wonder about and think about everyday parts of our lives, the more we cultivate the capacity for curiosity and the desire to learn. Here is an experiment you can do right now. Hold your index finger in front of your face so you can focus on it easily. Look at it for 30 seconds. Put your hand down. Now look again at that same finger for 30 seconds, only this time look for something different or something that you haven’t noticed in that finger before. You’ll likely noticed a bump, a ridge, or a discolouration, or texture in the skin which has literally been in front of your eyes thousands and thousands and thousands of times but you might not ever have noticed.

Another technique for developing curiosity and a love of learning is to use the skill of mindfulness to really tune into your own internal talk. In particular, listen for those times when you begin talking to yourself with words like “I wonder” or “Why?” or how? or what? or where? These almost always represent the beginning of some small curiosity about something. If you can hear these and dig into that curiosity further, you’re forming the foundation of the process of learning.

If you want to jump straight in, then make a conscious choice to simply learn something that is completely new to you and which you may never have considered learning about before. That may be a language, a technical skill, something about an event in history, something about a particular person either living or dead or pretty much anything that you can think of that it’s possible to learn more about. This can really kickstart the process of learning and if you maintain an openness and curiosity about what you’re learning, each new element of that opens a new doorway to something else that you could learn about.

One of the most effective ways to open your mind to learning more is to practice the skill of observation, rather than evaluation. It’s really surprising how much we think we are observing in daily life but in fact we’re making evaluations. Evaluations are important and useful, but they can also dampen down our curiosity. As soon as we think think we understand something sufficiently, a natural tendency is to move on and look for something else. If you choose to make only observations, then each of these observations can open up further curiosity about why that might be. Let me give you an example. If it’s cloudy, you might look out the window and say to yourself “Huh. It’s cloudy and windy. That’s the end of going for a picnic.” Alternatively, adopting a framework of observation would mean looking out the window and simply observing that it is cloudy and windy. Once this observation is made, the opportunities for further curiosity and learning are almost endless. You could wonder about the direction from which the weather is coming, how long that it will likely last, the weather pattern that follows behind it and so on. You could begin to create a list of all the things that you could do despite the cloudy and windy day. You could wonder to yourself about what the worst possible outcome of being in the cloud and wind would be (maybe it’s not that bad actually).

Go for it

Wherever you choose to start, whether it’s by looking at your index finger or jumping straight into something new to learn or simply by becoming more observant about what’s going on around you, the rewards that come from engaging in lifelong learning accumulate quickly and broadly. In time, it’s likely you’ll be happier, more engaged, more socially connected and quite possibly living a longer and more fulfilled life than you would’ve imagined otherwise.

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