The Middah of Curiosity (Sakranut)

Dr. Bill Robinson
Executive Director of Na’aleh

During the second session of the Rina L. Janet Leadership Middot Conversations, we learned about the importance of creativity, that middah which we call in Hebrew sakranut.  As a core strength of leadership, curiosity involves seeking to understand and learn that which you do not yet know well.  It may seem simple, but curiosity often involves vulnerability and risk; it pushes us beyond our comfort zone.  And, if we push further into our discomfort, that is when we truly learn and grow as a leader and as a person.  As Rabbi Saroken explored with us, “Curiosity can change our lives.”

Understanding Curiosity

It is worth noting that the Latin root for curiosity, curiosus meaning “careful, diligent, inquiring eagerly” is akin to the Latin word cura meaning “to care.” To be curious is to be in an attentive and concerned relationship with others and with the world around us.  It requires that we pause in our desires to act or move on.  Rather, instead we give ourselves over to listening and asking questions, to noticing and exploring.  In pausing, we create a space for wonder and growth.

The truly curious person is neither indifferent to the world around them, nor do they need to feel secure in their knowledge.  Like the twelve spies sent out by Moses to explore the land, we are all challenged to stay curious and not default back to what we think we know and know how to do.  The curious person is able to maintain an openness to the small surprises that arise in the everyday course of life and learning.

Curiosity is also connected to the concept of “failing forward” that comes out of the entrepreneurial business world, in which one is expected to fail at the beginning of designing and offering a new product.  The key is to quickly learn from those failures and rapidly improve the product.  Similarly, Sarah Hemminger shared her experience learning to ice-skate as a child.  “It was the place that I literally fell down and got up, and fell down and got up. … That for me has created a competence not that I know things, but that I can over time especially with the help of others figure things out.”  This place of vulnerability actually became for her “my place of comfort when there was a lot of discomfort (in her world).”

In today’s changing world with its many complex and uncertain challenges, what we thought we knew may no longer be true.  And what we need to do to move forward, may not be that which we are practiced at doing.  We can no longer rely on the “tried and true.”  Instead, as Thibault Manekin expressed, “That wondering and getting out of our car is the first step out of our bubbles and out of our comfort zones, where real growth happens, where we begin to see things we’ve never seen before, that allow us to wonder more deeply, allow us to engage more in the conversation, and allow us to bring other people around (the table) as we truly seek to understand what’s missing.”

Curiosity and Jewish Thought

Another word that may help us understand curiosity in its fullest is “attunement.” When we go to (say) a classical or a jazz concert, we slowly attune ourselves to the music. In doing so, we become more aware of what’s happening musically.  We become more aware of the ways in which the musicians use their instruments and their collaboration to craft new possibilities of sound.  Attunement then can be seen as a fundamental skill of curiosity.

The Jewish theologian Michael Fishbane sees the task of theology, and Jewish practice in general, as attuning ourselves to the world around us.  We do this so that we may become more aware of the possibilities for personal growth and more capable of responding to the call of the divine.  Like Moses noticing “the bush that was all aflame but not consumed,” Abraham noticing the castle all aglow, and Jacob discovering that “God was in this place, and I didn’t know it,” attunement steers the lost wanderer in the direction of ethical growth and in pursuit of a divine mission.  It all begins with curiosity, and it leads to changing your life.

Cultivating Curiosity

So, how can we become more curious in our lives?  Here are three suggestions:

  • Play with children and let them take the lead.  Instead of deciding the rules of the game, let them make it up and you follow along.  Ask lots of questions.  And, literally get down on the ground, in order to see the world from their perspective.
  • Learn something new.  It can be anything from bird watching to playing the guitar to collecting stamps to French cooking.
  • Seek out boredom.  Don’t try to fill up each hour and minute of your day.  Sit still till you are bored and see what emerges of its own will.  The psychotherapist Adam Phillips, describes boredom as “diffuse restlessness, the wish for a desire.” The Torah scholar and commentator, Aviva Zornberg applies this insight to Shabbat.  Allow for that restlessness to seep into the hours of Shabbat. Only then will you discover anew the world around you, the potential of others, and the desires of your own heart. 

Curiosity works hand-in hand with the other middot.  Humility sets the stage for the appearance of curiosity; in being humble we understand that we don’t know all we need to know, nor are we able to do all that we seek to do.  Courage then steps in to helps us move into the discomfort and vulnerability of learning and enables us to stay in that generative place. 

Stay tuned for the next session of the Rina L. Janet Leadership Middot Conversations on Wednesday morning, March 2nd, when we will learn more about the ways the middah of courage propels leadership.

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