Curiosity is by definition an interesting subject. It’s that process of how an idea can suddenly pop into our mind, only to open up an array of doors for us to gaze into. The ability to be curious about the way the world works is one of the most underrated qualities or talents that one can develop.

If we have curiosity, we have a never-ending supply of wonder that makes the drive to follow through on such ideas completely secondary. When one is highly curious, it no longer becomes a question of whether you have the motivation to put the work in to find the answer, the work simply happens as a by product of wanting to satisfy the curiosity.

How does this state of curiosity come around and more importantly, how can we develop it? In my recent perusing of books and research on the subject, most notably Curious by Ian Leslie and Riveted by Jim Davies, I couldn’t help but think of how curiosity is developed translating back to the world of running and training.

A Base of knowledge:

We often to think that curiosity is developed through this grand free flowing open spirited method. If we could only set our minds free from the trappings of our own mind and structure; perhaps exhibit some sort of freedom exhibited by Thoreau or any of the other’s writing who express this degree of independence. In modern society, the common complaint, perhaps rightfully so in some regards, is that schools inhibit any kind of curiosity and beats the wonder out of our kids. There’s been a suggestion to create more free flowing school, with kids following their interests or passions as they say.

But there’s one problem with this kind of thinking. The “boring stuff” matters. It matters a lot.

It’s often thought that if we know too much about a subject,
our creativity decreases, but the opposite actually turns out to be true. As Peter Brown puts it in Make it Stick:

“Pitting the learning of basic knowledge against the development of creative thinking is a false choice. Both need to be cultivated. The stronger one’s knowledge about the subject at hand, the more nuanced one’s creativity can be in addressing a new problem. Just as knowledge amounts to little without the exercise of ingenuity and imagination, creativity absent a sturdy foundation of knowledge builds a shaky house.”

What research has shown is that what the basic foundation
allows us to do is establish more connections. The wider base of support, or knowledge in this case, the more connections we can make. The key is the wide-ranging base of support, and not skipping the foundation. If we skip the foundation and “boring work” and just go for instant gratification of what interests us at that moment, we miss an opportunity to expand our future horizons.

As we grow our knowledge in multiple domains, we can begin to connect seemingly unrelated concepts and ideas back to our own specialty. Curiosity kicks in as this motivating force that comes about by having enough familiarity with a subject by just enough incongruence to drive us towards finding an answer.

It’s related to our innate need to make meaning and patterns of the world.

Biologically we’re primed through some nice hormonal contributions to be intrigued by slightly hard to see patterns. What knowledge and learning allows us to do is reach continually find new ways to see patterns.

As Jim Davies said in Riveted, “As we become familiar with a subject, such as a school of painting, or a language, or a musical style, we notice more and more of the patterns that make it up.”

As our knowledge base grows, our view expands. This phenomenon is what partially explains people’s interest in the seemingly random world of modern art. From an outsiders perspective, indeed from my own, it seems like a useless random piece of art work that we wonder why in the heck people are willing to pay so much for. What research (Taylor, 2011) has shown thought that these art works might have actually patterns that humans can pick up in them. Studying modern art like Jackson Pollock’s work, researchers have found “fractal” patterns in the paintings that people can actually pick out, based on eye gaze. What’s even more interesting though is that the more “well-trained” someone is in art, or looking at art, the better their able to pick up these patterns or pick up even more complex patterns.

I guess, contrary to my previous viewpoints, modern art isn’t random and may have a point?

The fascinating thing though, is the adaptation process that occurs. As Ian Leslie wrote in Curious, “The closer you look at anything, the more interesting it gets. But nobody tells you this” What happens is we can dig deeper and see the world through a slightly different lens.

As we gain knowledge, the way we see the world shifts too, “Highly curious people, who have carefully cultivated their long term memories, live in a kind of augmented reality; everything they see is overlaid with additional layers of meaning and possibility, unavailable to ordinary observers”

The more knowledge, even of the basics, allows us to see things we never thought would connect.

My favorite way to illustrate this phenomenon is to look through my own intellectual history. High school me absolutely despised reading. If there was a movie, cliff notes, or some other way around reading some classical book, I would choose that route without even opening a book. There was the time in my senior year English class where I read the children’s picture book of A Tale of Two Cities instead of attempting to read through any of it. As an 18 year old, I would rather have been put through the most brutal interval set filled with puking afterwards then read one page of such a book. Yet a decade later, I can be seen reading ancient classics like Marcus Aurellius Meditations, or any other myriad of books constantly. Why?  While there are numerous reasons, one that sticks out to me is how now I can relate and connect everything back to my own love of running and understanding the human condition, which wasn’t possible until I gained a large enough base of knowledge in several areas. I couldn’t connect any book I read in High School to anything that mattered to me.

The Curiosity of Training:

And as I sat at the recent Boulder Running Clinic speaking and listening to the likes of Vern Gambetta, Richie Hanson, and Charlie Kern, I couldn’t help tie this back. Everyone, from top to bottom, preached understanding and nailing the foundation first. Whether it was endurance, speed, mechanics, or strength, it was about getting the basics down.

It’s such a simple message. Understand and perfect the basics.

But, we resist. We want to push forth and progress to the “interesting” workouts or skip to the advanced complicated drill, instruction, or training style.

So what we should take away from this is simple. The basics matter. It allows us to increase our connections to the specific work.

If we have a wide range of movement patterns, our efficiency is most likely going to be better, as we have a wider base of support to pull from. The same can be said for training. In presentations, I often post a picture of my training design workbook, where I show how different training types connect to each other.

And to me, that’s what training is all about. It’s about connecting. The more we can connect different workout types and mold them into the adaptations we want, the better we will be and the more flexible our athletes will be.

The larger foundation we have the more connections we can make. By having a larger base of support, our options and directions that we can go skyrockets, but we are also able to delve deeper into a particular workout. Exploring places in training that only open up and can be seen once our foundation is large enough.

This is one of the reasons why we most likely see athletes who are multi-sport athletes succeeding at high level sport. It runs contrary to the specialization, 10,000hrs hype that infiltrated sport in recent years. By spreading our athletic base over multiple supports, we’re creating a wide foundation of which we can latter connect to our own sport.

The same can be said for High School track and CC runners who skip straight to the fast interval work that might get quick results, but leaves athletes ill adapted aerobically, pure speed wise, and musculoskeletal wise to the progression of training that they will face in the future.

The way I see training is illustrated by this picture, which is actually a picture of a normal brain and a brain on psychedelics and the connections that are made in the brain. The goal of training is to build the outside circle early on that allows you create more of this valuable connections.


 I can’t summarize it any better than Ian Leslie did in Curious. Tie this back into training, learning, or any endeavor and you are well on your way to success:

“Great ideas don’t just spring from the moment of the mental effort involved in trying to come up with one. Their roots extend back months, years, decades into their author’s life; they are products of long formed habits of mind as much as they are of flashes of brilliance….new knowledge is assimilated better, and has more creative possibilities the bigger the store of existing knowledge it is joining. Knowledge loves knowledge.”

Perceptual and physiological responses to Jackson Pollock’s
Front. Hum. Neurosci., 22 June 2011

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