Interview with Ian Leslie
Author of Curious: The Desire to know
and why your future depends on it

Interviewed by Megan turner


In our December issue of AMRI, we reviewed Ian Leslie’s Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It (Basic Books, 2014). Inspired by the book and hoping to learn a little more, I interviewed the author about his recent publication. To find out more about Leslie and any upcoming projects, please visit him here.

As a writer who has contributed to publications such as Slate, the Economist, the Guardian, the Times, and Granta and also as the author of Born Liars (Quercus, 2011), you have already written quite a bit on psychology and politics. What, in particular, sparked the idea for Curious, and what did you hope to accomplish in writing this book?

I've always been struck that one of the biggest differences between people is that some are curious and some are incurious. Some people, when you meet them, you can just tell that they're interested - in you, in the world, in whatever is happening around them. Others, not so much. And so I've always wondered, why is that? Is curiosity something that happens naturally or something you need to cultivate? The more I looked into it, the more important it seemed. Whether it's at school or at work or at home, curiosity has these enormous benefits. But nobody has really written about how it works, in an analytical way that's also accessible and engaging. So I thought I would.

Throughout the book, you reference your role as an advertiser. Could you describe the relationship between advertising and curiosity? How do you think advertisers and other creative types can benefit both from epistemic and empathic curiosity?

Curiosity is enormously important to any creative endeavour. It's how you build a wellspring of ideas and knowledge that you can then turn into new ideas. In advertising it's particularly important because we need to be intensely curious about the mindset and behaviour of the people that matter most in our business - consumers.

Curious was first published by Quercus in the UK before Basic Books published it in the U.S. in August 2014. In terms of education and curiosity, what sort of cultural differences, if any, have you found between these two countries as well as other cultures throughout the world? Do you think the U.S. approaches curiosity or education any differently than the UK?

The US probably has more "diversive curiosity" - hunger for novelty. It's always on the lookout for the new. The Brits maybe have a bit more "epistemic curiosity" - a desire to acquire knowledge. Although what comes with that is that we tend to be a little more set in our ways. So it's a trade-off.

In one particularly moving section of the book, you discuss why lower-achieving schools and students are at such a disadvantage to students who have already been “stuffed with information” from early on in their education. What do you think students and educators at these lower-achieving schools can do to catch up with higher-achieving students?

Kids don't arrive at school on an equal playing field. Some already have reading and writing skills, and a broad background knowledge of the world - the names of countries, or the name of the president. Even a small advantage in these things is really important, because when it comes to learning there is a "rich get richer" effect. The more you know, the easier it is to learn. And so the kids with a small head start end up racing away from the others, even if they're not making any more effort. So schools have to make an extra-large investment of time and effort in the early years to help the "low information" kids catch up. If they can do that, then those kids can get into a virtuous circle, where the more they learn, the easier they find learning, and so the more they want to learn. They get curious and stay that way.

I found the section on Disney versus Pixar especially illuminating. Can you discuss this further? Why are large, seemingly thriving corporations sometimes at a disadvantage when it comes to creativity?

Nothing kills curiosity like success. When you've been making a lot of money for a long time doing the same thing, you tend to get incurious about the world - about your competitors, about consumers, about technology. You just stick to what you know. But the world changes. A new competitor comes along and you don't realise how dangerous they are until it's too late. Steve Jobs was a big believer in staying curious. When you're curious not only do you see threats coming, you see new opportunities too.

I was particularly struck by the section in Curious on conflict resolution and the role curiosity played in resolving the Northern Ireland conflict. Can you think of other modern-day conflicts that could benefit from curiosity? Why do you think curiosity is not always employed in these conflicts?

In long-running conflicts, people tend to get into deadlock situations because they just end up arguing over a set of demands. It becomes a pure negotiation, with nobody wanting to give way because they have too much - emotionally, politically, at stake. But sometimes you can make a breakthrough by asking "Why?". Why do you want that thing? Then you find out more about the other side. And maybe you realise that "that thing" is a stand-in for something else - something you can give them. That's what I discussed with Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief negotiator with the IRA and now a terrorist-government mediator.

Just for fun—and for our more literary readers—you provided several real-life examples of inventors, scientists, and politicians who embodied epistemic curiosity throughout their careers. Can you think of any literary characters or other current, notable figures who embody this sort of curiosity? Would you consider these characters to be foxes, hedgehogs, or foxhogs?

My favourite example of a curious person is Benjamin Franklin. He was curious about everything, from the effect of oil on water to the ancient Greeks to the nature of electricity to the culture of France. And he was curious about everyone he met, too - he had empathetic curiosity. He also had deep expertise, in science. So I'd call him a foxhog - a man of deep and broad knowledge.

Now that Curious has been published, are you working on any projects for the future? What other books are you interested in writing?

So many. I'm just lucky that I've found a career in which I can follow my curiosity wherever it takes me.