Curiosity Killed The Cat... How Inquiry Makes For A Personal And Successful College Career

Many, if not most, students feel as they enter college that they are not as smart as everyone else. This is especially true for those who are first in their families to go to college. They may feel that everyone else has some magical rule book that tells them how it all works. And then they don't want to look dumb so if they have questions they remain silent. That is where the problems and the confusion take place. The most important thing to be in college is curious. Asking questions is how you make your college experience your own--you make it personal.

At some point a parent or other adult has said this to a child thus beginning a process of squashing a natural tendency to ask questions. Two year olds are notorious for asking "why" to everything. And they may hear the "curiosity killed the cat expression" but few know that the other part of the expression is "satisfaction brought it back." And that is the really important part especially for succeeding in college and in life. And I am a believer that college is dress rehearsal for the rest of your life. So being curious in college will be a good thing later on too.

Here is how that works. You are sitting in a huge lecture hall for BIO 100, the course you must have either for your general requirements or if you are thinking of a career in some aspect of medicine. You have no idea what the professor has just said and your classmates are looking pretty clueless too---if they are paying attention at all. Now if you are really smart this is what you do--you raise your hand and you say, "Excuse me professor but could you please go over that again I am not sure I got it...?" And here is what the professor thinks... "Hmmm, smart student paying attention and interested. A curious student. I like this kid." The professor does not think curiosity is a bad thing at all. Their lives as faculty are built around doing research and then teaching what they and others have learned as a result of that research. Their work is built on curiosity and questioning and so they like people who are curious too. They have discovered that curiosity did not kill the cat but that satisfaction (from learning and knowing) brought it back. They get that. It is a good thing. You are not dumb. You are curious.

So then you have permission to use that skill of questioning to approach the professor during office hours and keep asking questions. You might get invited to work in his/her lab. Your chances of acing the class are much greater partly because you got questions answered--including maybe the right way to study or approach the material and --also because the professor likes you and if there is wiggle room it may wiggle your way when grades are done.

But the classroom is not the only place on campus where being curious can pay off. Ask the financial aid office if there are more scholarships you can apply for. Ask upper classmen who are the best professors to take. Ask an adviser or dean how to take classes during the summer to your best advantage. Ask for tutors and writing coaches. All the top students I have known over decades in all kinds of schools have done all these things. Some have come from families with long legacies of college and so approach it with a sense of entitlement. But so should you. You are paying for every salary in the school. The faculty and staff are there to serve you. It is a waste of your money to not tap all the resources there. Asking for what you need is just like asking for catsup for your fries. It comes with the meal. You would not hesitate at your favorite burger joint. You would feel pretty entitled to get what you paid for. Same goes for college. Ask for what you need. Being curious is a good thing. It is a smart thing.

When your professors ask you to do research papers you are engaging in inquiry--or questioning. You are solving riddles and mysteries. You are honing that skill. There was a student who once asked me why he had to take history as a forensics major (think CSI) and I showed him how the problems he had to solve and the evidence he had to provide were just basic forensic skills.

And so curiosity is also a workplace skill. On a job no one expects you to know everything. People get hired because they are resourceful and can ask the right questions and get the information the firm needs to move ahead. I, once during my corporate career, was asked to take on a project that was tech focused and totally outside my wheelhouse. But I wasn't exactly going to say to my boss--"sorry but I don't do that." So I went to people smarter than I about the issues at hand and got it done by asking lots of questions and getting the help and information I need to have a successful outcome. That is how it gets done. People who are curious and inventive get ahead--sometimes their curiosity leads them to ask big questions and to invent things. Curiosity can be world changing. What were the questions Bill Gates, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Garrett Morgan, Joy Mangano or Alexander Graham Bell asked? (You may have to do some research--a form of inquiry or questioning--to find out.)

A couple of powerful quotes to put on your fridge or on your screensaver:

"Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers." - Voltaire
"We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers." - Carl Sagan

So remember the full expression is "curiosity killed the cat but satisfaction brought it back". Use your interest and curiosity to be a success in college and beyond.

Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD is the author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide. This blog is also part of a new book called Smarter 2.0.