Why I Started the Natural Curiosity Project

Dr. Steven Shepard

Now that I’ve launched a new Web site, thanks to the creative capabilities of my son, I’ve decided to take his suggestions to heart, one of which is to write a regular Blog. So, this is the first post of what will become a weekly (or so) message, updating you on things that I think are important and worth writing about.

For this first post, I want to take you back in time—to 1999, the year before I started this business, the Shepard Communications Group. I was in Washington, DC, giving a talk via a Comsat satellite facility to a group of people that were scattered all over the world, the vast majority of them in Africa. The Internet was still a nascent phenomenon back then; indeed, Google was less than a year old at the time, and a really good connection to the Web was 56 kbps, via an analog modem. AOL was a happening place.

Anyway, the talk was a wonderful experience—people asked questions in English, French, Portuguese, Swahili, Spanish, and a few languages that I needed help with—it was AMAZING. I loved every minute of it. In fact, it ran way over time; we stopped when the satellite provider called and said they needed their transponder back.

One of the participants on the talk was a guy from Kenya, named Edwin, who contacted me after the broadcast to help him build a plan to use email to grow his business in east Africa. We swapped a few messages, I gave him some suggestions, and as is typical, our exchanges went from frequent, to infrequent, to nonexistent, once he got his business up and running. I thought nothing of it until I received this letter in the mail—let me be clear, a paper letter (still framed on my wall):

Dear Professor Shepard: I wish to thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping me start my Internet business in Kenya. It was not easy: I had to take out a large business loan for $100, but I believe that I will be able to pay it back within 18 months. Already I have made sales of my magazine in the US and Europe and because of your help my family is eating well and my children are smiling. God bless you and the Internet. 

Asante Sana, rafiki wako Edwin.

God bless me and the Internet. Talk about feeling humble—wow.

I share that story because it was one of the reasons I started this company—one of the catalytic forces that made me want to write more books, take more photographs, publish more articles, produce more videos, give more talks, and focus so much of my professional and personal effort on the developing world. That letter humbled me, made me reflect, and gave me focus. I realized that all this technology that I had worked so hard to know so much about, to understand the inner workings of, was pretty useless without a sound application in front of it. Until Edwin wrote me that letter, I hadn’t given the Internet all that much thought, other than to see it as a technological curiosity

And there’s that word—curiosity. 

I’ve always been curious, but I never thought much about it until I started doing this job and realized how many people I come in contact with aren’t—curious, that is. And that, to me, is a problem. Why? Because of the belief behind the Podcast: that curiosity leads to discovery, discovery leads to knowledge, knowledge leads to insight, and insight leads to understanding, something that seems to be missing in an awful lot of public discourse today. Let me give you an example.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a taxi in LA, driving from the airport to my hotel downtown. As I always do, I channeled one of my (weirder than most) heroes, journalist Charles Kuralt (weird because after his death it was discovered that he had two separate, simultaneous families, neither of which knew of the other). That’s not the part I channeled. He once was asked what his job consisted of, given that it involved driving around the country with a film crew in a luxury RV, interviewing people. His answer was great, and I’ve never forgotten it: “My job is to find extraordinary things in ordinary people.” And by ‘ordinary’ he didn’t mean sub-standard—he meant everyday people, living their lives. He rarely interviewed heads of state, or CEOs, or wealthy octogenarians (unless no one knew they were wealthy octogenarians), or sports superstars. He interviewed farmers, mechanics, birdwatchers, firefighters, teachers, and volunteer doctors and nurses. He interviewed crop duster pilots who also delivered medicine. He interviewed game wardens and park rangers. And every one of them—EVERY one—had a compelling, mesmerizing, hang-on-every-word story to tell. And Charles found them.

So: my taxi driver. From his accent and the name on the driver’s placard I knew he was Armenian. So, I asked him how long he had been in Los Angeles. Many years, it turned out. He asked me what I do; I told him I’m a writer. I’m a writer, he responded. Really, I asked? (everybody’s a would-be writer). What do you like to write? Essays, he told me. He then asked me who my favorite writers were. And then, before I could answer, he told me his.

“Actually, Dostoevsky is quite good for global and historical perspective. Tolstoy is tedious. Mark Twain, the American essayist, is a genius—he should be read by everyone in the world. Kipling has a wonderful read on human behavior. And as for poets, which many people don’t read, but should, I very much like Pablo Neruda. He has a lover’s soul, yet he’s a pragmatist.”

Had I not been in the habit of letting my curiosity drive my actions, I never would have had this conversation with my driver, with whom I exchanged books we had each written. 

Here’s the thing. Curiosity is free—it costs nothing, yet its yield is inevitably priceless. It broadens our view of the world, makes us more aware and sensitive, causes us to be more informed, and inevitably makes us better people. And, it requires minuscule effort. It looks like this:

·      “You know what? I’d like to know a little more about that.”

·      “Are you sure about that? I think I’ll check one more source.”

·      “That person over there looks kind of interesting. I think I’ll go over and say hi.”

·      “OK—I have to ask. What’s the story of that hat?”

·      “Forgive me for asking. What language are you speaking? I love how it sounds.”

I’ve come to the conclusion that curiosity has become optional for many. And I don’t think it’s because they set out one day to no longer be curious; I think it’s a side-effect—and a hazardous one—of the deluge of data that we are inundated with every second of every day. The dangerous thing about this is two-fold. First, we grow comfortably complacent with being awash in data, falsely assuming it to be knowledge, or insight, or wisdom, or even information. 

Second, we allow ourselves to trust it without question. Volume or quantity do not equate to correctness, any more than having tens of thousands of people walk through your store, day after day, without buying anything, equates to retail success. It’s an exercise in empty calories. Because we have so much at our fingertips, we become intellectually lazy. We allow ourselves to believe that we don’t have to work hard to be well-informed or well-educated. And this, my friends, is a dangerous, slippery slope, and it’s largely to blame for the mess we’re in today. If only people would ask that simple question, ‘are you sure?’, or would take the time to check one more source before blindly accepting a statement as fact, we’d all be much better off. But it takes effort, and a willingness to be proven wrong every now and again.

So, curiosity can be lost, or perhaps better said, anaesthetized. But it can be revived. And that’s precisely why I started my Podcast, the Natural Curiosity Project. I am blessed with natural curiosity. Perhaps it’s part of being a writer, or due to the fact that I’m a voracious reader, or maybe it’s because I go out of my way to meet people—to follow Charles Kuralt’s mantra. Whatever it is, I ask a lot of questions, which yield a lot of very interesting answers, insights I didn’t have before I asked the questions. I think those insights are important—important enough, in fact, to share them with you.

So, each episode is different, but they all have one characteristic in common. I promise that I will try with every episode to tell you something you didn’t know before. Why? Because of the mantra upon which the Podcast was created: curiosity leads to discovery, discovery leads to knowledge, knowledge leads to insight, and insight leads to understanding. Understanding leads to better relationships, more effective businesses, more innovative products and services, more insightful competitive behavior, and better-behaved, more understanding humans. And we can use more of those these days.

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out the Natural Curiosity Project Podcast, where you’ll find other stories designed to intrigue and educate. You can find a link to it here.