Author Scott Shigeoka on how curiosity can lead to a healthier, happier life

October 20, 2023

"Curiosity is not about asking questions alone; it's a mindset that involves exploration, play, and setting boundaries to protect oneself when curiosity is not reciprocated."

Scott Shigeoka is a curiosity expert, speaker, and the author of Seek: How Curiosity Can Transform Your Life And Change The World (you can order the book here). For our Grand Time event series, Scott joined Rei Wang to discuss how curiosity can lead to a healthier, happier, and more fulfilled life.

Scott and his book!
Scott, your book is all about going deeper and getting curious, so to get started I'm going to ask you a question from it: “What is the story of your name?”
I’ll go first: My name is Rei Wang. The origin of my name comes from my grandparents; they were the ones who named me. My grandparents were both calligraphy teachers and they loved ancient Chinese texts, so they picked one of the most complicated characters: Rei. Nobody knows how to write it because it comes from the 16th century, and it means “astute wisdom.” My last name means “king.” So altogether my means “wisdom king.”

I love that. So just for context of where that drops in the book: there's shallow curiosity and deep curiosity. So, shallow curiosity is “What's your name? Where do you live? What do you do for work?” But then there's deeper curiosity, these questions that get beneath the surface of the heart of who a person is, and that might be: “What's the story of your name? Who named you? Tell me about them. When do you feel like you’re flourishing?”

The story of my name, Scott Keoni Shigeoka. I was born in Hawaii, I'm not Kanaka (native of Hawaii), but I was born in Hawaii so I'm Kamaʻāina (resident). I am a US citizen, but I'm also from Japan. So my parents were like: “Let's make sure we cover all the bases.” So, Scott is American. Keoni, Hawaiian. Shigeoka is Japanese.

I love my last name, Shigeoka. It means “the mountains that disappear into the distance.” I feel like Japanese, and Hawaiian, and a lot of other non-English languages, have such great descriptive words for a natural phenomenon.

I'd love for you to walk us through one to two big transitions that you've made personally, either in your life or in your work, and some of the lessons that you've learned from them.

Two transition moments come to mind. One was my move. I recently just moved back to the Bay, but I was living for a couple of years in Joshua Tree, California, in the middle of the desert. What I realized, growing up in Hawaii and then moving back to the desert, is that I got so disconnected from nature [living in the Bay Area]. Six months into living in Joshua Tree, I could close my eyes and I could paint the mountain range. I knew exactly where it went up and where it went down. I was so connected to nature again, like I was growing up on the islands. Living in the city for seven years in the Bay Area, I went to parks, I went hiking, I went camping, I did these things, but I didn't have that connection to proximate nature, in the way that I did in the years living in Joshua Tree.

I moved back for love, because I ain't trying to do this long distance love anymore and so I moved in with my partner—he is great, he is nature in and of himself, so I can just like admire him, I guess—but, coming back, I was thinking: how do I really honor the nature that is all around me?

What I do now is “awe walks,” where I just get in awe and get curious about [everything around me].

I actually stop to smell all the flowers. It's a nice way to remember I'm not disconnected from nature, and even if I'm in a city, I'm not going to have that limiting belief that I have to go an hour out in order to be connected to nature. It is always around me. I can find it. I can be close to it.

The second transition was when I was growing up. My dad went to prison when I was 11, for most of my middle and high school years. It was super challenging. One of the things we did before he went in was we built this tree house in my backyard. I lived in this intergenerational household in Hawaii, and we had this big mango tree. My grandparents and I would pick mangoes and then give them to the neighbors, the mailman, the trash person, the cashier at Longs Drugs, which was our grocery store—we were all about gifting mangoes.

My dad was a roofer, so he knew how to build things. That's where my love of making comes from. We built this tree house together. You know, it's really hard when you're 11, you're coming to terms with your sexuality, you're getting bullied a lot, just trying to live and survive as this young person without coping skills and the wisdom and knowledge that I know have.

That space in the treehouse was this beautiful sanctuary for me to process and emote and feel things in my body, whether that was empathy or pain, and learn to emotionally process and to be with myself. That was something I didn't know how to do well: how to create space for myself as a form of healing, as a form of processing. I have since carried that with me.

That tree house was so important to me, still is. Today, I think: where's my metaphorical treehouse? Where can I go when I'm going through hard shit in life? Because we're all going through it. It is so hard all the time.

I love those stories that you just shared, and that thesis of learning how to be with yourself. There was one quote in your book that really resonated with me: “If I'm always curious about others and spend all my time asking them questions, then no one will hear or see my own struggles.” When I read that, I thought, “Oof, this is me.” So much emotion.
You talk about the three different directions of curiosity: inward, outward, beyond. For me, outward curiosity has always been easy. I'm super extroverted. I'm an Enneagram 2w3. I'm a host. I'm a facilitator. I can ask people questions all day long and I love listening to them.
But when it really comes down to me sharing, I become much more closed and I become much more shy.  I realized when I read that line that sometimes outward curiosity is actually a defense mechanism for myself and actually creates more of that distraction and more of that distance that you talk about.

I love that you framed it as defense and protection, because that's really what it is, right? We're trying to protect ourselves in some way. But oftentimes that strategy that worked for us growing up to survive, because we needed to do that as a survival mechanism, really no longer serves us.

We really do need to start looking inward to learn things about what we want and what we need, about the relationships that we have and how they're impacting us, and what's our purpose and how do we construct a place where we can really come alive in our home? All of those parts of us are so, so important too. It is a testament to your self-awareness to be able to look in and be like, “Whoa, that resonates with me. Let me check in with myself.”

Yeah! I gotta work on that. I signed up for group coaching with The Grand two years ago with my group, G3 — shoutout — to work on that. I'm curious, as you've been working on turning inward, what does that practice look like and what advice would you have for those of us who are focused on digging in more inward and really enhancing and building and fortifying that relationship with ourselves?

Before I jump into that great question, there's three directions to curiosity. We talked about the inward: how do you get curious about yourself? That's something you might do in therapy, or when you're reflecting or journaling or something like that. You're looking in.

There's outward, which we've talked about: how to get curious about the world around you — the people around you, nature around you, the culture of the systems.

There's a third direction, which is the beyond. It's what's not in the physical realm, it's beyond that. For some of us, it could be god, it could be the divine, it might be consciousness interconnection, it might be seven generations from now — those who aren't yet born, or ancestors who are no longer with us, that's the direction of the beyond. They're not right in front of us or they're not us. But it's something that's also worthwhile.

And to be a Seeker, you need to be proficient at using all three directions to be curious.

For inward, the big thing is: there's seasonalities to life. Sometimes we are in overwhelm. We're in the thick of it. I like to talk about it as being in quicksand. We feel like we're sinking in this metaphorical quicksand. We have aging parents, we have our kids, we have our relationship, we're moving, we have our jobs. Or there's financial stuff, there's health stuff, there's so much going on.

What do you do when you're not in metaphorical, but literal quicksand, when you're in the desert and you're sinking and you're freaking out because you saw too many Indiana Jones movies and you're thinking, “I'm gonna die.” What do you do? You talk to a survivalist and they will tell you to slow down. They'll say take deep breaths.

They'll say to focus on becoming as buoyant and light as possible and to use movement in a slow and intentional way, so that you're kicking up the sand, so that your body can come to the surface and you can float out of quicksand. That's actually how you survive.

In metaphorical life quicksand, you actually need to do the same thing. You need to slow down. You need to take a deep breath.

You need to focus on your breath. You need to become as light and buoyant as possible. You need to integrate slow and intentional movement. That might be 10 minutes of a digital detox walk around the block. That might be listening to your favorite song from LCD Sound System and grooving to it in the comfort of your bathroom.

That is so important. The social science says that when you slow down, you're able to regulate your emotions, you're able to have a more sound decision making and more clarity. That clarity is really important to then explore what's going on inside yourself. It's also embodied curiosity, because you're feeling the sensations that are in your body, which is a form of inward curiosity. It's not just something that's happening in the mind. We gotta drop it down to the heart and also into our body.

That is a recommendation I would make: what's the way you can slow down? What's the way you can bring slow and intentional movement into your day? It can be 10 minutes. The research does show that it brings so much to your life.

Not to mention all the physiological or psychological impacts which are unwinding anxiety and creating less bad stressors and more good stress. In this case, it reduces bad stress and just improves your psychological wellbeing. So — take 10 minutes. It does wonders.

I love that emphasis on the physical and the mind-body connection. It made me think about how I can use your framework, your DIVE model: detach, intend, value, embrace. Detach was one that really stuck with me. It's also one that we talk a lot about in coaching. In order to make progress, you first have to let go of your limiting beliefs. You have a great exercise around that called: “back your assumptions up,” or…

Aka “back that ass up” — in honor of Juvenile’s great hip-hop song of the same name. Back that ass up.

On that idea of letting go of your limiting beliefs, letting go of your assumptions, what were some of the limiting beliefs or assumptions you had to detach from in order to really be able to truly embrace curiosity?

The reason why I brought in “detach” and this idea of of “we're so full” — there is this parable I love: this student comes to this teacher and says, “I wanna learn everything from you” — almost like someone who wants to get coached, who says “I'm in this really challenging moment in my life,” whether it's work or your marriage or your family.

The teacher says, “Come in, would you like some tea first?” The student says yes and sits down and there's this teacup that's placed in front of the student. The teacher starts pouring tea into the teacup.

Then it starts filling up, filling up. It gets to the top and then it starts overflowing. Then it goes onto the table and then it goes onto the floor and the student pushes back his chair and he is like, “The cup is full, why are you still pouring tea?”

And the teacher says, “This is you, you are the teacup. You're so full that there's nothing I can teach you. There's nothing you can take in. Even if you've learned everything from me, there's no space in your teacup to actually integrate anything that I'm telling you. So first, go out and empty some of your teacup, and then come back to me. That's when you're ready to learn.”

It’s such a powerful parable — we are so full. As I was saying with my practice and metaphor on quicksand, we are so full and we have to find strategies to let go of the metaphorical tea that's in our cup.

One of the things we fill ourselves up with is assumptions.

We think: “My mother-in-law thinks I'm lazy because I'm struggling with unemployment right now.” Or, “My partner's so mad at me right now, just because I didn't do that one thing” Or, “My best friend's so mad at me because I couldn't make that concert and that was super important to her.”

Then we actually go and back that ass up, back that assumption up. Have a conversation and say, “Hey, one of the stories I'm telling myself is that you are angry at me right now.”

And they're like, “No, I'm sad that you couldn't join me for the concert, but I understand you have a life and like you have other priorities.”

It reminds you of the data from an embodied perspective, which shows that we often get assumptions wrong. But even if they're right, we often overemphasize them. Samantha Moberg is a researcher who did research on Democrats and Republicans. They think that the other side hates them twice more intensely than they actually do. This isn't just about politics. It's about any forms of differences that come up in interpersonal relationships. We often over-exaggerate or are just wrong about our assumptions.

So back that ass up — not just a fun way to dance and move your body at a wedding — it's also a great reminder to say, what's an assumption? Or, what are the assumptions I have in this conflict that's happening at work or in this relationship that means a lot to me at home? How do I write those assumptions down, and what are the ways that I can actually pressure test them or validate them in a conversation?

I have scripts in the book. One of them that I have is: you got mad at me when I didn't go hiking with you that one day that you really wanted me to do that. Can we talk about that? You'll find in that conversation that even if your assumptions are right, there's an opportunity to go deeper in the relationship.

They might say, yeah, it really did make me sad, because I want to spend time with you. You're my partner and nature's important to me, and I know it's not important to you right now, but if you could join me that would be really helpful. If you're not willing to be courageous and vulnerable and curious about those assumptions, you miss out on those opportunities for connection.

[Audience Q&A]

Attendee: Of all the three directions that you were talking about, I really, really liked your description of the beyond, what are some tools or suggestions you have to interact with the beyond specifically? It's probably the area that I'm least curious about.

One of the practices in the book is called Catch Your Curiosity Wave. It’s about how you create the mindset and the setting for curiosity. In psychedelic-assisted therapy for instance, how you go into the experience, from a mindset or attitude standpoint, and the actual physical environment you're in, really does matter. It really impacts the result or the outcome of your therapeutic experience.

The same is true for curiosity for the beyond: what are the spaces in which you could enter to get really curious about the beyond? What do they look like?

For some people it might be traditional, like spaces of faith and some of these new ones are emerging, these other communities that are what I call “spiritually queer.” They're blending in a lot of faith traditions. So what are those settings? Where are they? How can you hang out in them? How can you get curious about it?

The other part is the mindset, right? What are the different attitudes or mindsets that you can get into to activate a curiosity around the beyond?

One example of that is we have this two-inch part of our brainstem called the reticular activating system, the RAS —

To explain with a story: so I bought this orange Subaru Crosstrek. Before I bought it, I never saw an orange Subaru Crosstrek on the road, but after I bought it, it was everywhere. I bought this car because I wanted this unique orange car, and then I saw them parked everywhere and it wasn't that they didn't exist before I bought the car, and I started a trend or something.

It was just that my brain's RAS, which is like a bouncer, said: “Okay, this information's important to you. Your consciousness is gonna be aware of this now.” There's so much data in every moment that we can't focus on everything. If a predator is coming our way, a bear is running towards us, we don't want to be thinking: “Wow, the birds out there are so pretty.”

You have to focus on certain things and the RAS also regulates your sleep and awake system. So when you're sleeping, but you hear a loud crash, you need a way of waking up from that to protect yourself. So there's a lot of good use to the RAS, but you can also hack it for this kind of exploration, which is: how do I just be aware of the opportunities all around me that allow me to access my curiosity or deepen my curiosity with the beyond?

You'll probably find that, just like I didn't see orange Subaru Crosstreks and they were really there, there are so many opportunities around you to get curious about the beyond.

It's a shift in a mindset and really just telling yourself that is enough by saying: “Brain, this is important to me when I go through my day.” Stay attuned and open to that. Even if you have calendar invites, write in the description box: “I'm gonna stay open to the beyond in these ways—”  by staying open to the questions that people ask about the beyond, by hearing the spaces that people are in with the beyond, by thinking about the people who are exploring the beyond really well, and I'm going make an effort to connect with them. That thoughtful, intentional preparation will help you with that exploration.

Rei: Yeah, the book has some really great examples of how you've personally connected with the beyond, Scott. One of them we've mutually shared — I also went to the Mercy Center and spent a long weekend with all of the amazing nuns there. It was something that was completely out of my comfort zone. I grew up secular, I grew up in Communism, so no religion was welcome. To go there and talk to all of the nuns and learn more about their stories and their lived experiences, to be curious, really helped me create a relationship with the beyond that I had never formed.

I can't wait to hear everyone's thoughts on that story — these spiritually queer millennials, these seekers, that are living in a convent with nuns and they're talking about everything from the vow of chastity — why don't you have sex? What's that all about? It’s just very open, powerful conversations.

Attendee: I'm curious why some people are more curious than others. I have two kids. They're currently 13 and 11. They're both curious, but one always was asking questions, like never-ending questions, whereas the other didn't ask as many questions. I think we all have people in our lives that seem more curious than others.

First of all, couple of common myths to dispel here. One is that we're all born curious. It's thanks to evolution, essentially our ancestors. We needed people to be curious, because we needed to see if there was water, food sources over the mountain. We needed to track animals— can I eat this berry? We needed it for learning. How do I build tools? We needed it for social curiosity to build a strong kin and tribe and that helped us to survive. So there's actual studies to show that it is in our DNA and it is in our brain structure. Infants look at novel stimuli for longer than known stimuli. So we are born with curiosity. Everyone's born with it.

There's also another myth that curiosity is only for kids, or only for creatives and artists.

A meta-analysis of over a million research participants across multiple studies found that we actually get more curious with life. Elders are actually the most curious of all, up until the point of cognitive decline, whenever that is in a lifespan. So, you are getting more and more curious with age, which I think makes a lot of sense.

The other thing I wanted to share on "curiosity is only about question asking" — that's another myth. Curiosity is about so much more than question asking, not to mention question asking that's verbalized and vocalized, versus ones that are just integrated introspectively. Curiosity is much more than that. There are many more senses and ways of practicing curiosity through your body, through exploration, through learning, through spiritual inquiry, through social connection, through play that don't involve asking a question. Although question asking is a very powerful form of curiosity.

Maybe a curiosity that can come from within you is: what are the ways that my two kids express curiosity similarly and differently? How can I be aware of that? Asking them what they're curious about is also really interesting too. I just did a keynote for K-12 educators in LA and I'm about to do one in Virginia, and the majority of schools tend to have rigor and beat curiosity out of kids, unfortunately, and instead prioritize this knowingness and having the right answers. So it's up to us to ensure that we're continuing to create a space where children can cultivate, nurture and practice their own curiosity.

There's so many ways for us to do that. We couldn't have really afforded traveling growing up, but all around us on the island, we had these cultural festivals and that was a great way for me to get more curious about other people and other cultures and other countries, which I was obsessed with. I loved maps and I loved just poring over topographical geographical maps. My mom saw that and she would take me to these cultural festivals so I could learn about other cultures and learn about other food. So — what are the ways that we can even immersively, experientially, cultivate the curiosity of our kids?

The last thing I would say is that we know from the research that curiosity is contagious. We know that there's something called the chameleon effect. Many of us have mirror neurons, which is this deep form of empathy where we can model behaviors off of others. That is something that is important to remember. When you are practicing your own curiosity by not constantly being on your phone or exploring with the world, engaging with your senses, asking a lot of questions yourself, that definitely encourages curiosity and makes it safe for other people to be curious as well. Whether it's your children or the team you're supervising.

Attendee: So much of what you talked about today was about how everyone has curiosity, but it sounds like a lot of your curiosity stems from childhood experiences and how important that was. Do you have any tips for how one can stay really close to their inner child curiosity in their adult life?

When I talk about curiosity, I'm not talking about curiosity like: “Let's all have tea and hold hands and be one kumbaya.” That's also not legit, because then you're erasing people's real histories or suffering. We actually need to take a close look at the structures and the systems that are at play that are causing people suffering.

My whole take is that if we're cutting people and canceling relationships and refusing to talk to each other and listen to each other, we're not gonna be able to take a look at those systems. We're not going to be able to solve the complex problems that we're facing. So, that's kind of what I'm talking about. Not all polarization's bad. Some polarization is really important to shine a light on things that are not working for people. Toxic polarization is bad.

Some boundaries are important, and I write about that in the book: there was a mother-daughter relationship. The daughter tried for years to be curious. We do know that yes, curiosity is contagious and yes, there's a chameleon effect, but sometimes that curiosity is not given back to you and it can cause psychological harm for yourself and your loved ones if you stay in those relationships. So, she used her inward curiosity to say with her therapist: “I need to go no contact with my mom. This is not working for me. It started as a toxic parent relationship. I was trying to make it work. It just did not work.” Those boundaries are super important.

Not everyone deserves curiosity. You have to make those decisions around limits and boundaries based on where you're at.

To your point about your inner child curiosity, which I think is so great, I love the idea around play. How can we bring more play into every aspect of our life? Play means a lot of different things. It's not just silliness. Play is also exploring or trying new things, doing things without that pressure that we put on ourselves to be perfect. Say, you're learning ceramics and your pottery broke in the kiln — no big deal, because we're playing. Play is really a mindset as well.

That is something that I do think that many of us lose over the period of our lives. We lose this connection to play and everything gets very serious and black and white. There is a time for seriousness, I totally want to create space for that. But let's not lose the heart and the drumbeat of what makes our inner child so beautiful and so alive, which is the act of play. So, get curious about how you like to play. Play comes in so many different forms. It can be sexual, it can be exploratory, it can be social, it can be based individually, with games and exercise. It can be creative. There's so many ways to play.

Rei: You have a beautiful quote in your book from Maya Angelou that says, “Our mission in life is not merely to survive but to thrive.” And that's so closely aligned with our mission at The Grand, which is to help everyone become the grandest version of themself. So, my question for you is, what is one thing you're doing this season to thrive?

For me, I think a big thing is that I am a person that wants to support the pleasure and the elevation and the lives of the people around me. But I've worked in the last 10 years on really combating it when it becomes people-pleasing territory, where I'm losing myself and what I want and what I need and how I want to move through the world, because of my survivor guilt, because I feel selfish, because of whatever is getting in my way.

For me to thrive, it's about staying connected to the people I love and those I don't yet know and want to love, but also remembering that I'm a part of that too, and staying continually focused on what my wants are, what my desires are, what my needs are, and that goes across all of the spheres of life and to also deliver on it.

The big way that I do that, and I wrote about this in the book, is: I take the brave pause. If I'm asking for that salary adjustment at my job, I ask for it and then I take the brave pause and I let them answer. I don't say: “But like, we probably don't have any like, money for it, or I totally understand if it's like, doesn't work out.” That was such my way of self-sabotage — say, I need my partner to pick up some things from the grocery store, but I say, “Oh, but no worries if you can’t, because I know you got a busy day and you're probably like juggling so much. Like don't worry about it.”

Let them make the decision for themselves. It's very bell hooks. Give the power to them, the information they need to make the decision. That is something I'm trying to step into. Take the brave pause, that's how I'm going to continue to thrive.

To assess your own curiosity, check out the Curiosity Quiz Scott created with UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center!