Is it possible for curiosity to transform your travel experiences? How do you ask better questions of people you meet—both at home and on the road? What does it mean to live your life with curiosity at its core?
Scott Shigeoka is a curiosity expert, designer, and most recently, author of Seek: How Curiosity Can Transform Your Life and Change the World (Hachette, 2023).
Shigeoka comes across as someone who is endlessly fascinated by the world—and more so, by the people who inhabit it. In 2019, he embarked on a cross-country road trip with the goal of meeting people who were different from him—a “city-dwelling liberal Asian American spiritually queer professor and researcher from Hawai‘i,” as he describes himself. He let his curiosity guide the trip, arranging stops and activities that would allow him not only to connect with new people and perspectives but also to try out the relationship-building strategies he’d been researching at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. As a result, he ended up at a Trump rally in Minnesota, met small-business owners in Arkansas, and visited a convent in northern California that houses both Catholic nuns and people who are not affiliated with a religion (“nuns and nones,” as they call themselves).
The trip inspired Shigeoka to write Seek, which draws on his own experiences, as well as secondary research, to offer practical ways to infuse more curiosity into our lives. For instance, in a section titled, “Cancel certainty culture,” he extols the virtues of being an “admitter,” or someone who is comfortable in acknowledging mistakes. He then offers specific prompts to follow to avoid embarrassment and, instead, prioritize learning over righteousness.
For me, travel offers a chance to constantly be proven wrong and continuously learn. My favorite moments are when I meet people and get a glimpse into their daily lives—especially when those lives are drastically different than mine—and realize that, just as there are many paths up a mountain, there are an infinite number of ways to construct a meaningful life.
With that in mind, I interviewed Shigeoka over email to discuss how building a practice of “deep curiosity” can enrich travelers’ experiences, both when they are exploring the world and after they have come home. The following are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity. Enjoy.
Your book starts with your decision to take a road trip and spend time with people who are different from you. Can you talk a bit about this?
Fifteen years ago, after I graduated from college, I went on a cross-country hitchhiking trip that was all about following my bliss and curiosity. I met some really interesting people. I ended up in states I’d never been to before, like Ohio and Kentucky. I learned that my stereotypes of what the rest of the country looked like were unfounded as I crashed on people’s couches, broke bread with humans who lived radically different lives than I did, and went out to party with them.
My trip in 2019 (in which I traveled thousands of miles to Minnesota, Alabama, Arkansas, and more) was different because there was an intention behind it. I wanted to speak directly to this moment we’re living in. We live in what I call the “era of incuriosity,” a world that’s filled with disconnection and division. This isn’t just something we feel on a collective level, it’s felt individually. Whether on social media, at a parent-teacher conference, in workplaces, or within families, relationships are breaking and conflicts are at an all-time high.
I sensed there was a creative project—though at the time I didn’t know it was going to be a book—that would uplift the ways we could heal and come together even with our differences. What I learned is that our natural-born ability to be curious is the most potent tool for us to move toward healing and belonging in an era of division and polarization. While my previous road trips were about play and fun, this one was about collecting stories and answers so I could share that collective wisdom.
You wrote: “At its deepest levels, curiosity has the power to do much more than give us informational anecdotes for cocktail hour. It can become a force for meaningful connection and transformation.” What are the best ways someone can move from, in your words, “shallow curiosity” to “deep curiosity”?
We often think about curiosity as an intellectual pursuit. We want to know what kind of tree is in our backyard or how many people Beyoncé amazed in her Renaissance Tour. But curiosity is also a heart-centered pursuit. We can use it to learn more about ourselves or other people around us—even those who are very different from us. We don’t just collect data about a person’s life, we hear their values, stories, and what makes them human. We find commonalities.
But in order for us to do this, to access this kind of connection, we have to take our curiosity deeper. I call this “deep curiosity.” It’s a soulful practice where we don’t just have the goal of knowing; we are searching to understand. A metaphor I often use is this: If traditional, shallow curiosity is looking through the peephole of a door, deep curiosity is turning the knob and going through it to experience what’s on the other side. It’s much more exposing and vulnerable, but these risks give you the greatest potential for transformation.
Shallow curiosity gives us surface insight on who a person is. You learn their name, what they do for work, or where they live. And these are great openers for a conversation or relationship, especially when you’re traveling.
But when you begin to establish rapport, trust, and connection with the person you’re talking to, that’s a great moment to start wading into the deep end. Start to ask more powerful questions that take you beneath the surface, and give you an even richer understanding of who someone is.
Can you offer any examples on how to practice this?
As a build-on to “What’s your name?”, you can ask: “What’s the story of your name? Who named you that? What’s your relationship to the people who named you or who you’re named after? Do you like your name? What name would you give to yourself?”
As a build-on to “What do you do for work?”, you can ask: “What makes you come alive in life? What’s exciting you right now? If money wasn’t a thing, what would you want to be doing with your time? What skills or hobbies do you have outside of the ones you use to make money?”
One theme in your book is fear. How do you think fear affects how people travel? What are some methods you’ve used to go beyond fear?
I wrote a whole chapter about fear in the book because I think it is one of the biggest things that holds us back from being curious. We are afraid of “that side” of the city. We are afraid to go to a country where the media has painted a negative picture. This holds us back from opening ourselves up to rich and connective experiences with people and places that we have so much to learn from.
I really like the differences in definitions between bravery and courage. My understanding is that bravery means there is no fear—to act with fearlessness. Courage, on the other hand, is recognizing that fear is there but moving forward anyway because you know that the experience will have a profound impact on you.
So much of moving through our fear around travel is to recognize that it is there, rather than to dismiss it or pretend like it doesn’t exist. Then we have to remind ourselves of the benefits of traveling, why it’s worth the risk: It expands our hearts and minds. It makes us feel alive. It connects us to all kinds of people and experiences. It makes us more generous and understanding people. It gives us new insights into the world that spark creativity. When we focus on those parts of travel, it makes it much easier for us to be curious and courageous.
Another practice is to literally breathe into fear. So much of fear is a physiological response too. We can actually regulate emotions and states like fear through our body, and one potent tool is how we breathe. If you’re feeling fear on that plane ride on your travel, or when you land in a foreign land, take some space to take five deep breaths. Follow the air as it travels into your lungs and out of you. Try to take the longest exhales you can. Repeat the benefits of travel to yourself, almost like a mantra or a chant. As you regulate your breath, your emotions will follow.
Instead of having everything planned before you go on a trip, how do you open yourself up to spontaneity and new connections?
Another theme in your book is certainty. One of the things I love about travel is that it helps us question our norms and exposes us to new ways of living. How do you think we can move to being comfortable with, in your words, “living in the perhaps-ness”?
Living in the perhaps-ness means that we open ourselves up to what might be, and there’s no better place to do this than travel. Instead of coming in with your own assumptions about a country you’re visiting, what might it look like to come with an open heart instead? Instead of having everything planned before you go on a trip, how do you open yourself up to spontaneity and new connections? Perhaps you may experience something that’s radically different than what you at first planned.
When we live in the perhaps-ness, we remind ourselves that nothing is certain or fixed. There is so much we can learn, every day, from all kinds of people, that can help us to become a better version of ourselves: more generous, happier, connected, and purposeful. If you move through the world or travel thinking that you know everything, that no one or no experience could show you anything new about you or the world, then you’re really closing yourself off from what life is all about.
Why do you think travelers should read your book?
Most travelers, like those reading AFAR, will be naturally curious humans! And when curious folks read Seek, what they tell me is that they feel seen and heard. They feel validated. They also feel uplifted as a human and that they loved learning about the research evidence about how curiosity can enrich our relationships and lives. It also gave them some new tools to practice when they go on their next travel journeys so they can stay open to the places and people they’ll encounter and even invite some spontaneity and serendipity.
For those who don’t consider themselves a curious person yet, the book is a great introduction into curiosity and how to build it like a muscle. The book offers practical reflection questions and exercises that readers can use immediately—and also feel the benefits from it!