The Importance of Being Curious


Group Captain Clare Muir is currently the Director of the RAF Division at the Defence Academy, Shrivenham.  She completed a Chief of the Air Staff’s Tedder Fellowship at Cambridge studying International Relations in 2013 and attended the Royal College of Defence Studies in academic year 2017/18. You can follow her at @clareemuir. She remains resolutely curious.

“Oh! it is absurd to have a hard-and-fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of… [Professional Military Education] depends on what one shouldn’t read.”[1]

Algernon Moncrieff, The Importance of Being Earnest


In the words of the brilliant A. A. Gill, this blog is, “a collection of prejudice.”[1] I cannot compete with the brilliant academic contributors to this defenceindepth series by revealing original factual research.  Instead this blog is a Jerry Maguire-style Mission Statement about the importance of curiosity drawn from a practitioner’s experience of PME, both as a ‘recipient’ and a ‘deliverer’.

I wholeheartedly agree with Gill, when he wrote that ‘opinions are always interesting.’ Why? Because this will be my truth; but it won’t make others’ truths any less valid. Expressing an opinion about professional military education is fraught with risk.  No matter how hard I serve my curiosity mission statement across the net, there are hundreds of skilled, honed Serena Williams’ and Roger Federer’s ready to hit it back with considered, and considerable, force. Nevertheless, that’s what makes writing – contributing to the discussion – so fun. I will very briefly enjoy the suspenseful pause whilst my ball, which advocates the power of curiosity, soars upwards and reaches the zenith of its arc, ready to be smashed straight into the net….   

Cultivate Your Curiosity

Wikipedia (NB: yes, I am opening with a Wikipedia reference.  This is as big an act of PME rebellion as you can get. However, this is not an assessed essay, it’s something I am doing for fun so let’s deal with it and move on) states that PME, “refers to the professional training, development, and schooling of military personnel. It encompasses many schools, universities, and training programs designed to foster leadership in military service members.”  However, an oft heard lament, which dances like windblown leaves around the syndicate rooms and piles up in the quiet corners of my own “College of Knowledge” (aka the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom) is,

But we don’t have time for PME.

So far as I can tell the annuls of history don’t record the first time this refrain was heard, but my suspicion is that it was in all likelihood around five minutes after the acronym PME was coined. This lament can be interpreted in two ways.  The first is that there is a genuine thirst for knowledge which cannot be satiated due to the pressure of “the day job.”  The second, more passive interpretation, is that PME is seen as a duty – a chore to be endured – and that the “authorities” should carve out time to allow PME to happen.  When my views are sought on this subject, they coalesce around a few guiding principles: first, we maketime for things we are passionate about; second, we shouldbe passionate about our continuing personal development (let’s park the word “professional” and the debate about what constitutes personal vs. professional development for a moment); and third, we should always remain curious– it’s a fundamental component of the human condition.  I ultimately agree with Stephen Fry when he reflects in the Fry Chronicles:

There are young men and women up and down the land who happily (or unhappily) tell anyone who will listen that they don’t have an academic turn of mind…and yet can recite hundreds of pop lyrics and reel off any amount of information about footballers. Why? Because they are interestedin those things. They are curious…”

So, if we are interested enough, we make time to find out about things.  Fry later makes an excellent point about the sheer volume and variety of information at our fingertips and others in the series have written on these new sources of #PME such as Twitter, podcasts and excellent sites such as The Wavell Room.  Set against the wealth of content available in the contemporary PME environment, I am of the same mind as Fry when he states,

“The only reason people do not know much is because they do not care to know. They are incurious. Incuriosity is the oddest and most foolish failing there is.”[2]

I’m Holding Out for a Polymath[3]

I believe curiosity is an especially important quality in armed forces.  I will not (re)rehearse the arguments regarding our homogeneity; others could do so far better.  For the purposes of this article, where we all came from is less interesting than where we all arrive at – i.e. the homogeneity which we grow into once we have joined up. Once through the entrances of our respective Hogwarts, there are silent, strong and steadfast forces at work, pressing us towards increased conformity over time, as the final paragraph of any senior officer’s biography will attest (NB: The final paragraph holds the information about hobbies and interests.  I am sure there is a PhD, or at least an interesting and controversial Defence Research Paper in there somewhere).

Historically, the military has produced some notable polymaths.  My favourite exemplar is the great lover of poetry Wavell, who while Viceroy of India compiled and annotated an anthology of great poetry, Other Men’s Flowers.[4]  Wavell remained open-minded to other branches of intellectual curiosity; this allows a different perspective to be brought to bear.  Did it make him a great leader?  That cannot be proved. However, he was a great leader; it certainly made him different and we should ensure we continue to generate the polymaths of the future to incubate and inculcate intellectual diversity.  We never know when our polymaths might come in useful.

When I have the opportunity to address our Intermediate Officer Development students, I urge them to read for reading’s sake, to seek out the new, the singularly strange, the factual, the fictional and the poetical.  What possible value can reading The Vegetarian (the first book my eyes are drawn to on the bookcase next to my desk) bring to my professional military education I hear you scoff?[5]  Well, in my preparations for my Royal College of Defence Studies overseas study tour it gave me an insight into a dark aspect of the psyche of the Republic of Korea which no factual or academic text could provide.  Now, I am absolutely not a polymath; however, I fundamentally believe it’s my personal responsibility to remain curious and open minded about where my next nugget of knowledge might come from.

Kindling the Flame

 “The mind is not a vessel that needs filling to be filled, but wood that needs igniting…and then it motivates one towards originality and instils the desire for truth”                                                                                                                   Plutarch[6]

But where does the responsibility for kindling this curiosity lie?  As a ‘recipient’ of PME I have outlined my own responsibility to remain curious.  However, what does my Mission Statement say about those of us who are ‘delivering’ it? I am of the same mind as Ramsey Musallam, who states in his wonderful TED Talk that, “we [have to] have the guts to confuse our students, perplex them, and evoke real questions.” I think if we, as PME providers, honestly reflected in our own “looking glass” as to whether we create an environment which allows inquisitiveness to flourish in this manner, we would admit that our own “Alices” are not necessarily encouraged to be “curiouser and curiouser.”[7] There is work to be done here.

Ramsey maintains that ‘curiosity comes first’ and that student’s questions are the gateway to great instruction. This means we, as providers, have to hold on a little less tightly – and that doesn’t come naturally to us.  His second principle is even more of a challenge – “embrace the mess” of trial and error.  Again this does not play to our strengths.  However, if we can move beyond a paradigm of “content provider” and instead move to one which cultivates curiosity, the sparks might well ignite.

Curiosity for Curiosity’s Sake?

I consider anything I learn to be PME. Some of it may come in useful in the future, some not. However, it is stored in reserve in case it should be required.  As George Orwell stated in his exhortation to read:

“There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s whole attitude to life, books that one dips into but never reads through, books that one reads at a single sitting and forgets a week later.”[8]

We don’t know what will be useful until we need to use it. However, by drawing on a broad and eclectic knowledge bank, the curious will make connections; the synapses of the polymath will fire in unexpected ways; constructive deviancy will flourish.

Constructive deviants are, “employees who break the rules and norms but intend to benefit the organization.  These individuals can play a key role in creating an organizational change and serve as future change agents.”[9] BLUF: When the going gets tough, you want the constructive deviants on your team and to have more of them on your side than your opponents. Doctrine and policy serve their purpose, but the curious and the constructive deviants in our organisations will be decisive, as Captain Janeway explains:

Seven of Nine:  Your philosophy of exploration exposes Voyager to constant risk. If you maintain a direct course to Earth and avoid all extraneous contact with alien species, it will increase your chances of survival.

Captain Kathryn Janeway:  Well, that would make a dull ride home.

Seven of Nine:  Captain?

Captain Kathryn Janeway: We seek out new races because we want to, not because we’re following protocols. We have an insatiable curiosity about the universe[10]

In sum, curiosity begets constructive deviance and constructive deviants are battle winning.  Think Ender Wiggin.[11]

Conclusion – Be Curious

We don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”                                                                          Walt Disney

So, this is my truth.  This is my exhortation.  This is my Jerry Maguire Mission Statement.

I would make a final plea. For those of us who lament “I don’t have time for PME” – consider how much of it we spend/waste on our iphones. I personally spend far more time than is healthy, wise or productive for me.  But this evening I put it aside and instead, like Jerry, got the coffee out and penned this eclectic mission statement in one sitting.  I am hoping that it was a better use of my time than looking at my iphone. It was certainly more fun.  So, in the words of the 80s TV show, Why Don’t You, perhaps we should all “go out and do something less boring instead” (note: millennials, you will need to seek out someone over the age of 40 to explain this reference).

Be curious.


[1]With apologies to Oscar Wilde for sullying his elegant prose with references to PME. Oscar Wilde (1990)The Importance of Being Earnest (New York: Dover Thrift Editions), 6.

[2]A. A. Gill. (2006) The Angry Island: Hunting the English(London: Orion Books), Foreword.

[3]Stephen Fry (2010) The Fry Chronicles(London: Penguin Books Kindle edition).

[4]With further apologies to Bonnie Tyler and writers, Jim Steinman and Dean Pitchford (1984) Holding Out for A Hero(Columbia).

[5] Field-Marshal Lord Wavell. (1992). Other Men’s Flowers(London: Pimlico). A wonderful anthology for the warrior.

[6]Han Kang (2015) The Vegetarian(London: Portobello Books).  It sits nestled between Tim Travers’ excellent Gallipoli and Anna Burns’ Booker Prize-winning Milkman, which has given me an equally fascinating insight into life in Northern Ireland.

[7]Plutarch (1992)EssaysTranslated by Robin Waterfield (London: Penguin Classics Kindle Edition) 50.

[8]  Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland(Seattle: Amazon Classics Kindle Edition) 7.

[9]George Orwell. (2008) Books vs. Cigarettes(London: Penguin Great Ideas), 5.

[10] Dana L. Robbins and Bella L. Galperin Constructive Deviance: Striving Toward Organizational Change, The University of Tampa John H. Sykes College of Business, [last accessed 9 February 2019].

[11] Star Trek: Voyager, 1995.

[12] Orson Scott Card (2001)Ender’s Game (London: Orbit).  I highly recommend this science-fiction novel if you have not read it.

Image via pixabay.




3 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Curious

  1. Ma’am, This is a wonderful article. Thank you. We should be enthusing our people to read whatever makes them excited about reading and learning, whatever form that takes. I believe that we should be making the learning/ PME journey fun and personally rewarding which is key to sustaining it. Sharing ideas about great books or articles or blogs or poems or anything that make people excited to read and sparks their interest. This is the best and most inspiring article I have read for some time!


  2. Clare, thank you for sharing your time. Reminded me of this:

    On 15 January 2009, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 was struck by a flock of Canadian geese shortly after take-off from LaGuardia airport, New York. The bird strike rendered both engines on the Airbus A320 inoperative. The pilot Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger took the decision to land the stricken plane on the Hudson River. All 150 passengers and 5 crew were rescued from the plane as it floated intact on the river. It was an incredible feat of judgement and professional skill in the context of impending disaster. After the incident, Sullenberger told CBS News anchor Katie Couric,

    One way of looking at this might be that, for 42 years, I’ve been making small regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training and on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.


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