Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
I have interviewed some of the most experienced and successful athletes in trail running. When I’ve asked what motivates them, the word ‘curiosity’ comes up often. Curious about what? What their potential is. What limits do or don’t exist. What an experience feels like. I’ve heard athlete after athlete talk about being driven by a curiosity to see “what if?” I can even recall my first draw towards trail running after spending almost two decades on the track, and it was fueled by the thought “I wonder what running up and down mountains feels like.”
While approaching a challenge with curiosity helps to create a healthy relationship the vulnerability (something that is required for doing hard things), the performance-enhancing qualities of this mental skill go even further. I’m going to dive into why and how to foster a curious mind as you prepare for your next trail running adventure.
A curious mind is one that wants to learn, gain more knowledge, and even challenge currently held beliefs or preconceived notions. An open mind takes in more information. One major cause of psychological breakdowns is having too narrow of a focus which sometimes results in missing task-relevant cues or taking in important information. Curiosity widens your perspective so that you can see the whole picture. This concept comes into play when comparing the beginner’s mind to the expert’s mind. A quote from Zen master Shunryu Suzuki sums it up perfectly – “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.”
Separation of Ego
With a curious mind, knowledge and learning trump outcomes and results. That doesn’t mean that results don’t matter or that curious individuals don’t seek to perform at their best. Quite the opposite. But, curious athletes recognize that to journey to excellence requires perfecting the process. From that standpoint, failure is perceived as feedback on what worked, what didn’t, and how to do better next time. When your ego or identity isn’t tied to results, you’re willing to take more calculated risks or attempt harder things. When you’re too connected to your results, mental and emotional energy tends to go towards preserving your ego rather than challenging your limitations.
As was my main point in the last article about adaptability, thinking you have things figured out can be a slippery slope. Constant learning, adapting, and growing are crucial. Without the courage or desire to challenge the way you’ve been doing things and look for growth areas, you’ll stay right where you are. Open-minded individuals look for information that challenges their own beliefs, preventing rigid mindsets like confirmation bias or assumptions. The result is seeing more alternatives and more paths that you can take to get where you want to go. When you are just as eager to find out what you don’t know as you are to find more data to enhance what you do know, you’re in the sweet spot for growth.
Being Curious Makes You Happier
Curious athletes see daunting challenges as a hypothesis that needs to be tested, approaching it with eagerness rather than fear. Curiousness enhances positive emotions and helps to reduce stress and anxiety. When you are curious, you are more resourceful, often looking at what you can do with what you have versus fixating on what you’re lacking.
As a mental performance consultant, I believe that self-awareness is the foundation needed to develop the mental skills to reach performance excellence. And, self-awareness is a byproduct of curiosity. Curiosity cultivates the urge for exploration and adventure, an attitude and mindset that thrive in the world of trail running.
Addie is a professional ultra trail runner, coach, and sport psychology consultant helping athletes of all ages and abilities to prepare for the mental demands of competing through her practice, Strive Mental Performance.