How curiosity can help lead women to their unicorn space

unicorn with light peaking through

By Eve Rodsky

My friend Michelle recently confided to me: “My husband and I have been rebalancing the workload at home so that we each have more time for ourselves. This is progress, except now when I do have time to spend on ‘me,’ I have no idea what to do.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. 

Michelle is an accomplished and interesting woman—an HR executive, a mother, and part of my growing Uni cohort.

She continued: “Just the other afternoon, I was gifted two free hours when Dan offered to take the kids to the beach. I was elated, and then as soon as they left, I sat at the kitchen counter racking my brain: What do I like to do with free time for me? What are my interests?” She sighed as we looked at each other through the Brady Bunch–style boxes in our Zoom call. “As the minutes ticked by, I actually began to resent the free time and space for myself, because I felt so lost and aimless without my list of to-do’s. How messed up is that?”

“Now, hold on,” I said to Michelle. “It sounds like you and Dan are openly communicating about how to renegotiate the division of childcare. That is progress. And that’s only happening because you’ve identified that time and space boundaries are essential to your sanity, your relationship, and your connection to self. That’s your ‘why.’ Now comes the fun part. Filling it with the ‘what.’ What do you want to do with your time?”

“That’s the problem, I don’t know what to do.”

“Well,” I nudged, “what’s an activity that fires you up? Gets you excited?”

Michelle thought about it and lit up as if she’d found her answer, “Sometimes I scroll Venmo to see how my friends are spending their money.”

With Michelle’s permission, I shared her (too good not to be true) story with Erica Keswin, bestselling author of Bring Your Human to Work: 10 Surefire Ways to Design a Workplace That’s Good for People, Great for Business, and Just Might Change the World. Erica is a workplace strategist, sought-after speaker, and a business coach who specializes in creating a “more human” work environment, and she offered up a similar experience: “It’s the one question I ask all of the guests on my podcast—what do you do in your life that makes you feel the most like you? More often than not, it stops them in their tracks. They have a really hard time answering. I once asked a highly successful CEO this very question and after an extended pause, she answered: ‘Shopping?’”

“Why is that?” I wondered aloud. “Why is it so difficult for us to name not just who we love but what we love?”

It’s simple, Keswin told me. “We’re not connecting to ourselves.” But what does that even look like? And how can we start to find what we love if it’s not even a question we’ve dared to ask ourselves for so long—if ever?

Curiosity beats passion

I thought more about this in the next several weeks in the context of Unicorn Space. Why is naming the “what” that makes us come alive such a difficult exercise and particularly for women? Why is the question—What makes you feel the most like you?—so often met with an extended pause? Why aren’t we connecting to ourselves and to our passions?

Passion, I’ve now come to believe, is an awfully high bar to meet. If you were suddenly asked on the spot: “Quick, what are you passionate about?” I think most of us would probably freeze. But if I were to ask you: “Quick, what’s your child’s favorite Pixar character? Or, where’s the snack aisle in Costco?” You would likely answer without missing a beat. I think this is because we’re more connected to our caretaking and task-mastering selves . . . and also because most of us find “passionate” interest, as well as the ideas of “creativity” and what makes us “unique,” to be amorphous and ambiguous concepts. We’re stumbling over the words.

When I reflected on the hundreds of interviews I’d conducted to date for this project, a predominant number of people had said to me absolutely: “I’m just not creative.” One woman offered definitively: “I’m very type A, structured, and practical. ‘Creativity’ doesn’t apply to me.” Assuming that semantics are a stumbling block for you, too, let’s reframe the question.

What are you curious about?

What is curiosity?

Yet again, curiosity can be an amorphous concept that’s hard to define and still, many smart folks have tackled the definition. Here are a few that resonate with me:

All men by nature desire to know.—Aristotle

Curiosity starts with the itch to explore.—Ian Leslie, author of Curious

Without a burning curiosity, a lively interest, we are unlikely to persevere long to make a significant new contribution.—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist, researcher, and author of Creativity

Curiosity is like a hunger.—Elizabeth Bonawitz, Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education

A desire, an itch, a burning, a hunger. I love these descriptions of curiosity because they can be applied to just about anything, really. When viewed through this lens, our curiosity can lead us to some strange new places. And our creativity to even stranger places. Mo Willems, illustrator and author of children’s books, describes the unpredictability and non-linear nature of creativity: “You don’t know what it opens you up to. It’s not a line from A to B. It’s a line from A to strawberry pizza.”

Our feelings are our clues

Okay, so if we are expanding what “creativity” can be—led by curiosity rather than passion or art alone—what then does it mean to “live a creative life”? Here’s the great news: creativity is not just limited to the “making” (of visual art or creative writing), “developing” (a new skill set), “expanding” (your knowledge within your area of expertise), or “learning” (of advancements in your fields of interest). Meaning, you don’t have to pick up a paintbrush to express your creativity! Based on my ever-growing interview set, “creative living” is the active and open pursuit of self-expression in any form that piques and satisfies your curiosity. If you’re curious about it, and you enjoy diving into it, any activity meaningful to you can become your Unicorn Space.

Natalie Nixon, author of Creativity Leap and a creativity strategist for Fortune 500 companies, told me over Zoom coffee: “It’s not that there are some people who are more creative than others. Anyone can be creative, and the first step is inquiry, which is akin to curiosity—you need to want to know more about something.”

Unicorn Space is available to both right- and left-brain people alike, so long as you’re curious. It’s a gift available to everyone. And even more than that, it’s imperative to all of us for our happiness, our health, and our overall well-being.

Kennon Sheldon, PhD, professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri in Columbia whose research spans the areas of well-being, motivation, self-determination theory, personality, and positive psychology, says our feelings are our “clues” when it comes to reconnection with our curiosity. I tracked down Sheldon after coming across his research in nearly every article I’d read about social psychology. Amid his busy schedule, Sheldon graciously gave me an hour of his time to talk about identifying our curiosities.

“Knowing ‘what’ to want can be hard,” he acknowledged, “because our own narrative is often fooled by the cultural narrative. We get confused by what society is telling us to ‘do.’ But a deeper part of you is talking to you . . . if you will listen. Because of a variety of societal factors, women tend to be very insightful but sometimes lack the courage to listen to the clues.

The way to know if you’ve landed on your “what,” Sheldon continued, is by gauging the feeling it gives you. “If you feel happy, engaged, pulled into a flow state, that’s your clue that you’re on the right track.”

This was such a big recognition moment for me. It was the reverse of what I’d heard so many times in my life, that happiness should be the end goal. But what Sheldon was saying made so much more sense. Let happiness serve as the “clue” that you’re on the right track toward your “what.” 

Happiness is the clue that you’re on the right track! 

As you continue to explore your curiosities, pay attention to the feelings that rise up. “For me, curiosity began by unpacking the moments I’d felt my best,” shared Robin Arzón, author of Shut Up and Run: How to Get Up, Lace Up, and Sweat with Swagger, who left behind a successful law career to embark on new adventures in the health and wellness space and has since reinvented herself into an avid ultra-marathoner and renowned fitness coach. We caught up over coffee to discuss curiosity and the arrival of her first baby.

“Looking back on that time when I was wondering where to take my life next, I finally realized that I felt my happiest when I was running or when I was working on my personal blog, and not when I was writing legal briefs,” she emphasized with a wink. “I also started to get curious about when I felt other feelings like jealousy. Like, I’m feeling jealous of my colleague’s leadership qualities. I want to embody her confidence. Or, I’m jealous that my friend has the freedom to engage in her passion. I want that freedom, too. Jealousy was a whisper that once I started listening to it became a big clue. Those whispers told me where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do next, and eventually I created a new life from whispers that became roars.”

Your feelings are your clues. As you explore them, I encourage you to sideline any doubts or concerns that pop in with unsolicited advice, alerting you to what’s “reasonable” and “acceptable” or when and how you’ll actually pursue your curiosity. Quiet this voice. It will distract and lead you away from creating valuable time and space for you. For now, listen to the whispers. And give yourself permission to be curious.

Eve Rodsky received her B.A. from the University of Michigan, and her J.D. from Harvard Law School. After working in foundation management at J.P. Morgan, she founded the Philanthropy Advisory Group to advise families and charitable foundations on best practices. Rodsky was raised by a single mom in New York City and now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their three children.

From Find Your Unicorn Space by Eve Rodsky, published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Eve Rodsky.

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