Ironically, it was only after I truly left the ivory tower of academia that I discovered my love for learning and found my curiosity. I once discussed this with a PhD colleague (now a university professor), telling him that upon entering society, my curiosity intensified almost instinctively. I speculated that the environment at that time had subtly influenced me—a realization that didn’t dawn on me initially but erupted suddenly at a certain point, like floodgates opening.

The PhD chuckled, saying my time in graduate school had become a valuable asset in my life.

What environment brought about such a change?

In conclusion, it was being surrounded by a group of intensely curious people, of all ages and levels. They questioned everything, approached life with curiosity and thoughtfulness. Over time, I naturally absorbed this influence, undergoing a qualitative transformation.

I remember vividly that our professors would often ask questions during seminars or personal discussions. Whenever a question arose in their minds, they pursued it relentlessly until satisfied (mumbling “naruhodo” to themselves). Their ability to earnestly and humbly inquire of their students immediately reminded me of the idiom “不耻下问” (never feel ashamed to ask and learn from subordinates).

Realizing My Inability to Ask Questions

Initially, I was afraid of being questioned and hesitant to ask others questions (especially in class, where participation was mandatory). I felt disheartened watching others effortlessly pose valuable questions during lectures.

During one personal interview, I explicitly expressed my confusion to a professor: why could others ask questions effortlessly while I struggled to ask effective ones, often resorting to contrived questions just to fulfill class requirements? Seeing the perplexed look on his face, I knew he probably couldn’t empathize with my feelings because asking questions seemed natural to him. Nevertheless, he thoughtfully pondered and analyzed the reasons:

  • You haven’t conducted similar research before, so you don’t understand the potential issues at each juncture, making it difficult for you to ask questions.
  • There are different types of questions, such as those targeting prior research or experimental results. You need to pinpoint what interests you before asking specific questions.

Listening to the professor’s advice, I nodded thoughtfully, though I didn’t fully grasp the reasons at the time. Nonetheless, I began consciously applying the methods he suggested.

Gradually Learning to Ask Questions

After about a year, as I delved deeper into research methods and accumulated more questioning experiences, I started noticing that I could anticipate what questions the professor would ask before formulating my own inquiries. Moreover, I began actively engaging in others’ questions. However, I had not yet realized the extent to which my curiosity had changed. Near graduation, during my final meeting with the professor, when he asked if I had anything to say, I jokingly replied, "Professor, I’ve spent over two years with you, and during that time, you’ve asked me at least a thousand ‘whys’:

  • Why should it be done this way and not that?
  • Why are the results like this?
  • Why is this written here?
  • Why wasn’t it included?
  • Why…?"

Initially, I found it a bit annoying (and the professor’s expression certainly darkened upon hearing this), but later I realized that as a researcher, possessing a fundamental curiosity and a thirst for knowledge is essential. Approaching research with this mindset, rather than merely pursuing a diploma or professional achievements, not only avoids fruitless efforts but also ensures meaningful discoveries. The professor smiled knowingly. It was then that I felt I had truly begun to understand.

Post-Academic Curiosity

After entering society, a memorable incident occurred that left a deep impression on me.

A few months into my job, I was assigned to a project where I was the only foreigner in the company. We held daily morning meetings to discuss progress. Typically, new employees rarely shared their opinions, and even seasoned ones seldom did. Everyone would report on their work as usual and then move on. One day, just before wrapping up, our leader asked if anyone had any questions. Like a clueless child, I asked a question in front of everyone, and I could feel the air around me stiffen. No one expected a newcomer to ask questions, let alone a foreign one. The leader was probably a bit surprised too, unsure how to respond, so he glossed over my question briefly. However, after the meeting, he discreetly called me over and patiently explained the answer to my question. I could see respect in his eyes. This small incident, my first job after graduation, was a positive reinforcement of my proactive questioning, albeit minor, it brought me a lot of encouragement.

Later, when working with colleagues in my home country, I already felt that my curiosity had become stronger. Like our professors, I liked to ask why, and I would feel uncomfortable if I didn’t understand the logic behind it. Although often considered inexplicable and troublesome, as many were more concerned about whether this thing could make money or benefit from it, there were few people who cared about the reasons behind it and its essence.

However, I like this curiosity because it brings me boundless energy and makes me instinctive and primitive as a life, which I have not seen in many people.

I often feel lucky to have acquired this kind of thing from certain people at a certain time, which has become a precious asset in my life.

It seems that I have never obtained it before, but I have a feeling of recovery, so I cherish it more.


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