Labrador retrievers are charmingly curious. Porpoises are playfully, mischievously curious. A two-year-old going through the kitchen cabinets is exuberantly curious—and delighted at the noisy entertainment value of her curiosity. Every person who types a query into Google's search engine and presses ENTER is curious about something—and that happens 4 million times a minute, every minute of every day.

But curiosity has a potent behind-the-scenes power that we mostly overlook.

Curiosity is the spark that starts a flirtation—in a bar, at a party, across the lecture hall in Economics 101. And curiosity ultimately nourishes that romance, and all our best human relationships—marriages, friendships, the bond between parents and children. The curiosity to ask a simple question—"How was your day?" or "How are you feeling?"—to listen to the answer, and to ask the next question.

Curiosity can seem simultaneously urgent and trivial. Who shot J.R.? How will Breaking Bad end? What are the winning numbers on the ticket for the largest Powerball jackpot in history? These questions have a kind of impatient compulsion—right up until the moment we get the answer. Once the curiosity is satisfied, the question itself deflates. Dallas is the perfect example: who shoot J.R.? If you were alive in the 1980s, you know the question, but you may not recall the answer.

There are plenty of cases where the urgency turns out to be justified, of course, and where satisfying the initial curiosity only unleashes more. The effort to decode the human genome turned into a dramatic high-stakes race between two teams of scientists. And once the genome was available, the results opened a thousand fresh pathways for scientific and medical curiosity.

The quality of many ordinary experiences often pivots on curiosity. If you're shopping for a new TV, the kind you ultimately take home and how well you like it is very much dependent on a salesperson who is curious: curious enough about the TVs to know them well; curious enough about your own needs and watching habits to figure out which TV you need.

That's a perfect example, in fact, of curiosity being camouflaged.

In an encounter like that, we'd categorize the salesperson as either "good" or "bad." A bad salesperson might aggressively try to sell us something we didn't want or understand, or would simply show us the TVs for sale, indifferently parroting the list of features on the card mounted beneath each. But the key ingredient in either case is curiosity—about the customer, and about the products.

Curiosity is hiding like that almost everywhere you look—its presence or its absence proving to be the magic ingredient in a whole range of surprising places. The key to unlocking the genetic mysteries of humanity: curiosity. The key to providing decent customer service: curiosity.

If you're at a boring business dinner, curiosity can save you.

If you're bored with your career, curiosity can rescue you.

If you're feeling uncreative or unmotivated, curiosity can be the cure.

It can help you use anger or frustration constructively.

It can give you courage.

Curiosity can add zest to your life, and it can take you way beyond zest—it can enrich your whole sense of security, confidence, and well-being.

But it doesn't do any of that alone, of course.

While Labrador retrievers are really curious, no black Lab ever decoded the genome, or got a job at Best Buy for that matter. They lose interest pretty quickly.

For it to be effective, curiosity has to be harnessed to at least two other key traits. First, the ability to pay attention to the answers to your questions—you have to actually absorb whatever it is you're being curious about. We all know people who ask really good questions, who seem engaged and energized when they're talking and asking those questions, but who zone out the moment it's time for you to answer.

The second trait is the willingness to act. Curiosity was undoubtedly the inspiration for thinking we could fly to the moon, but it didn't marshal the hundreds of thousands of people, the billions of dollars, and the determination to overcome failures and disasters along the way to making it a reality. Curiosity can inspire the original vision—of a moon mission, or of a movie, for that matter. It can replenish that inspiration when morale flags—look, that's where we're going! But at some point, on the way to the moon or the multiplex, the work gets hard, the obstacles become a thicket, the frustration piles up, and then you need determination.

I hope to accomplish three things in this book: I want to wake you up to the value and power of curiosity; I want to show you all the ways I use it, in the hopes that that will inspire you to test it out in your daily life; and I want to start a conversation in the wider world about why such an important quality is so little valued, taught, and cultivated today.