The Cat Survived & So Will You

by  Alan Derek Utley  |  Self Leadership
The Cat Survived and So Will You

Curiosity is dangerous. Surely you know the phrase “curiosity killed the cat.”  As a kid, I heard this from my parents time and again. I know now they were just trying to keep me alive.

Maybe it was because of that time I put my hands in the pot of water on the stove to feel how hot it was – luckily, it wasn’t boiling water and I’m not scarred for life. Or that moment when I – warning: lots of alliteration ahead – beat a bush of bees with a bat.

You can imagine the painful consequences of my actions. And there were many others.

Let’s face it, I was a kid with an unfettered curiosity and I was dangerous. So, when espousing the cautionary tale of the killed cat, clearly my parents were simply protecting me from…well, me.

Origins Of The Killed Cat

Recently, I was curious (uh, oh) about the origins of this phrase, so I looked it up. I learned that its intent was to warn of the dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation. More so, it was used in an attempt to stop someone from asking unwanted questions.

Is it a warning then – that is, a threat – against being inquisitive?  I kept researching and found this from the The Phrase Finder at www.phrases.org.uk:

Curiosity hasn’t received a good press over the centuries. Saint Augustine wrote in Confessions, AD 397, that, in the eons before creating heaven and earth, God “fashioned hell for the inquisitive.”

John Clarke, in Paroemiologia, 1639, suggested that “He that pryeth into every cloud may be struck with a thunderbolt.”

In Don Juan, Lord Byron called curiosity “that low vice.”

This suggests that curiosity is a bad thing. Well, I suppose the painful consequences of dipping my hands in the pot of hot water or beating the bee bush support this idea. Curiosity equals pain. Okay, I get it – I suppose.

Curiosity In Leadership

If it is true that curiosity equals pain, at what point does this idiom keep us from fulfilling our responsibilities as leaders?  If it wasn’t for being inquisitive then how could we have advanced as a human race?

Consider, for example, the caveman who discovered fire. Edison who invented the light bulb, Franklin and electricity, Bell and the telephone, Jobs and the iPod.

What if Newton hadn’t asked why the apple falls?

What if Einstein hadn’t asked a million questions about science? In fact, here’s what he had to say about his own contributions to the world:

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

Einstein’s special talent was curiosity. And, given what he and many others were able to accomplish as a result of their thirst for answers – and despite what the people (and my parents) say about the killed cat – I believe curiosity is a critical trait for today’s leader.

One of my earliest leaders taught me how to channel my questioning spirit. He showed me the value of intellectual curiosity. He challenged me to look at an issue twice. To peek around corners and under rocks, to come at something from a different angle, and dig a little deeper. How not to accept the first answer and ask the same question twice or in a different way.

And even better, how to consider the possibilities of tackling a problem in a new way.

How to ask, “What if?”

I believe that if leaders are discouraged from asking questions then we’d simply go about our business unaware of the innovations around us, just waiting to be discovered.

Cats Have Nine Lives

For the curious among us, I have good news. What if I told you that curiosity didn’t kill the cat?

It turns out that my brief probe into the origins of this phrase led me to a new discovery.  I learned that there’s a less-commonly-known second half to this proverb.

The longer version goes like this:

“Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back”.

This tells us that the cat’s risk leads to resurrection. Cats do have nine lives after all.

And, there you have it. While curiosity might have an element of danger, that’s what makes it worthwhile. Curious risk equals satisfactory reward, so it is okay. Ask questions. Challenge the status quo. Be curious.

Maybe it will hurt a little. For example, asking questions can be unpopular. Taking a closer look at an issue will surely make someone uncomfortable. Encouraging a new perspective will generate groans. And, so on.

But, imagine how much more painful it will be when tomorrow’s advancements pass us by and we find ourselves asking, “what could have been.”

In closing, Walt Disney said:

“When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.”

What if you were a little curious today? What could you discover?

How has curiosity played a role in your life?
Photo Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

About The Author

Articles By alan-utley
Alan Utley is a Regional HR Director for one of the world’s largest vacation businesses. By night he dabbles in executive coaching, blogging, and public speaking and is proud to serve on the management faculty at a major university. In his own words, Alan is a “world-class wannabe expert in all things leadership and careers.” Connect with Alan at www.alanderekutley.com and on Twitter @AlanDUtley.

What People Are Saying

Mike Henry Sr.  |  14 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Alan, thanks for an engaging post. I agree curiosity is generally worth the risk. For me, I just need to find the lowest risk methods to achieve discovery. On the other hand, ignorance is always more costly than we think.

Thanks again for challenging us and making us think. Much appreciated. Mike…

Alan Derek Utley  |  16 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Thanks, Mike. Good point about the cost of ignorance. And, I’m with you – I much prefer low-risk methods. But, then again, sometimes high risk can be a whole lot more fun!

– Alan

Mary C. Schaefer  |  14 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Alan, thank you for that deep dive into the origins of perspectives and idioms about curiosity. Great stories from you on your experiences. I’m glad you are still with us and here to teach us how curiosity connects to leadership.

P.S. I’m SO delighted to learn there is more to the phrase, “Curiosity killed the cat…”

Alan Derek Utley  |  16 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Thanks, Mary. I’m so glad to still be here too! It is a good thing I was fast enough to outrun those bees. :)

Leigh Steere  |  14 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Amen. Curiosity is vital. It leads to exploration, questioning the status quo, expanding our knowledge, and invention. I agree with Mary–it is delightful to learn there is more to the phrase, “Curiosity killed the cat…”

Alan Derek Utley  |  16 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Thanks, Leigh. I just love discovering new things. And, imagine my delight when I learned there was more to this phrase. Makes me wonder what other phrases we’ve morphed over the years. Something to look into, I suppose. :)

John Smith  |  15 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Alan – very enjoyable and thought-provoking post:).

Actually, it’s more of a memory-provoking post for me. I served in the US Army Reserve for a number of years. While my service was completely peaceful, totally in the US, and mostly short periods of weekends, two-week periods, and a few longer stretches, I retain sharp memories of many of these experiences.

I had the opportunity to observe leadership at the enlisted and officer level, from man-to-man through large group actions. I saw some of the best and some of the worst leadership during this time and still use examples from that on occasion as appropriate.

Your question about curiosity reminded me immediately of Major Evans, who I was shadowing during a short tour with the Big Red One (lst Infantry in Fort Riley, KS). Major Evans was a battalion operations officer, so was responsible for the training and operational deployment of this armor unit.

In the field, Major Evans learned a great deal about what was going on during exercises by repeatedly employing one simple tactic: We would drive up to a couple of tanks sitting somewhere, Major Evans would hop out and climb up on the tank. He would then smile broadly and say “Hi, how are you guys doing?”, followed by “What are you all doing here?” – all spoken in a “just folks”, friendly, and open manner.

The man learned all kinds of things about how the exercise was really going by doing this versus the information gained through reading formal reports or talking only to the commanders, who were usually not the most objective folks on site.

I took this learning with me into my civilian work and emulated Major Evans’ folksy and open approach, which has paid off nicely throughout the years.

One important thing: This was not asking questions with an agenda or a certain answer in mind to hear. Major Evans was the epitome of curiosity and simply followed up on whatever was said with more questions.

One example of curiosity possibly saving lives down the road, as opposed to killing cats:)

Appreciate your contributions.


Alan Derek Utley  |  16 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Thanks, John. What a wonderful story about the live-saving benefits of curiosity. I really appreciate you sharing.

– Alan

Barry  |  18 Jan 2016  |  Reply


I envy your curiosity. I seem to be lacking in wanting to know how or where.

Gee, I wonder why that is? See what you have inspired?



Join The Conversation