Image for Harry Smith Uses Curiosity to Find Positivity
Broadcaster Harry Smith retires after a career using curiosity to chase positive stories.

Retiring Network Storyteller to Teach Class on Curiosity We All Should Take

Harry Smith, one of the most prolific and revered broadcast storytellers, is leaving network television and returning to the Iowa college where he graduated to teach a class on curiosity. No one in America is better prepared. A lot of people could benefit from what he will teach.

Smith, 72, began his broadcast career in 1975 in Denver before joining CBS News in 1986. He worked for the network in a variety of roles that included a weekly series titled Travels with Harry. Smith jumped to NBC where he continued to contribute wide-ranging human interest stories for the past 12 years.

The TODAY show celebrated Smith’s retirement with a video montage of some of his favorite stories, many of which shined a light on ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Like the man who played catch with strangers for a year to remind him of his late son or the decorated concert violinist who regularly plays in homeless shelters. Smith’s stories reflect his own curiosity and willingness to explore.

Smith watched a dog sled race in Alaska, rode in a racecar driven by a quadriplegic and interviewed a couple who met at Woodstock and remained married for 50 years. He interviewed a holocaust survivor at Auschwitz and the serviceman in Honolulu who first spotted Japanese planes flying toward Pearl Harbor.

Smith stared into deep space through a telescope in Chile’s Atacama Desert and talked with a woman in Kenya on a mission to save elephants from slaughter. He went face to face with gorillas in Angola, fed penguins in Antarctica and saw ocean trash washing onto reefs in Pacific Atolls.

He conducted in-person and often very personal interviews with celebrities such as Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, Cher, Madonna, John Mellencamp, Bob Newhart and Will Ferrell. He asked Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins how it felt to be the guy who didn’t walk on the moon. He asked Alexei Navalny why he stayed in Russia and Deb Holland how she overcame doubters to become the first Native American woman to win a seat in Congress.

Smith and Curiosity
Smith used his acute curiosity to find, follow and produce human interest stories. What’s instructive about Smith’s curiosity is how directed it is. Researchers say curiosity improves brain health. Learning new things produces new neurons and creates new neural pathways. In other words, curiosity broadens the mind. Smith exhibits a mind leaning into stories of people who make positive choices.

Smith sought to show America as a “country of neighbors, friends, classmates, colleagues and good people.” Smith called them “agents of change.” His stories describe how individual people can unite rather than divide, inspire rather than wallow in grievance.

Smith told stories of the felon-turned-attorney who now champions prison reform, the man dedicated to finding the remains of MIAs, the carwash that only hires neurodiverse workers, the small town grocery that doubles as a community center and the oncologist who survived childhood cancer at St. Jude’s Hospital.

A particular favorite was the story of Alan Graham, an Austin man who has created a 500-unit  livable community for the homeless. A man of faith, Graham told Smith that he and his colleagues practice their faith every day, but only when necessary use words express theirc faith.

He told Smith he believes it’s important to show the meaning of the Gospel every day, and to speak about the Gospel as infrequently as possible.

Smith showed an America as a “country of neighbors,
friends, classmates, colleagues and good people.”

Curiosity and Positivity
There is a definite link between curiosity and positivity. One of the lessons Smith might teach in his curiosity class is how and where to look for positivity.

The curious mind is persistent and perceptive. We can see how they deal with a problem and find a solution. Studies show curiosity is a key to achievement, learning, problem-solving, performance and personal satisfaction. As Smith’s curiosity teaches, we can emphasize with the people and circumstances in positive stories.

That suggests people curious about positivity need to find allies and teammates in the search for good news and inspiring stories. Organizations need to remove barriers to curiosity. It’s often easier to follow an old path than to explore a new one, especially when dealing with a challenging problem that could benefit from a fresh perspective.

Hiring the Curious
Smith was hired as a television broadcaster because he could tell a good story with a great on-air voice. It’s possible none of his employers hired him because of his curiosity, even though that’s how he turned what could have been a routine assignment into a story that could make people cry, applaud or think.

Smith was rewarded for his curiosity. Not everyone is so lucky. Curious people can get a bad rep as troublemakers unwilling to go along to get along. Innovation resulting from the pursuit of curiosity can be disdained or rejected. The fruit of curiosity can be seen as a roadblock not an accelerator, as insubordination instead of the status quo.

Research shows curiosity is associated with higher levels of positive emotions, lower levels of anxiety, more satisfaction with life and greater psychological well-being. That may be because curiosity focuses on learning, exploring, appreciating and empathizing. What Smith does through stories, others can do by seeing the other side of a story. Doctors who ask their patients questions may get better information than just looking at test results. Teachers who closely observe their classes may uncover an anxiety that holds back one of their students.

Curiosity involves the intentional act of finding something new that’s interesting or instructional. It could be as simple as finding out why a machine isn’t working properly to why a person is behaving the way they do. Curiosity doesn’t need to have a purpose to be rewarding.

Being around curious people can be contagious. You can be amazed at what a friend’s curiosity stirs up. You can be motivated to follow your own questions. You can learn things you never imagined. You can learn things you thought you already knew.

Curiosity and Listening
At an interpersonal level, curiosity is largely about listening. A trademark skill of the curious is the ability to listen carefully and deeply.

Actually, curiosity is something most of us as children exhibit. Kids ask about everything and are sponges for information. The tools for asking questions and getting answers has made a quantum leap with the internet and digital devices. We no longer are dependent on parents, siblings, classmates and teachers to find out stuff.

Yet, at some point, we start fixating on sharing what know instead of asking about what we don’t know. Being too curious can be considered weird or even dangerous. This is where Smith’s curiosity is instructive – without enrolling in Central College and taking his class. Smith’s career was built on looking for stories that were interesting, heart-warming and memorable. They made viewers think and reflect.

One of Smith’s provocative stories involved Sam Schmidt, a racecar driver who nearly died in a crash 20 years earlier that left him paralyzed. Smith asked Schmidt if he ever dreamed of driving without his physical limitations. Schmidt shot back that in his dreams he always has full use of his arms and legs. You can’t get more positive than that.

Antidote to Social Media
Watching Smith’s stories is antidote to scanning social  media. Trend data shows social media posts have grown increasingly negative. Negative posts draw attention, which gives them a boost from social media algorithms.

There are positive posts on social media, but they tend to draw less engagement. Positive stories like the ones Smith tells don’t fit neatly into a short video and can be overlooked.

The reviews tell their own story. “The more we use social media, the less happy we seem to be,” says Forbes. According to the BBC, “Our fees often resemble an endless stream of stress.” “Social media has brought about a negative impact on the way people communicate as well as their communication skills,” explains the Harvard Big Blog.

Central College
Central College is a private college in Pella, Iowa, which is southeast of Des Moines. Founded in 1853 and affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, the college has a student body of 1,100 undergraduates with 73 academic programs.

Smith, who was born in Lansing, Illinois in 1951, earned a bachelor’s degree in communication and theater. He put both disciplines to use in his storied career.