The quality of curiosity may be our most valuable hidden asset.
What Curiosity Does For Us
With curiosity, we are open to learning more than “the right answer.”
We get unstuck. We go places that give us new perspectives. We ask questions that open unseen possibilities. We bring our attention to other people and experiences. We test our imagination in concrete reality. We find things in reality that we could never have imagined. And even better, we feel good and have fun when we are being curious.
As Jay Cross (author of the wonderful book Informal Learning) blogs, “A study of some 3,000 creative executives, conducted by researchers at Brigham Young University and the INSEAD business school, found that what linked all of these Steve Jobs-types, perhaps more than anything else, was their curiosity and willingness to question—‘the same kind of inquisitiveness you see in small children,’according to Hal Gregersen, one of the authors of the study.”
Cross also notes that Einstein said if he had an hour to come up with a solution on which his life depended, he would spend the first fifty-five minutes figuring out the right question to ask.
Real curiosity pushes the boundaries, thinks a lot of “what-if” questions, and actively exercises creativity. Creative thinking exercises, from provocateurs such as Edward DeBono (see Lateral Thinking), help find new things about which to be curious.
Last week, after a radio interview; I reflected on how Hollis, the interviewer, had successfully brought out many aspects of how Syntax helps people have good relationships. She asked very simple questions, with curiosity. It was easy for me to follow her lead. It’s a well-honed skill demonstrated by the best TV interviewers. Charlie Rose’s curiosity mines his guests’ knowledge and opinions, resulting in a depth of understanding that shallow questions don’t offer.
Being curious is an asset in both work and personal relationships, motivating us to be truly interested in the other person’s perspective. If we could just be curious when there’s a breakdown, instead of mad or confused, we would find many good pathways to resolution.
What Keeps Us From Being Curious?
Since this quality is so valuable and enjoyable, what dampens our curiosity?
In part, our cultural beliefs and practices. Another part is our fear of being embarrassed when we take risks.
Kids naturally ask a lot of questions. Parents and teachers can break down under the barrage and discourage the questions. Adults do this most when they are uncomfortable with the subject of the child’s curiosity. This can shut down kids’ curiosity across the board.
Plus, we are flooded with stimuli and information in today’s plugged-in world, and sometimes it is hard to stay curious. We have a kind of learning fatigue. Hence we may need to renew our curiosity on a regular basis, by engaging in play and rest and unstructured time. Fortunately, curiosity seems to be an endlessly renewable resource.
Leaders or experts may not want to show curiosity, especially at work, since they feel obligated to provide answers. After all, wasn’t that why they were hired?
Curiosity may appear naïve or childlike, making people feel vulnerable. It’s exactly this kind of authenticity that brings forth a willingness to risk being open. Both organizational and technical leadership are well served by valuing curiosity and demonstrating it at every available occasion.
Share Your Curiosity
Sharing curiosity leverages it in several ways. One is to provoke others to question their assumptions and come up with new approaches.
Creating a culture of questioning increases innovation. Recent research shows a trend in science toward citing team research more often than individual research, an indicator that collaborative innovation may be more productive than working alone.
That poor cat killed by curiosity lives on today, warning us against taking risks and following our noses, so to speak. For whatever reasons, societies and organizations have wanted to pull people back to the cultural center and keep them off the fringes.
Perhaps they do this for the same reasons that I worry when my curious cat, Charcoal, starts climbing a tree. The first time he did that, he didn’t know what he was doing and got stuck way up high in a rather dangerous situation. The cool thing is that he seems to have learned. Exploration leads to experience and he has gotten smarter about trees.
We can extend that same expectation to humans – that curiosity leads to learning, which we then – hopefully – apply.
So the bigger risk is in not being curious – in staying walled inside old patterns or routines. Rather than being childish, it is an ability to be child-like.
How do you encourage yourself and others to be curious? Think some playful thoughts and ask unusual questions. You may open unexpected doors to success – and whatever comes of it, you will have a good time!