As children, we were naturally curious. We asked questions about nearly everything. Usually sometime after the terrible twos, kids enter the questioning age. “Why is the sky blue? Why do elephants have trunks? Why do I have to eat that food?” As we grow older, enter school, and go on to complete our education, the questions fade—and we’re expected to be experts and to have answers.
This extends into many of today’s work environments. The dilemma of expertise is being expected to have answers for things we don’t always know. In my work in guiding organizational teams, I’ve heard firsthand that many are afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Some workplaces don’t give us permission to not have answers—let alone to question, wonder, and explore. And the more you climb the corporate later, the less tolerance there is for not knowing.
Overlaid with the expert’s dilemma are the demands of our fast-paced and screen-filled lives, which erode silence and contemplation. Our thinking and imaginative time is often filled by social media, television, and long commutes. A study recently released by Deloitte found that, on average, Americans across all age groups check their phones 46 times a day. Collectively, we check our phones upwards of 8 billion times daily. The downside of the information age is the massive amount of information we are presented with. While it’s important to be informed, if that’s all we do, we won’t have the space to imagine.
Curiosity it is the operating system to creating anything new. Our work, as innovative entrepreneurs and leaders, depends on our ability to explore, create, and think outside the box. One of the things that management guru Peter Drucker is known for pointing out is that there are only two core functions to any business: innovation and marketing. Our businesses depend on us innovating new products, services, systems, and processes in order to continuously improve on the value we provide customers and to effectively compete in the marketplace.
As professionals, at times we are noticers. When we’re at our most curious, we’re not passive noticers. We engage in noticing. We put together the wide range of things we absorb through our work and personal lives, and we fuse them together. It’s this form of noticing that connects what we see, feel, hear, read, and witness. One way to think about innovation is pulling together uncommon things and reassembling them in unusual ways. The smartphone, for instance, is a fusion of a portable phone, a Web browser, a music player, and a system of apps composed through an operating system embedded in a computer and a hard drive—all of which existed before the smartphone was created. The result was a completely new thing which, of course, changed our world.
Curiosity and its close cousin, wonder, are active states. These conditions invite dynamic investigation of the things we’re curious about. When we’re deeply curious about something, we begin to see it in new ways. In Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Leonardo Da Vinci, he wrote a portrait of one of the most inventive people in perhaps the most imaginative age of human history, the Renaissance. In the book, Isaacson observes about Da Vinci, “In addition to his instinct for discerning patterns across disciplines, Leonardo honed two other traits that aided his scientific pursuits: an omnivorous curiosity, which bordered on the fanatical, and an acute power of observation, which was eerily intense.”
Learning through curiosity
Curiosity is also the vehicle in which we increase our knowledge. We simply can’t know something and learn about it at the same time. Our learning depends on us opening our minds, suspending what we think we know, and inviting new awarenesses in. It is the lens through which we permit ourselves to see anew, regardless of our age or experience level.
In order to be truly curious learners, we need to suspend our embedded knowings, our experience, and our assumptions. We must lean into the mental and emotional state where things may fail, probative questions are asked, and we do not know the result or outcome. When we enter into this space with openness, we enter into the world of possibilities.
When Elon Musk was thinking about his new venture, which would become SpaceX, he immersed himself in learning everything he could about rockets. Musk spent months reading up on rockets and the aerospace industry, including the physics behind it. This included tapping into the expert knowledge of Tim Cantrell, a cold war rocket expert, and Tom Mueller, a rocket engineer. As documented in the Elon Musk biography, he returned to his childhood state as curious student and emerged with the realization that rockets could and should be made cheaper.
In this world of possibilities is an infinite space where all new things are conjured and come into being. Through the doorway of curiosity, we allow for unseen possibilities to present themselves or make possible what was once inconceivable. Here we can constantly develop and utilize a beginner’s mind, which is a humble zone of suspended knowing. Like Musk and Da Vinci, those who live in this state of curiosity learn, discover, and create some amazing things.
Tools for cultivating curiosity
Ask a lot of questions. Remember our childhood, and ask lots of innocent questions that are open-ended versus yes-or-no. These questions usually begin with “how,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and “why.” The more and better questions we ask, the more we learn and discover. Here are some of the questions types you might consider:
Dumb questions are humble questions. These are the questions we ask when we either don’t know or suspend our knowing. By asking these types of questions, we engage our beginner’s mind and come at things from a humble perspective, which opens us up to learning.
Blue sky questions are questions that explore imaginary outcomes. Think about how Albert Einstein deployed his thought experiments to get to his most famous equations. These are blue sky questions. They might include phrases like “what if?” or “could it be?”
Listen without judgment to learn. Sometimes we size people up or make assumptions as we listen to others. Curious people, on the other hand, have no hidden agenda. They seek to understand the perspectives of others and are willing to sit in ambiguity, openness, and curiosity without being invested in a preconceived outcome. Curious people are non-blaming, non-shaming, and supportive. They work together and focus on exploring options to find the best solution, one that supports collaboration and leads to innovation.
Tips for curious conversations
The two-second rule. To apply this rule, simply wait two seconds to respond after someone else speaks in a conversation. This gives the other person the chance to fully express his or her perspective before you insert yourself back into the conversation. And, of course, truly listen.
Restate what you heard. You can also summarize back to the other person what you think he or she is saying in order to ensure you understood. In return, you ensure the other person feels heard. Only then, state your perspective. Doing this can create deeper understanding on both sides.
Embrace silence and non-distraction. Have you ever wondered why you come up with such great ideas in the shower or on a long walk? It’s because, during these undistracted times, we tap into our unconscious mind and bring it into consciousness. Ask yourself: Under what circumstances do you come up with your best thinking and ideas? Whatever that is for you, make more time for it, and more ideas will come into your world.
Make time and space for curiosity. Once per week, schedule an hour or so to do nothing but think. Find a quiet space with a wide horizon, and don’t use any digital device. No listening to music (except perhaps Baroque, which is used in proprioceptive writing to stimulate our imagination), no screens, and no distractions. Ideally, find a wide horizon, like the ocean or a natural landscape, to look out upon. Feel free to bring a journal to capture your thinking. Then, simply think.
Reclaim your mornings. Many people, myself included, create and follow morning rituals to enter into our days. When we rise from sleep, our subconscious is still activated. It’s the best time to meditate and journal. By doing this, you can reclaim how you enter and design your day to best activate more curiosity.
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Steven Morris is president of Mth Degree Inc. (themthdegree.com). Over the past 20 years Steve has led Mth Degree, a brand strategy and marketing agency that specializes in building purpose-centric brands that create authentic connections to audiences, amplifying value to business and the world and motivating people to live more inspired lives.
Steve has been a speaker at various national and international events, has written for numerous business and industry publications, and is the author of the upcoming book “The Conscious Brand.”