How to make Curiosity into your SuperPower

“Curiosity did not kill the cat. Ignorance did.” – Unknown

Each of us is born curious. Our early years are dominated by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, with all of our senses focused on exploring and learning and experimenting in the world’s largest and most diverse lab: the world itself.

Before we can even walk or speak, we experience pain and discomfort and hunger—and pleasure and joy and satisfaction—and we learn from these experiences. Once we become mobile and vocal, watch out! “What is this, how does that work, and why?” In these respects, we are no different from any of the great minds of history. Then, ironically, the more we learn in school, often the less curious we become. “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education,” Mark Twain warned.

One of history’s greatest thinkers—Leonard da Vinci— never did. What da Vinci had was something that has improved people’s fortunes – and that still does: Curiosity.  Leonardo’s loyalty, devotion, and passion were all directed to the quest for truth and beauty: “I roamed the countryside looking for answers to things I did not understand”. It’s notable that, even in his tireless exploration of the world, Leonardo wasn’t satisfied just to look at something with a questioning eye; he needed to see it from different aspects. In almost all of his drawings in his notebooks (which were unlined so as not to encumber his curiosity to simply words, but rather to stimulate doodles, drawings and diagrams) he took 3 perspectives – to ensure he was seeing the subject from different angles.

In business, “the creative process” is a phrase we hear often. But what does it really mean, and how does it work? Michael Gelb lays out the process beautifully in his book Innovate Like Edison. The process includes five clear steps, each of which relies on a sequence of applied Curiosity: preparation, generation, incubation, evaluation, and implementation. I encourage you to use this process as your own roadmap to future success:

  • It is said that a problem well formulated is half solved, meaning that the more time you spend refining your questions, the more efficient you’ll be at finding the best answers. Edison’s approach also challenges us to consider what problems might result from the ways we choose to solve the problem. Einstein’s famous quote “if I had 60 minutes to save the world, I would spend 50 minutes on the problem and only 10 minutes on the solution” is a reminder to all of us quick fixers that we need to listen and ask more questions, rather than jump to solutioning.
  • This next step is the creative brainstorming phase, and it turns on two key factors. The first is a decision NOT to evaluate every proposed idea. In other words, while there are no wrong answers, there are right questions, and we should try to begin with the best questions possible. The second is being open to humorous, unexpected, and serendipitous solutions (for those of you that missed it, please read the Moment of Clarity article from April of this year on the Science of Serendipity)
  • Stepping away is a key part of learning. Whether you sleep on it, drink some wine, read poetry, take a bath, watch a movie, or simply get up from your desk and go for a brief walk: letting a thought process sit idle can be just as important as engaging it. When you reconvene, clarity in your decision will be enhanced, as will any potential risks, downfalls enabling you to abandon the potential plan before it goes wrong (think of sleeping on an email that was written in frustration, and then editing or deleting it before sending it).
  • Evaluation. Once you’ve got what you think are one or more workable solutions, it’s time to test them. That means asking questions that arise from playing three roles: angel’s advocate, devil’s advocate, and final arbiter. It is impossible to objectively play either of the first two roles if egos or bias enter the picture, so be on guard.
  • Implementation. Only after evaluation do we get to the payoff. Implementation is the first time we apply our Curiosity, leave questions behind, and commit to following three new steps: setting a goal, making a plan, and measuring/monitoring progress. How, in your business’s practices, do team members engage in each of the five steps? And what might you do to enhance one or more of those steps for your teams? Remember to also practice the Lean Startup approach – where you make small measured bets as experiments, minimizing the “time and treasure” committed to each, such that you can learn and iterate forwards and reduce the chances of larger failures from where it is hard to recover.

Many of you whom read MOC know that I love to interview bright minds as part of my research. When researching Curiosity, I spoke with my mentor of many years James Donnelly. The full interview is available in my book, the Formula For Luck, but in closing I want to share my greatest learning from our time together:

SL: If every yin has a yang, what is the opposite of curiosity – what is its kryptonite?

JD: Hubris. It comes from ego, which means “I know.” If you know, then you’re not taking advantage of all the other information available to make the right decision or do the right thing. I think we limit our potential by letting our egos drive things. A lot of people who have big egos do big things, but that makes them overconfident, arrogant, and more prone to their blind spots and to failure.

Unlocking the tremendous value of curiosity requires a dedication to the creative process like that exemplified in the work of artists and inventors like da Vinci and Edison. Curiosity requires that we consider things from various perspectives— whether that domain be politics, science, beliefs, or even passions—as doing so only adds to our capacity to appreciate and better understand what we might otherwise consider as truths. To learn more about our research around Curiosity, visit our website at https://bermudaclarityinstitute.com.