“I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious.” – Albert Einstein
“I am inspired by curiosity. That is what drives me.” – Elon Musk
From the theory of relativity to self-driving cars, most of history’s breakthrough discoveries have something in common: they are the result of curiosity. This impulse to seek new information and experiences and explore alternative possibilities is part of what makes us human.
But it lies dormant in many of us.
Harvard Business School professor and author Francesca Gino surveyed more than 3,000 employees and found that only 24% said they regularly felt curious about their jobs. Almost 70% said they face barriers to asking more questions at work.
Why is this?
In this essay, we’ll explore the barriers to curiosity at work, why being curious is better than being smart, and how to cultivate curiosity at work.
But first, what is curiosity?
Professor Gino defines it as “the impulse to learn more and to learn anew, the willingness to examine and rewrite our assumptions.” Curiosity motivates us to explore, to challenge ourselves and what we already know. Most importantly, curiosity is a “practiced skill.”
What is preventing curiosity at work?
Six Barriers to Curiosity At Work
Combining professor Gino’s research with my observations, I’ve identified six things holding people back from being curious at work:
- Fear of Chaos
- The Blame Game
- Efficiency Over Exploration
- Disconnect Between Learning and Working
The time available for people to think and reflect is scarce. Constant fire-fighting undermines our natural curiosity. Instead of deliberate practice, we’re buried in an avalanche of emails, Slack messages, and the Chinese water torture of urgent but not important tasks.
Fear of Chaos
Professor Gino surveyed 520 Chief Learning Officers and Chief Talent Development Officers. She found they believed that if people were allowed to explore their interests:
- Disagreements would arise.
- Making and executing decisions would slow down.
We’re trained at work to command and control. Letting go and embracing more decentralized decision-making and bottoms-up innovation is the challenge.
Most professionals are almost always successful at what they do (it’s what got them where they are), so they rarely experience failure. Because they have never failed, they never learn how to learn from failure.
Defensiveness is protection against being vulnerable. With fires around us, we need to appear in control and infinitely capable of putting them out. So we pretend we’re something that we’re not.
The Blame Game
Have you ever filled out those employee surveys?
It’s an excellent opportunity to let management know what you think. I’ve let it rip in the past, but then I archived the email and moved on. I never took responsibility for the change. These surveys feed an impulse to find blame.
Efficiency Over Exploration
Related to constant fire-fighting, but often the result of a conscious decision by the organization, when people are under pressure to complete their work quickly, they have little time to ask questions about overall processes or goals.
Take the rise and fall of Blockbuster. At its peak in the late ’90s, Blockbuster was a $3 billion company employing 84,000 people. David Cook, the founder, was brilliantly efficient in growing the franchise juggernaut, even building a $6 million distribution center to stock their 9,000 stores.
All this efficiency prevented Blockbuster from exploring the potential of on-demand streaming. Meanwhile, Netflix was cornering the market. Blockbuster was too busy making their video stores more efficient to imagine a time when people would no longer want or need them.
Disconnect Between Learning and Working
All five other barriers come to a head in seeing learning and working as two separate things. Without time to think and reflect, a lifelong approach to education, and responsibility, leadership is investing shockingly few resources in studying what has succeeded and failed in the past. Instead, leaders more or less make it up as they go along.
You can probably recognize a few of these barriers at your company. Understanding how to overcome them starts with acknowledging that having the answers is not nearly as important as asking the right questions.
Being Curious Is Better Than Being Smart
In the old economy, it was all about having the answers. But today’s dynamic, information-abundant economy is more about asking the right questions. What you thought was true today might not be tomorrow.
As the author James Clear explains, “being motivated and curious counts for more than being smart because it leads to action.” Taking action leads to experience. Experience allows you to recognize patterns. Pattern recognition will enable you to see similarities in a new situation and, eventually, make better decisions by asking better questions.
This approach applies to all fields, too, not just knowledge work. Kobe Bryant attributed his success to: “a competitive nature, work ethic, and curiosity.” He went on to say, “I asked a lot of questions. All the Lakers’ greats — I would always sit down and ask them questions about certain games I had studied growing up.” Basketball as a sport is constantly changing. Kobe’s curiosity and questions allowed him to stay ahead of the curve by adapting his game.
Curiosity has another benefit over being smart: it’s in the power of the T-shaped professional. T-shaped professionals have deep specific knowledge in at least one discipline and the ability to communicate effectively while crossing numerous others. A classic example is Steve Jobs’ curiosity for typefaces, which led him to attend a seemingly useless typography class and develop his design sensibility. Later, this sensibility became an essential part of Apple computers and Apple’s core differentiator in the market.
In researching curiosity at work, Professor Gino found four additional benefits for organizations:
- Fewer decision-making errors – we’re less likely to fall prey to confirmation bias and stereotyping because curiosity helps us generate alternatives.
- More innovation – curious employees seek more information from coworkers to help them in their jobs.
- Reduced group conflict – curious employees tend to have less defensive reactions to stress and empathize more with others.
- More-open communication – curious employees share information more openly and listen more carefully, leading to better team performance.
It’s true, as Einstein said, “curiosity is more important than knowledge.”
How To Cultivate Curiosity At Work
Let’s break this down into cultivating a desire, developing a habit, and designing a process for curiosity at work.
What does curiosity look like from the outside? John Dewey offered one of the best descriptions when he said, “the curious mind is constantly alert and exploring, seeking material for thought.”
How do we cultivate this quality of alertness and the pursuit of new information in others? As Naval Ravikant said, “the trick to doing anything is first cultivating a desire for it.” Intrinsic motivation is more powerful than any reward or punishment.
Cultivating A Desire For Curiosity
We need to give people something to search for as a starting point. We can’t prescribe this top-down. To remain constantly alert and pursue new information, we need people to connect with what is most important to them.
Dan Buettner, the author of Blue Zones, suggests encouraging people to make three lists:
- Your values
- Things you like to do
- Things you are good at.
I wrote about this exercise in Ikigai and the Importance of Being Curious – the activity is a Western interpretation of the Japanese residents of Okinawa’s approach to finding their ikigai, said to be the key to their incredible longevity.
Making these three lists has the same effect as Richard Feynman’s 12 Favorite Problems exercise. By articulating (and regularly updating) the 12 questions you are most interested in answering, you begin to filter every piece of information you come across against them. Your attention becomes tuned (alert, if you will) to whether or not the information will help you answer one of these questions.
Developing A Habit For Curiosity
Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric from 2001 to 2017, attributes much of his career success to a habit of curiosity: “I spent a lot of time just seeking people out. That’s how you learn. You’ve got to be the initiator. You have to be constantly curious. You have to see people when you don’t need anything. That’s one of the secrets to life.”
This habit saw Immelt visiting GE plants and factories around the country, walking around the factory floor, stopping at stations to talk to front-line people and asking them questions. “Asking people what they do, although it sounds silly and stupid, is quite profound. Show me why you do what you do. Show me how you do what you do.”
There is no secret to the types of questions to ask, although I’ll share some examples at the end of this essay. But once more, let’s turn to Einstein for guidance: “Don’t think about why you question. Simply don’t stop questioning. Don’t worry about what you can’t answer, and don’t try to explain what you can’t know. Try to comprehend a little more each day.”
The lesson here is to make it a habit to ask people questions. Encourage people to show a genuine interest in each other.
Designing A Process For Curiosity
Tim Urban is the creator of Wait But Why, a wildly popular blog. Over 600K people subscribe to his posts. His TED Talk has almost 50M views. And he creates memorable drawings like this.
In an interview with Tim Ferris, he described his process for writing his mega-posts, saying, “the reason it’s easy for me is because I’m super curious.” We can learn a lot from his approach when designing a process for curiosity at work.
There are four steps:
- Write for an audience of one.
- Research like a mad man.
- Adopt a Beginner’s Mind.
- Entertain to teach.
Let’s explore each of them.
Write for an audience of one
Urban starts with identifying who he is writing for. In his case, that audience is himself. “I assume that my audience is like a stadium full of me. I’m writing the same post I would be thrilled to get.” A secret to success for people like Urban is writing or learning about the things they find interesting. Dan Buettner’s three lists from earlier come in handy at this point.
Research like a mad man
From there, he sets a goal for the level of understanding he wants to achieve. “If there’s a one through ten scale of how much you know about something, where ten is world-leading expert, and one has never heard of the term, start at two or three like most laymen. My curiosity is the driver. I pick topics I’m excited to dig into, and I’ll spend however long it takes to learn enough to get me to maybe like a five or a six out of ten.”
He’s not trying to become an expert. “I’m not going to get a Ph.D. or spend five years getting myself to an eight or nine. I’m going to get myself to a six where I can answer any question a layman asks me.”
He does two things well:
- He creates a basic map of the territory – “I always start blindfolded in a room, and I’m just trying to figure out where the walls are.”
- He ingests as much information as possible – “I will Google blockchain. Leave that in a window. Open a new window, and I’ll Google Bitcoin. New window, Ethereum. New window, cryptocurrency. New window, whatever. And I’ll just keep going.”
Adopt a Beginner’s Mind
The next step is about retracing your steps.
I previously wrote about Beginner’s Mind in teaching an online course. As Urban says, experts have a hard time explaining. They don’t remember what it’s like to be a two out of ten.
But someone who just learned the topic knows precisely what it’s like not to know it. Urban looks at the road he went down to get himself to a six. “I think about how I could travel that road more efficiently if I could do it again now. What fun story could I tell to bring readers from the two to a six?”
Entertain to teach
The final step is to tell the story and where the most visible key to Urban’s success lies: his ability to entertain while teaching. “I’m trying to add a sense of humor into basically everything. Treating it light, good metaphors. For me, lots of visuals.”
The most famous example of this, and the subject of his TED Talk, is procrastination. “If I’m going to talk about procrastination, I can talk about the limbic system and how it works and our flight or fight zone. Or I can make an instant gratification monkey because that is, essentially, what it is. And that’s more memorable and more fun to read.”
You can use this four-step process in designing Cohort Learning Experiences for your teams by encouraging people to follow their curiosity at work and share what they’re learning with their peers.
For five more ways to cultivate curiosity at work, I would recommend reading professor Francesca Gino’s Business Case for Curiosity to learn how to:
- Hire for curiosity.
- Model curiosity.
- Emphasize learning goals.
- Let employees explore and broaden their interests.
- Have “Why?” “What if…?” and “How might we…?” days.
Finally, I want to leave you with a few prompts to spark your curiosity. I asked a few friends to share their favorite question prompts, and I’ve added a few of mine below.
Robbie Crabtree, the founder of Performative Speaking:
- What idea will have the most significant impact over the next two decades, and how does that play out?
- How do companies, people, and ideas stand the test of time?
- What makes someone great in various industries or disciplines, and what commonalities can be unlocked?
Dickie Bush, the founder of Ship30, on choosing what to be curious about:
- Which path is more difficult in the short term but better in the long term?
- Which path will I regret not taking when I’m 80 years old?
- What would I do if I wasn’t concerned about the opinion of others?
- How can we become the company that would put us out of business?
- What’s going on out there—and how can I help?
- Why does it have to be like this?
Stay curious, my friend.