growth

How To Be Curious

The late novelist David Foster Wallace tells a wonderful story about ‘incuriosity’ in his commencement speech This Is Water:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

We can all be blind, at times, to the world around us. We might think we know how stuff works, what drives our people, that we’ve got the solution to the problems. But do we really?

A team of organisational development (OD) professionals was tasked with helping the senior leaders of their organisation to have better and more frequent ‘talent conversations’ with their people. The OD team, convinced of the value of this activity, spent months developing easy-to-use tools and frameworks to help the leaders. But they struggled to get any traction. It took another few months of trying to adapt the tools to make them even better, until someone asked: “wait a minute, do these leaders even want to have talent conversations?”

The answer was a resounding ‘no’. The OD team had assumed that the leaders were keen, but in fact, they were terrified. Not because they didn’t know how. But because they saw the conversations with these ambitious people as creating a threat to their own job security.

This is a case of not seeing the water you’re swimming in. When you’re so close to your own perceptions of how the world works, you can forget to ask the bigger questions that really matter. Knowledge overwhelms curiosity.

There’s a correlation between the amount of knowledge you think you have and the amount of curiosity you demonstrate. fMRI research suggests it looks like this:

curiousity-knowledge-model-1

When there’s a gap between what you think you know, and what you think could be known, you’re curious.

Let’s break it down a little more:

curiousity-knowledge-model-2

When you have no knowledge of something, there’s nothing to be curious about. Think of the young fish in the water. That’s ignorance.

When the old fish swims by, you start to get curious. What’s he talking about? That’s wonderance.

When you realise you’ve actually learned something new, when you ‘see the water’, you can apply that knowledge to your world. That’s confidence.

When you think you know everything, you think there’s nothing to be curious about. You know it all, right? That’s arrogance.

In a world that values answers, it’s tempting to rush towards the right-hand end. Ryan Holiday, the author of The Obstacle is the Way, says when your ego gets bigger than your ears, your curiosity starts to die.When people keep calling you superman, soon enough you start to believe you are.

The trick is to stay curious at all times. To stay in that place between wonderance and confidence. Know what you know, and be humble about it. In a world where yesterday’s solutions are less effective at solving today’s problems, those who can stay curious will help us create new ways forward.

Transportation expert Wanis Kabbaj is a good example. He’s been trying to solve the increasingly huge traffic problems that rapid urbanisation presents us with. He asked: “what if traffic flowed through our streets as smoothly and efficiently as blood flows through our veins?” By simply asking that question, and being in ‘wonderance’, he’s taken our thinking in a new direction that just might yield new solutions. Check out his TED talk on that here.

Fortunately, we aren’t fish. If we choose, we can see the water. We’re born with an innate sense of curiosity: that strong desire to know and learn. Unlike other living things, we’re wired to ask “why?”

Curiosity is one of the critical meta-skills for interesting times. When your tried-and-true methods don’t work like they used to, then it’s time to dial up your curiosity. If you want to reinvent how things happen in your world, your starting point is curiosity.

Here are six ways to upgrade your curiosity:

  1. Expand Your Mind: Read and listen outside of your usual bubble. Subscribe to podcasts that cover a wide range of subjects, like NPR’s TED Radio Hour. Go into a new agent and buy magazines that you wouldn’t usually read. Sign up to Blinkist to absorb 15-minute book summaries in written and audio format.
  2. Expand Your Experience: Get yourself out of your comfort zone. Walk a different way to work. Hang out with people who think differently to you. Visit a new country each year. Go test yourself.
  3. Ask Better Questions: Be like Wanis Kabbaj. Make your default questions “why?” and “what if?” Sound like your three-year-old self.
  4. Cultivate ‘Beginner’s Mind’: Learn something completely new. That could be a new language, a new skill, a new sport. I’ve written about that idea before.
  5. Notice others: (Discreetly) observe someone in a coffee shop or a meeting, and imagine what it might be like to be them.
  6. Notice yourself: Reflect daily on your experiences, and what you made of them. Even just five minutes of journaling a day can help hone your self-curiosity.

Curiosity is the driving force behind human development. More than ever, the world needs you to be curious. Where could that be true for you?

 

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Photo: Curious Cows

The Source of Courage

Recently I wrote about Do You Need Confidence, or Courage? It seemed to the hit the mark with plenty of readers. It’s a topic worth exploring more.

A quick rewind: Confidence comes from courage. Courage is what you have when you face something scary, and you do it anyway. Confidence is what you have after you’ve done it.

Confidence + Courage

 

Confidence not earned from courageous deeds is a fragile shell that’s easily shattered. I suspect we all yearn for a deep, grounded inner confidence, and we want to see it in those who lead us.

So where does courage come from? What allows some people to take bold action in the face of the unknown, while others shrink back and stay safe?

The answer is conviction. How much do you want it? Why would you even bother? What makes it worth the risk? You’ve got to be able to answer those questions with conviction if you’re ever going to be able to muster the courage to act decisively.

To illustrate, another mountain biking story. There’s a local trail I started riding earlier this year that has one section that scared the crap out of me. A series of steep, swooshing drops that you can’t do half-heartedly. It’s an all-or-nothing affair. The first few times I approached that section I’d get off my bike and walk it. And quietly wonder how anyone could ride it. I eventually convinced myself to ‘man up’ and stay on the bike. So I’d approach it tentatively, with the brakes on full. What do you think happened? I fell off every time. Oh, the frustration…

Fast-forward a few weeks. I was riding with a friend in front of me. We approached the gnarly section. He didn’t slow down, went straight into it, and flew through unscathed. Wow, it’s possible! Without thinking too much, and with my heart in my mouth, I followed his line, and all of a sudden I was out the other end with no broken bones. Yee ha! The switch had been flicked. Now I ride that section at full speed, minimal brakes. I actually look forward to it. It’s the best part of the trail. I love it.

My courage to tackle that section full-on came from my conviction to do it. I wanted it. Partly it was about my ego and The Social Effect: not wanting to look like a wimp in front of my mate. But, at a much deeper level, it was also about living up to something I stand for, which is to keep pushing my own comfort zone to see what I’m capable of. Knowing the territory of the scary and unfamiliar allows me to do good work with the organisations and people I work with, and keeps me growing too.

Confidence + Courage + Conviction

 

If we want to call ourselves leaders, our behaviour has  to be aligned with our convictions. Convictions are ‘want to’s’, not ‘have to’s’: the things we most deeply stand for and believe in. Otherwise, we’re a leaf in the wind that doesn’t stand a much of a chance in life’s next big storm.

Here are three questions for you to try on:

  • What are you holding back from doing?
  • If you took decisive action, what would that say about who you are and what you stand for?
  • By not taking decisive action, what is it costing to you?

Gosh, by writing that, I’ve stirred myself up. I’m off to have a conversation I need to have…

 

Now read the last post in this series Courage Is A Practice.

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Painting by Olga Zavgorodnya