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:
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:
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Ask Better Questions: Be like Wanis Kabbaj. Make your default questions “why?” and “what if?” Sound like your three-year-old self.
- 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.
- Notice others: (Discreetly) observe someone in a coffee shop or a meeting, and imagine what it might be like to be them.
- 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