Lessons in the Power of Creative Destruction
Are You Listening?

Cultivating Curiosity

Peter Bromberg over at ALA Learning is asking about how you create a culture of curiosity, something that's been on my mind of late. He points out that curiosity is the

only known antidote to the single biggest block to learning: the idea that we already have the answer (and it’s 1st cousin, “I don’t care about the answer”.)  Being in a state of curiosity means looking out at the world, collecting data, observing human behaviors and interactions, and asking “why?” and what if?

I've observed that curiosity seems to be dead or dying for many of us on the job at a time when questioning minds need to be hard at work finding new solutions to intractable problems. Curiosity is necessary to learning, true. It's also necessary to innovation and effective problem-solving, two skills we need desperately in this economy. So some thoughts on nurturing curiosity:

  • Cultivate beginner's mind--Curiosity is all about realizing that you don't have all the answers and getting rid of your "Been There, Done That, Bought the T-shirt" mentality. Easier said than done, but necessary to develop if you truly want to re-discover curiosity.
  • Incorporate "Who, What, What If, Why, When, Where, How" into your daily vocabulary--Curiosity is also about asking questions. So it makes sense to start adding some key questioning vocabulary to your daily conversations. See if you can force yourself to to start using these simple words more frequently.
  • Encourage reflection. As individuals and organizations, we need to be encouraging professional reflection, not just action. We need to think about our experiences and ask questions about what has worked and why, what hasn't worked and why and what we can do differently. Developing the reflection habit can help us create a natural place for using our curiosity.
  • Talk less, listen more. Curiosity grows from the space of paying attention to what is happening around you. Listening and observing give you the fodder for curiosity. When you are talking, you are too absorbed in what you are saying to leave room for questions.
  • Spend time with a pre-schooler. Three and 4-year olds are probably the most curious human beings on the planet. They want to know EVERYTHING about how the world works and aren't afraid to ask "Why?" several hundred times a day. If you want to get your curiosity mojo back, spend a day with 4-year old.
  • Share more. I've found that the more I share, the more questions I get in return. These questions that come from people who may be less knowledgeable or experienced than I am in a particular topic can be an external source of beginner's mind. They remind me of questions I've long ago thought I answered. But if others are still asking them, then they can point me in some different directions.
  • Think about important questions--Curiosity, I think, partly comes from thinking about important problems and questions. When we feel like we're dealing with larger issues, rather than minutiae, we may be more likely to have an open mind.
  • Think about the mundane--While the "big" questions are a good place for curiosity, I also think that the smaller things in life can be just as fruitful. The discovery of pennicillin, for example, came from curiosity about mold on a piece of bread. It doesn't get more mundane than that.

So what are your thoughts? Do these ideas make sense to you? What else would you add to the list? How do you think we could do a better job of cultivating curiosity, both individually and in organizations?


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I really appreciate the focus of your post and see the problem of lack of curiosity as a signal or red flag that an organization is a closed system that is probably spiralling down. I also wonder how to find that delicate balance between curiosity and expertise. It seems to me that the gifted expert has to be able to say, "This works well, but how do we improve?" The expert has to have a lot of authority and be given premission in the organization to allow that level of curiosity because one potential outcome is failure. In my experience, organizations are unwilling to take that risk and therefore stiffle curiosity and innovation.

Make heroes of the Curious Ones.
I love Columbo, the detective who asks the seemingly dumb questions. It's not that he knows the answer but that he's willing to look silly when asking. His lack of guile gets the know-it-all criminal to blabber.

We need to seek information in a humble manner to get others to tell us more.

@Leslie--I think that fear of failure is a big issue with individuals and organizations, especially "experts." Our culture is pretty harsh on failures and you have to have a pretty strong ego to be OK with mistakes and questioning. I agree that closing off curiosity should be a big red flag for organizations--but also for us as individuals. It means we're not learning anymore.

@Kris, I like the idea of making heroes of the curious ones. Seems like a much more useful employee recognition program!

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