Curiosity: killer, victim or both?

By Sonja Blignaut

I am starting a series today documenting the topics we covered in our Monthly COOL Connecting Conversations. Our COOL community has grown from around 15 when we began to nearly 200 fascinating people from all around the world. If you'd like to join (it's free, so why not?!) you can sign up here.

One of our first topics was Curiosity. 

“We live in the world our questions create” ~David Cooperrider ~

Ironically, we don't often get curious about Curiosity... we all assume we know what it means to be curious. But sometimes, what we think we know about Curiosity keeps us from being curious! 

Perhaps, in our fast-paced world, Curiosity is not the killer (at least of cats!) but the victim.

So, let's get our sleuthing hats on and get curious about Curiosity!

THE PARADOXICAL NATURE OF CURIOSITY

Perhaps a good place to start is to acknowledge that there's a polarity at play when it comes to Curiosity… on the one hand, Curiosity is critical to our survival in a complex world; we cannot afford not to question our assumptions. However, it is also true that in today's frenetic world, Curiosity can lead us astray: it can deplete our energy and steal our focus. Sometimes, it can even be dangerous. So perhaps the best way to frame this exploration is to remember the famous Goldilocks principle … too little Curiosity can kill relationships, creativity and learning, AND too much Curiosity can destroy our focus, deplete our energy, and get us in trouble. So the key is to re-energise and foster a healthy sense of Curiosity.

Curiosity is not only about finding novelty and learning; it's about questioning and being present in what is already here. 

Many of us already feel like we are drowning in information, ideas and opportunities. So, if we view Curiosity primarily as an activity aimed at learning or discovering new things or content, it's understandable to feel that we can't afford to be curious. Let's get real ... who has the energy to be curious when you're struggling to keep your head above water?!

But seeking novelty is not the only way we can BE curious … (and we emphasise BE here because Curiosity is a way of being). It's how we show up in our relationships, meetings, and thinking. While being curious will flow into our conversations and actions, it is not something we DO.

We believe Curiosity is a kind of superpower in complexity. Here's why ...

CURIOSITY MAY NOT HAVE KILLED THE CAT, BUT IT CAN KILL …

1. Complacency and arrogance

"It takes Curiosity to learn. It takes Courage to unlearn. Learning is how you evolve. Unlearning is how you keep up as the world evolves." – Adam Grant.

We live in a world where change is exponential. Consider this: Modern estimates place the half-life of an engineering degree at between 2.5 and 5 years. So, by the time an engineering student finishes a four-year degree, possibly half of what they've learned is already redundant. Few of us have the time and energy to learn as much and as fast as we'd need to keep up. And this is why Curiosity is a potent ally.  

If we can cultivate a questioning attitude and actively resist complacency by continually questioning assumptions and what we think we know, and if we can be open to receiving and considering information that challenges those assumptions, we are already in a better position. When we are sure about our knowledge, we fail to notice that the world around us has changed, and complacency sets in, which is a killer in today's fast-changing world.

2. Stereotypes

The threats and opportunities we face in today's interconnected world require us to span boundaries, whether silo, discipline, social or geographical. That means diversity in all forms is critical, especially diversity of perspective.

There is a reason why there are so many diversity and inclusion offerings in the market …humans have a nasty habit of judging and stereotyping differences. This is at the root of many "isms" that keep us on our side of the proverbial fence. Being genuinely curious about people who look and think differently from us is a potent antidote to stereotyping. This kind of Openness asks us to notice and Observe differences with Curiosity, not judgment. Not assuming we know the motivations of others is a continuous practice to cultivate.

It takes Courage to ask questions we don't know the answer to. You never know what you might discover! And it takes Lightness to remember not to take ourselves too seriously and remain humble.

3. Our inner critic

Finally … Many of us reserve our worst judgments for ourselves. When we make a mistake, when we do something imperfectly, when we "make a fool of ourselves", or when we fail to live up to our expectations (like when we eat that second piece of cake!) … often our first response is to listen to our inner critic and to judge ourselves.

It's easy to forget that we live in anxiety-provoking times, where no one can know all the answers, get it right all the time, or get through a day without chocolate. If we can Observe these natural internal reactions to the external environment and be curious (not judgmental) about what is happening in us and why - we can, with half a smile, acknowledge what is there, learn from it and keep moving on.  

SO .. Curiosity is not "another thing to do" or another task on the to-do list. It is simply being awake and present to what is already emerging around or within us. ; it is being OPEN to staying with the discomfort of not knowing for a little longer and learning to love the questions instead of immediately reaching for answers or solutions. And finally, it's about being ENCHANTED by the beauty found in the ambiguity and diversity in all of humanity, in nature and beyond.

BEING COOL AND CREATING COOL ENVIRONMENTS CAN HELP US CULTIVATE CURIOSITY

When we are curious, we open ourselves to the unknown. And sometimes, this uncertainty can trigger anxiety, and our defences kick in. One such defence is to "stick with what we know" to remain in the safety and comfort of the familiar, the status quo. This kills Curiosity. 

Curiosity thrives in spaces where being COOL is welcomed and encouraged. Because sometimes we need Courage to be curious – to admit we don't know or might be wrong. Curiosity is inseparable from Openness, as Openness not only helps us learn, it also helps us be humble. And Curiosity needs humility like a fire needs oxygen.

Openness and Courage help us hold our egos and strong opinions Lightly to engage the world with half a smile. 

And finally, Observing. Why put Observing last? Because Curiosity is animated by Observation: noticing what is already around you and within you with curious eyes. You only need to be awake and present; there is often no need to explore new places, read new books or meet new people (although all those activities can be enriching and replenishing). It's amazing what you can discover when you are open and present to what is already emerging around and within you. 

Paulo Coelho, in his famous book The Alchemist, made the point that the treasure, opportunity or new way you are looking for is probably not somewhere out there in a distant land; it might be in our pocket already. It might be in the spreadsheet you're working on or a conversation you're currently having. The key is to question what we assume we already know and to observe through curious eyes. 

RESOURCES WE FIND USEFUL …

https://hbr.org/2018/09/the-business-case-for-curiosity

https://modelthinkers.com/mental-model/curiosity-zone

SOMETHING A LITTLE MORE CHALLENGING (FOR THOSE WHO LIKE THAT SORT OF THING) … 

https://gurwinder.substack.com/p/why-smart-people-hold-stupid-beliefs

"Good news: if you're reading this, you're probably quite curious already. But there's something you can do to supercharge your Curiosity: enter the curiosity zone. Basically, Curiosity is the desire to fill gaps in knowledge. As such, Curiosity occurs not when you know nothing about something but when you know a bit about it. So learn a little about as much as you can, and this will create "itches" that will spur you to learn even more."

SOMETHING TO TRY

We took the group through this Gestalt-based mindfulness practice (with cameras off).

It's a lot of fun, so we suggest you try it with your team (or as an individual reflective practice.)

Start by sitting in a relaxed and aware position and follow one or two breaths.

Now, tap into the sensations of curiosity.

- If you could locate curiosity in your body right now … where would it be?  

-What color is it?

-What shape?

-What sound comes to mind … your sound of curiosity.

Ask everyone to unmute themselves and to share their sound.  Every person shares when they think the time is right.  There is no right or wrong. Be curious about what wants to emerge.

Debrief afterwards with cameras on.

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