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When I was young, I used to sit in a quiet corner and read encyclopaedias and the odd copy of Tell Me Why. It was how I got through ages nine to 13. For me, curiosity was an acquisitive thing – I wanted to know as much as I could, put it in my knapsack and carry it around. And then take it out and show people how much I knew.
But curiosity takes many different shapes. For neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, it is: “an attempt to give meaning to the world around you. It’s what we strive to do, to try to join up the dots in a way that they haven’t been joined up before. It is internally driven, not externally triggered.”
Unusually, Susan came to her speciality through a background in the classics rather than science, so she is perhaps living proof of where curiosity can take you. She was speaking at a recent event at The Royal Society on “The Science and Significance of Human Curiosity”, as one of four panellists covering a range of disciplines and, you might say, curiosities. Alongside her were Ian Leslie, a writer and brand specialist with the kind of magpie curiosity which entails knowing something about everything; Anthony Richards, a science educator and museum curator whose job it is to stimulate curiosity in others; and Patrick Sherwen, a corporate investigator whose curiosity – the drive to look behind closed doors and uncover secrets – might be described as being of the kind that killed the cat.
Curiosity + competence = strong leadership
The poor cat aside, I think all would agree that curiosity is healthy. The more curious you are, the more you think about things outside your comfort zone. The more you do that, the more you’re going to extend the connections between your brain cells. As Susan explained: “When you’re born, you’re born with a pretty fair complement of brain cells. But it’s the growth of the connections between the brain cells that counts. Even if you’re an identical twin, you’re going to have a unique configuration of brain cell connections. These are forged and updated and crafted and curated during every moment you’re alive in the outside world. The connections between neurons are rather like a muscle that is strengthened or weakened according to how much they’re used.”
Not surprisingly, then, curiosity is a prized commodity. Interviewing 70 CEOs for his book The Corner Office, Adam Bryant asked: “What qualities do you see most often in those who succeed?” The top answer by a distance was ‘passionate curiosity’. It is what Buddhists call the ‘beginner’s mind’, the state when we’re most receptive to new ideas, most determined to find out how things work, and most likely to ask awkward but necessary questions – such as: ‘Why is the sky blue?’ Recruiter Egon Zehnder confirmed in a piece for the Harvard Business Review that curiosity was the key indicator of strength in all leadership requirements (on the proviso that it is combined with competence).
So how do we become curious?
Curiosity has become an increasingly thorny issue in the age of the internet, where we no longer need to ‘know’ anything – so long as we can access the internet and spell the relevant words well enough for Google to make sense of our meaning.
As Ian said: “The internet is the best thing that’s ever happened to curiosity, and the worst thing – at the same time. It’s a tremendous opportunity for you to exercise your curiosity, and it’s levelled the playing field of access to information and knowledge. At the same time, it’s made it much easier to be incurious, because you can just do things that are incredibly entertaining but that aren’t going to build your mental database.
“The most popular answer to a question on Reddit about what you’d say to a time traveller from the past to make them blow their mind was: ‘I will tell them that there is a device in my pocket through which I can access the entirety of information known to man. And I use it to get into arguments with strangers and look at pictures of cats.’”
Absorbing information vs building knowledge
This conundrum is what Anthony, citing Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, describes as the difference between the two types of curiosity: “There’s diversity of curiosity, and there’s epistemic curiosity. Diversity curiosity is the hunger for new information – ‘ooh, shiny thing I want to find out’. Epistemic curiosity is about building knowledge. The internet is a great machine for generating impulsive diversity curiosity. It also has potential for building up your epistemic curiosity. It’s really up to you. But epistemic curiosity requires focus, and that’s a conscious effort.”
It also requires a good environment. One that encourages questioning and provides stimuli to explore. Susan cited a lab experiment in which two groups of rats, both with the same gene disorder, were placed in two separate environments – one enriched, with ladders and tunnels to explore, the other not. In time, the symptoms of the first group were markedly reduced compared with the second, because the stimulating environment encouraged brain activity.
Storytellers are good at provoking curiosity – that could be anything from an Agatha Christie novel to a good newspaper headline to successful brands such as Nike. A good storyteller is, in Anthony’s words: “essentially opening and closing curiosity gaps all the time”.
What is certain, though, is that we are all going to need curiosity in the workplace of the future. Think about computers and what they do – they’re super-efficient, ultra-fast problem solvers. But, as Ian pointed out: “No computer, as yet, can be said to be curious. It’s one of the few things we have over them.”
In a world where humans can’t compete with machines when it comes to finding the answers, perhaps the trick is to get better at asking questions.
About the author
Jason Cobbold is chief executive of UK advertising agency BMB. He was previously managing director at US-based innovation agency Redscout.