Work skills for the future: Curiosity

The passionately curious Einstein

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.
 |  Albert Einstein

Curiosity is the most superficial of all the affections; it changes its objects perpetually; it has an appetite which is sharp, but very easily satisfied; and it has always an appearance of giddiness, restlessness and anxiety.
 --- Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

Curiosity is one of those traits that may seem antithetical to work, and our educational system goes to great length to 'suppress our natural tendency to be curious', as Jamie Notter said. It is the itch that drives us to learn about the unknown, and that has both a potential to be beneficial or dangerous.

Curiosity can be repositioned as the desire to learn, to be open to the pursuit of digging into the unknown. In a world where the rate of change is accelerating, we need to accelerate our rate of learning, and so we need to become more curious all the time.

Curiosity occurs in the absence of extrinsic rewards, and people vary greatly in their degree of curiosity, or their responses to events and contexts that spur curiosity.

But we shouldn't try to emulate the undirected, aimless curiosity of a three-year-old wandering in the woods, turning over every stone. We need a more systematic curiosity, of the sort that designers and artists apply, where hypotheses are shared and discussed, experiments are conducted, and results noted.

Curiosity occurs in the absence of extrinsic rewards, and people vary greatly in their degree of curiosity, or their responses to events and contexts that spur curiosity. It's built into our brains, where we are rewarded for being curious with dopamine, the Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters.

I believe that the most creative people are insatiably curious. They ask endless questions, they experiment and note the results of their experiments, both subjectively and interpersonally. They keep notes of ideas, sketches, and quotes. They take pictures of objects that catch their eye. They correspond with other curious people, and exchange thoughts and arguments. They want to know what works and why.

Research suggests that curious people are like to live longer and are less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease, are more likely to find meaning and purpose in life, have more satisfying social relationships, and demonstrate greater happiness and well-being. Curiosity in the young is correlated with high intelligence later in life. The curious are more likely to leave the familiar and take risks, a tendency of great importance in today's rapidly shifting world.

Todd Kashdan, Paul Rose, and Frank Fincham developed a model of curiosity and determined that three factors correlate with curiosity, which read like guidelines for a company to create more curious staff:

  • Autonomy --- Curiosity increases in the context of encouragement, information, and choice. Threats, punishment, surveillance, and negative feedback all decrease curiosity.

  • Competence --- Curiosity is enhanced when events lead people to believe they can interact effectively with the environment, or when events give them the desire to do so. Sincere praise also affects curiosity positively.

  • Relatedness --- Feeling connected to others and believing your emotional experiences are acknowledged increases curiosity in work, athletic, and academic environments. Feeling safe and comfortable also has a positive impact.

We should all strive to base our workplaces and work relationships on these characteristics, to bring out the greatest levels of curiosity in ourselves and colleagues. That creates a context for other critical skills, most obviously, constant learning, another skill for the future I will explore in a later post.