Chimpanzees do it. Birds do it. Rubberneckers do it.
“Everybody is curious,” declares Dr. Henry Weisinger, author of the best-seller Nobody’s Perfect. “It’s an instinct that is hard-wired. To explore or investigate our environment is life-enhancing. Organizations that are interested in what their people are doing, are more resonant. On an individual and organizational basis, people need to ask themselves, when was the last time they did something to spark their interest?”
Think of this in personal terms. “If the parents are not interested in what their kids are doing, it’s hard for children to be curious—the parents effectively squash the curiosity instinct.” The same holds true in organizations.
Entrepreneurial curiosity first requires the desire to be curious. Sure, we are hardwired to be inquisitive. But in the bric-a-brac of daily life, we turn off our curiosity, often replacing it with the short-term, the obvious, the bone-numbingly mundane.
We have to alpha up, says Weisinger. We have to stimulate our curiousness. If companies (and the people that work in them) are not sufficiently curious, they need to be aroused. “Arousal is nature’s Gatorade,” describes Weisinger. “If you look at a situation as exciting, you have changes in your brain.”
People (and companies) with zero energy become wasted. The fleet example is older persons who retire to the storage lockers labeled as retirement homes. Staring backward leads to fewer fresh experiences, looking forward is one of those phrases that expresses its own delight.
Curiosity leads us to discover new geographies, both physical and intellectual. It is what Einstein called “holy curiosity”, what author Michael Ondaatje describes as, “the comfort of being curious and alone.”
Every enterprise has its own baggage, there is no nirvana. But incentives for innovation abound in a swathe of areas: product design and manufacture, distribution, retailing, marketing, finance, systems, wholesaling, affinity, marketing communications, technology, (have we missed anything?).
It is a time for agility. It is a time to pivot. It is a time to be curious. For many companies, it can be the difference between boom or doom.
As people and companies default to their less curious comfort zone, one way to stimulate people is to make them uncomfortable. Scramble the desks, force them to regroup and continually rewire their brains to know more. Encourage lateral or associative thinking by rubbing together different groups, cultures, skill sets, and department silos.
If one is to encourage the iterative cascade of innovation, creating pipelines to the curious mind is one of the greatest accomplishments enterprise can undertake. These pipelines allow for all sorts of innovative development and exchange. Senior director of global innovation Michael Perman leads Mindspark, an internal group inside GAP.
“Everything comes from two questions,” says Perman. “‘Why’ and ‘How’? Why are we doing what we’re doing, and how can we make that experience better? Curiosity is about learning. We want to put people in situations where they can learn more. Learning is derived from experiments, which is one of the most important things. You try a rough prototype, and experiment. When you bring things to market you experiment. You adapt, you switch things out. The way to keep learning is to continue to ask why and how.”
Perman turns the results of group inquiry into three buckets. “We diverge along the spectrum of thinking, to generate springboards. From about 800 initial ideas, we then select according to criteria: New, Unique, and Not Feasible. We select along Not Feasible. If we could move those ideas from fuzzy to fruition, that would be a remarkable thing.”
Mysteries are what drive us. But this was not always so. In fact, avoiding curiosity is a weighty part of the Western tradition. Seeking knowledge—simply for the sake of knowing—was frowned upon, and criticized by St. Augustine and others. Being curious inferred discontent with established hierarchy and doctrine. (Remember how Galileo Galilei’s curiosity led him to the discovery that the Earth revolved around the sun. Galileo was nearly burned at the stake for that revolutionary idea.)
It was not until the 14th century that Petrarch started hiking through the Italian Alps, just to see what was there. In the 17th century, philosophes like Robert Boyles and Thomas Hobbes began making lists of curious things. Plants, insects, planets, words. They were troublemakers whose gifts of curiosity were breakthrough, nearly heretical.
This same attitude holds today in corporations where, wrapped in the cloak of success, management can be drunk from their birth blood with shrill cries of “this is what has made us successful”, “this is how we do things”, and other anthems as old and vital as the pterosaur.
Being curious could get you burned at the stake in the Dark Ages. Today, it might get you fired.
“In many corporations, curiosity and inquisitiveness are punished,” explains Henry Doss, chief strategy officer and executive in residence at T2VC, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm. “Corporations are a classicist measure of outcomes in a predictive, forecast model, with people doing manageable, empirical tasks,” says Doss.
“Why would you be looking for new ways of doing things, when everything is already functioning and working properly inside the system?” he asks. “The paradigmatic structure does not encourage curiosity. This does not mean there are not rule breakers and iconoclasts everywhere, because there are.”
Doss suggests that innovation is more like a rain forest, than a plantation. “In the rain forest, you have this robust quantum explosion of new things,” he says. “Not a predictive, controlled output.”
Craig Dykers is a partner at the internationally renowned architectural firm Snohetta. The firm is currently redesigning Times Square in Manhattan. “We have to ask ourselves what our motivations are—why bother being curious?” says Dykers. Is it to make something more real to you, to open up an area despite the results? People tend to be curious about things they’re comfortable with. It’s harder to be curious about things that are outside of what we agree with. It’s hard to allow curiosity to step over to the other side. It’s easy to be curious about an abstract period of time, like the Renaissance or some future. It’s much less interesting to be curious about the present. The power of curiosity is to make the mundane character of the present more interesting.”
John S. Johnson co-founded BuzzFeed.com, one of the fastest-growing viral media and web trending sites today. He has written, produced, and directed two feature films. He is the founder and executive director of the Harmony Institute, was a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute, and is currently a student in the master’s degree program in Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences at Columbia University.
Johnson is a curious fellow.
“Curiosity is finding dysfunctions,” says Johnson. “When I see dysfunction, it really makes me curious. That has created the narrative arc of my career. So, after filmmaking (the writing directing part), what I experienced was that there was no real great geographic location for independent filmmakers. There was really only the Shooting Gallery and Tribeca Film Center, which was too expensive. So I founded the Filmmaker’s Collaborative on Greene Street.
Johnson also embraces ambiguity. “There is so much to be gained from a little bit of rigor in terms of qualitative analysis. There is such incredible resistance in the old guard, and incredible curiosity and willingness among the new guard.”
In an era of short attention spans, curiosity can also be your downfall. “People who are less curious help you stay focused and execute. If you’re a very curious person, you are constantly in danger of being seduced. That’s the danger,” says Johnson.
More recently, Johnson founded a hotel in Costa Rica. “My wife and I are both surfers and we fell in love with the town. We started to get worried about the kind of development that was happening, and decided we should invest in key pieces of property that will help drive the direction of development in this town. So, we bought a hotel.
“But once we walked through the place, we thought this could be really cool. Then we became curious and we thought, how are hotels generally run—and how do hotels let us down? We thought, how could we make the perfect hotel for us?” Johnson and his wife riffled through their experiences at other hotels to gift their own with best possible services and décor that suited their taste and style.
“Today, our return guest rate is three times the [other local hotel’s] highest rate,” says Johnson. “It’s been one of our most satisfying projects. It’s been fun!”
Charles Ojei is a native of Lagos, Nigeria. He is also a student at Hult International Business School in San Francisco. Ojei is not your typical student. He has already worked at Procter & Gamble, Dupont, and GE. Ojei is part of a team of students who recently went up against students from Cal Berkeley, John Hopkins, NYU, and MIT. And won.
“Curiosity leads to openness,” says Ojei. “If we stay open-minded and ask, ‘Why is this like this?’, it makes you go deeper. And the more you go deeper, the more insights you have and the more solutions you can actually create. Curiosity leads to open-ness and that leads to better innovation.”
Curiosity allows you to sidestep the overlords of expectant consistency and walk into a world where inspiration is all around you. You can reapply something that is working in one aspect and cross-pollinate that into another area. This is something that Ojei and his fellow students don’t want to leave on the table. “We don’t want it to just end in class, we want to see how we can apply this kind of process and put these skills to solve problems back in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.”
Michael Spoodis is a creative consultant with Disney and Target, and a self-described rabid consumer of the culture—a devoted cinephile, a faithful arts patron, a reader of multiple daily newspapers, an architecture and design geek, a travel junkie, a foodie, etc. In other words, an actively positive curiosity seeker desirous of having memorable and vivid life experiences.
“It’s the fuel,” declares Spoodis. “If you aren’t curious you’re not going to come up with anything fresh. It’s the whole culture, not just one place. You never know where the inspiration is going to come from. It’s the cross pollination and connecting to different things. It’s walking in other worlds. It’s wanting to see the outside world.
“I’ve always had a thirst for new information. I read National Geographic magazine as a kid, and always pestered my parents to travel. I’m a real student of people. We’re all on this planet and we think we know what this planet is about, but then you wake up in Sri Lanka and suddenly see something totally different. Eskimos have all these different words for snow. Hawaiians have 100 different words for rain. It’s inspiring to see how man sees his place in the universe. Curiosity enables me to frame or see the world from multiple vantage points, which enables me to think differently, and remain innovative in the way I brainstorm a brand name or compose a lyric or tell a story.”
Embedded in the connective tissue between data points is that rogue, breakthrough, boom boom idea that could change everything.
And now for the science.
“An idea is simply a specific constellation of neurons firing in sync with each other for the first time,” writes Erez Reuveni from the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society. “Such firing requires both that the neural network contain sufficient information from which an idea can arise and that each individual node in the network be connected to a minimal number of other nodes. The network’s ability to produce a creative thought is entirely a function of the scope of these neural networks and the diversity of information housed in each individual node. The more neurons actually containing some bit of information, the richer the network; and the richer the network, the greater the network’s ability to produce a creative thought when the brain’s neurons fire.”
So, it’s good to be curious, because being curious opens portals of new information. The more information, the better your chances for sparking new ideas. Good job, brain.
Along the Pacific coastline of the Mexican state of Guerrero lays a mangrove swamp that is pretty much the same as it was when Sir Francis Drake’s sails snapped in the wind along this tropical shoreline around 1579. At first glance, the muggy interior reveals a tangle of branches, a sewer of murky brown water and, despite being just fifty yards from rolling blue surf, preternatural quiet.
The superficial observer sees only “jungle”: an impenetrable mess of vegetation and water, and moves on. But the curious observer remains, standing motionless in the present.
Because our brains are hardwired to discern patterns, they are also booted to pick out breaks in the pattern. Curiousness spots the odd and the uncommon, the breaks in normalcy. This is referenced nowhere better than by Lewis B. Carroll’s heroine in “Alice In Wonderland”, as Alice wonders at events becoming “curiouser and curiouser”.
Back to the mangroves. In time, inquisitive eyes adjust and see movement. Gradually, an entirely new world emerges from the clutter of jungle leaves, branches, mottled shades of light and dark. Not ten yards away, a night heron sits on a branch. In fact, at least a half dozen more of the blue and green-feathered birds are perched among the branches. A snowy egret fans its feathers in a preening ballet move. A black iguana pokes its head out of a knothole, staring back at you. Forty degrees to the right and above, a tremendous four-foot long iguana about lays along a branch, its underside brilliant lime green. Topside, the iguana is leathered in a camouflage designer’s palette of gray, green, chocolate browns, tan. Gorgeous. An orange monarch butterfly wafts between branches. Cutter ants, nature’s spindly black robotics, march single file down a tree branch at shoulder height, hoisting scalloped bits of green leaves. A termite mound the size of a shopping cart hangs amid a section of tree branches. A red clay-colored hermit crab slowly emerges from black water and totters up a tree trunk. And then. At your feet, at an alarmingly unsafe distance, a crocodile has been floating unseen, suspended in the black mirror water, two eyeballs screwed on you like twin periscopes. Death in a blink.
Biologists would call this stretch of beach in Guerrero an “ecotone”, an area where plant cultures meet. High mountain pine meets alpine meadow. Wooded highland meets mangrove swamp. In real terms, these are kill zones where hunters find and kill their prey. Think of store departments and malls as being ecotones, and the end cap display takes on new meaning.
Step into a store. This moment has been called many things, but for some it is the “inhale”. We stand at the entrance and breathe in the sights, sounds, scent, even how it tastes. Our brain outlines patterns and either signals a series of exclamation points, or flatlines with underwhelming disappointment. We sense immediately if we should approach or avoid.
Curiosity has it’s own kinetic energy. It moves people along paths of improvement, with new perspectives and new ways of seeing. This in turn can result in increased receptivity, presence, creativity, and the stimulus that results in innovative new ideas.
At a recent breakfast roundtable, gifted New York City restauranteur Danny Meyer noted how he sees his business through the lens of hospitality. These days anyone can copy anything, claims Meyer. In the competitive restaurant business, this can even include your recipes. So it’s now what you do, it’s how you do it. Meyer emphasizes the desire to do things for people, not to them. That axiom dictates how he manages his Union Square Hospitality Group’s necklace of deliciously hospitable restaurants. It dictates how they hire people, how they train them, and how they treat their guests. (His organization now also has a learning and consulting group called Hospitality Quotient to help create Union Square experiences for entertainment, hospitals, corporations, and others.)
Our gift of curiosity is ancient, innate, and instinctive. Perhaps it started by poking sticks into holes in search of food. (“Look! A hole!”) Curiosity has an electric nature that is nearly otherworldly. Certainly the desire to go spelunking or to stick one’s hand down a dark hole, or to imbibe a chemical concoction just to see its effects (as 17th century alchemists did) in a time before extreme sports and “Swamp People” can be measured by passions of the spirit multiplied by acts of stupidity and tragic outcomes. The curious mind tries new geographies, new foods, new languages, new devices. It pokes at the hole with a stick. Stop—what’s that!?! Where’d you get that? Curiosity has no end point.
Why does curiosity exist? Because to be in the why, is to be in the know.
“We move throughout our lives in a series of patterns. Curiosity breaks those patterns,” counsels architect Craig Dykers. One of the curious things about Dykers is his preoccupation with language. A U.S. citizen, Dykers grew up in Germany and is fluent in German. His partners are Dutch. He is currently teaching himself Chinese writing and speaking. So, although an architect dealing in spatial proportions and crowd clusters, his access point is often from the conceptual perspective of language.
“I was in China and alone,” says Dykers. “I was in a market, and asked a fruit vendor if I could have three oranges. He held up four fingers. I said, no three. Again, he held up four fingers. I repeated, three. Finally, he pointed to the spaces between his fingers. The numbers were defined by the spaces between the fingers. He was giving value to the things we don’t see.”
Curiosity is like an instrument. Some leave theirs in a corner. Others pick it up and start playing. Maybe they play “Stairway To Heaven” or Segovia or The Decemberists. But (at least) they’re playing. A distracting but a curious thought: People shouldn’t be looking at Apple. They should be looking at the companies that didn’t become Apple.
Curiousness can be sparked, piqued, promoted, fed, endorsed, incented, nurtured, piped, pinged, and developed. And it can be killed. Companies (and the people within them) have reasons to be curious about just about anything these days, and so it is in their best interest (personally and professionally) to arouse themselves and keep the curiosity pipes open.
Curiosity and receptivity can become their own reward. As Alex (Sandy) Pentland from MIT Media Lab waves to us from his book Honest Signals, “An informed unconsciousness, especially one supported by the experiences of a network of interested individuals, is the most powerful decision-making tool you have.”
“Corporations that aren’t curious aren’t going to be around long,” sums up Dan Pink.
We are transparent children in an interconnected universe. We are innately thoughtful and curious, we cannot pretend to tweet our days away, our lives are more than a wiki link. We are here to dream dreams, to discover worlds within worlds. This is no time for flabby brains. We crave magnificent, shimmering ideas. Feed your tired minds, your hungry souls, your poor, huddled masses yearning to be free of strip malls, all you can eat buffets, and reality t.v.
Curiosity is our escape pod.
Push the button.
Here we go.