Spend any time with a toddler and you will be immersed in natural curiosity. A study observing toddlers with their caregivers showed that children, on average, ask more than one hundred questions per minute. But as they grow and encounter traditional schools, social pressures and other societal constraints, most children lose the freedom to be themselves and the feeling of security needed to be genuinely curious.
Unfortunately, many schools in the United States contribute to dulling our natural sense of wonder. Students sit in neat rows of desks, line up against the wall, raise their hands for permission to speak, and learn to think the thoughts that textbooks and teachers prescribe.
Albert Einstein said, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education,” but fortunately it does. Curiosity allows us to seize opportunities, build relationships, understand the world, and succeed in our careers.
Inquiry helps us understand the world and create opportunities
Stacy Chen, a tech lawyer practicing in Silicon Valley for the past ten years, learned to appreciate the value of curiosity early in life. As a child, Stacy liked arguing; she would probe any issue and question any situation. And since she was exposed to lots of different perspectives growing up, she had plenty of opportunities to apply her curiosity. Stacy made it to high school with her inquisitiveness and sense of wonder intact, and when she got a job as a camp counselor, these traits enabled her to make friends with other counselors who had very different backgrounds from hers. Her willingness to ask probing questions and her genuine interest in who people are allowed Stacy to make authentic connections with her fellow counselors and appreciate the different lenses through which people view the world.
Clearly, Stacy was raised to be an independent thinker and has always been confident expressing herself, but she understands that not every situation calls for her to contribute an opinion. Sometimes, she points out, it's important to hold back so you can watch and learn, especially when you're just starting out. Stacy recalls several times early in her career when she wanted to seize opportunities to develop her skills as an attorney, but after assessing the situation, she would determine that it wasn't the right time to be asserting herself. It would have created friction or upset office politics if Stacy insisted on being given an opportunity. In one instance, though, she decided it was worth the risk of facing a little resistance. She decided to speak up.
In this situation, Stacy had worked on all of the briefings for a particular case and really knew the issues inside and out. She was eager to argue a case in court and felt very strongly that this was her chance—that she deserved this opportunity. However, she had to broach the subject with a senior attorney who felt he should be the one to argue the case. Although he was not pleased at first with her request, Stacy leaned on her mentors and advocates for support and finally persuaded him to give her a shot. She excelled at argument and gained his confidence. The next time a case went to court, she got to argue it without needing to fight for the opportunity. Stacy was confident in the belief that she needed to make her own opportunities in order to develop professionally and not be a cog in the corporate wheel for the rest of her career. But determining the right balance—observing the context of each situation and deciding when to speak up and when to stay quiet—was still an important part of that process.
Often observing and questioning yourself is more important than asserting an opinion or plying others with questions. To stay at the top of her game, Stacy continually asks herself, “Am I good enough?” She's not asking out of insecurity but so that she never starts to rest on her laurels. Questions like "How can I contribute?", "Have I done my best?", and "What do I need to learn next?" not only help Stacy maintain high standards, but also give her a fresh perspective on the world and her place in it. Getting curious in this way, you learn more about your business and your customers and are better prepared to move forward with meaningful solutions.
Does asking questions make you uncomfortable?
There are few industries where curiosity is more important than journalism. Being a successful journalist requires relentless inquiry. You have to ask enough questions to capture every detail of a story and let your curiosity guide you in finding the best angle for presenting that story. Kate Sullivan, an Emmy award-winning journalist in Chicago, says the best advice she received at the start of her career was never to shy away from asking a question.
This can be challenging because most of us don't want to show our vulnerabilities and risk looking stupid by admitting what we don't know. But Kate says, “Go ahead, look stupid, especially when your job is to gather facts. Look stupid to the 20 people in the room, to the senior persons in the room. When you are on television that night and you have it right, you won't look stupid.” Her advice applies even for those of us who don't have to go on camera ready to speak with authority every evening.
The fact is, no one can know everything, so there's no shame in asking a good question. Actually, the willingness to ask a lot of questions is often the mark of a really intelligent person. It shows that you want to clarify your understanding. “Some of the smartest people that I've interviewed have been people who have asked a lot of questions,” adds Kate.
Staying curious is essential in today's business environment with constant technical advancements and ever-evolving start-ups. Curiosity is the ultimate driver of creativity and expansion. Here are some tips for cultivating your own curiosity:
1. Be interested in learning the stories and viewpoints of colleagues and customers. The better you understand someone’s needs, the more easily you can meet them.
2. Be courageous and open to experiencing new things. Learn something new that challenges your mind. This may lead to your next role.
3. Ask questions! Channel that sense of wonder and enthusiasm you had as a child as you move through the world as an adult.
The author Robertson Davies said, “Although there may be nothing new under the sun, what is old is new to us and so rich and astonishing that we never tire of it. If we do tire of it, if we lose our curiosity, we have lost something of infinite value, because to a high degree it is curiosity that gives meaning and savor to life.” Those who are curious and open to seeing things from multiple perspectives—the people who savor life—will effect change faster than those who follow a traditional path. Creating an environment where people feel confident enough to offer their unique point of view while exploring the views of others, builds better relationships, enhances productivity, and produces opportunity where none existed before.