What Curiosity Isn't

Curiosity as a lens for your attentionCuriosity is increasingly being touted as a critical 21st leadership practice for business leaders. Curious leaders are able to better mitigate risk, more willing to be open to the diverse opinions of others, frame and reframe alternative perspectives when it comes to decision making. In short, curious leaders as able to better access their agility - so important for leaders today in a world where attempting to going faster than the rate of change has proven to be a fruitless and ineffectual practice. In the charge to fuel organisations full of curiosity, certain assumptions have been made which I would like to challenge. I would like to delineate three things which are often incorrectly ascribed to the notion of Curiosity. Highlighting their importance will perhaps go some way in revealing why curiosity is an important trait to nurture in adults.

Firstly,

Curiosity is not the same as Wonder Despite the importance of Curiosity as an impactful leadership practice in one's business strategic leadership armoury, many organisations have been wary of bringing curiosity into their company culture. The argument is that curious workers will become even more distracted then they currently are. This is based on the faulty assumption that wonder and curiosity are the same thing.

Embracing wonder is what will send one down a rabbit hole and spiral you into overload. Awe is about the general whilst Curiosity is always about the particular. Curiosity, according to George Loewenstein is what emerges when there is a mental object that exists out in the world that purports a different way of perceiving what your mental models states as the fact of a thing. When your mental model is disrupted, you have one of two choices. You can either suspend disbelief and become curious or you can reject the alternative out of hand and remain with your way of seeing and doing.

An example that I think clearly makes the point is the one which relates to bones in a human. If I were to give you two sets of numbers - 305 and 206 - perhaps the only thing you might find vaguely interesting is the fact that they both equal 8 if you had to do a calculation. But what if I gave you a context - what if I were to say to you that these are the number of bones in a child’s body and an adult's body? Then perhaps your curiosity might be piqued. Your mental model of the world has probably decided that when we are borne we are given a set of bones which remain unchanging over time unless there is an accident or operation. You could choose to dismiss this assertion and continue to operate in the world under your own assumption or you could ask, “Why?”. This questioning is curiosity in its essence. The answer is that bones fuse over time.

Curiosity is a critical lens to help focus our attention on that which we are disrupted by, and that which remains incongruent in terms of our world view. Curiosity is what causes us to challenge the way we see things and genuinely become interested in the opinions and views of others. It also helps us to see other possibilities. It is also a marker to challenge us when we rely, because of pressure of time, on the two or three models we have been taught to solve whatever problem is in front of us.

Curiosity is an Adult trait

According to Steven Dutch, children are tinkerers. It is worth quoting his insight in full: "The commonplace observation that children have short attention spans is direct refutation of the notion that they are creative and curious in any deep sense. The tragedy of our society is not that so many people outgrow their childlike curiosity, but that so few do. The adult equivalent of childlike curiosity is channel surfing and the ten-second sound bite". In order to be curious, one needs to have one's mental models disrupted within a context. Children spend their formative years building those models through repetition and tinkering. It is only once those mental models have been established that they can be disrupted. Far from the popular belief that Curiosity is steadfastly beaten out of us as children,  it is as adults that we stop being curious once we have worldviews that we decide on and find more convenient not to have changed.

Curiosity didn't Kill the Cat

I cannot begin to count the times that people quip at me about cats when I speak about Curiosity. In fact Curiosity didn't kill the cat. The notion of Curiosity emerged etymologically in the 14th century as synonymous with Care. So when it is spoken of that Curiosity killed the cat, what is being referred to is Care, that too much care will smother things, the usage of a cat because it is one of the least interested of the animal kingdom in too much fussing.

To develop Curiosity as a practice, we need to accept responsibility for the fact that it is an adult trait, an appreciating asset that grows over time with use. It is your conscious role in seeking out things that disrupt your worldview through exploring other disciplines and insights that will challenge how you see the world and help you change it.