How to Create a Curious State

Agility is being viewed as a critical skill for 21st Century Leaders. One of the components that helps create an agile mind and attitude is curiosity. But how exactly does one go about creating a curious state? Here are three useful mantras which might enable your journey of discovery – one, be fascinated by your own ignorance; two, answers don’t change the world, questions do; and three, go slow to go fast. Be fascinated by your own ignorance

Nobel Prize winner Ernest Rutherford supposedly said, “I am fascinated by my own ignorance”, and he is believed to have had a practice with his team where they had to report back daily on what they had observed that they were previously ignorant of.

This activity of noticing what it is we do not know is driven to a great degree by curiosity. Albert Einstein himself is said to have remarked, “I have no particular talents, I am just passionately curious”.

Fascination with what we don’t know, however, is to many executives a daunting and frightening proposition.

The demands of business today are such that decisions need to be made quickly – there is no time to explore all possible courses of action, and people therefore end up doing the same things again and again, limiting the possibilities for innovation and change. The executives in charge of making hasty decisions of course prefer to feel secure in their own frames of reference, rather than stimulated by new ones, as this makes quick decision-making much simpler.

But as Dawna Markova points out, “the first thing we need for innovation is fascination with wonder [curiosity in its particularity], we are taught instead to decide… to decide is to kill off all possibilities but one. A good innovational thinker is always exploring the many other possibilities”.

So curiosity can lead to innovation. Great.

A lack of curiosity, on the other hand, according to author of the 2009 book Curious? Todd Kashdan, is a breeding ground for stereotyping and discrimination, inflated confidence and ignorance that can actually lead to poor decision making, dogmatism and rigidity of thought.

Becoming stuck in one paradigm, only seeing the world through a single lens and ignoring multiple perspectives puts a severe limitation on our ability to innovate.

Closing the door on creativity and diversity in the name of speed also poses a threat to businesses constantly on the look out for the next competitive advantage in the 21st Century. If you aren’t being curious, you can be sure that somewhere out there someone else is at your expense.

Answers don’t change the world, questions do

The world we now operate in is now so full of uncertainty and change that it is impossible for anyone in business to hold all the answers. And even if you have the right answer today, it might not be the right one tomorrow.

There is such a wealth of information now available that answers of all kinds exist in abundance. Today’s more valuable skill, therefore, is the ability to steer a way through this information-laden universe by asking insightful questions.

Take Google as a simple example. Using different keywords or phrases to search for the same thing can bring up vastly different search results. What you ask for is directly related to the quality of information and the answers that you get back.

So, it is the ability to ask the right questions that is emerging as a key leadership competency in the 21st Century and recruiters are increasingly listing it as a capability they value.

Go slow to go fast

Easier said than done, one might be inclined to think.

However, slowing down is probably one of the most important things we need to re-train ourselves to do if we are to cultivate a more curious state of being. The frenetic pace of life today doesn’t seem to allow for it, but going slow essentially means having time to think.

According to a recent article by Carl Honore titled, “In Praise of Slow Thinking” published in the Huffington Post, “the greatest thinkers in history certainly knew the value of shifting into a lower gear. Milan Kundera talked about ‘the wisdom of slowness’. Albert Einstein spent hours just staring into space in his office at Princeton University. Charles Darwin described himself as a ‘slow thinker’.”

All these great minds recognised the importance of having time to think, to mull things over, to consider all options. If they didn’t, we might never have had the opportunity to enjoy the results of their world-changing work.

Leaders and executives, therefore, need to integrate a space for thinking into their daily working lives in order to realise the benefits of a truly curious state of mind. Without slowing down, they will continually fail to innovate.

So what now?

Reflecting on the way of being in the world that many of us now unconsciously and automatically inhabit reveals that, worryingly, we are slipping into a robotic way of living and working where the emphasis is on keeping up, rather than setting the pace.There is no time to plan, no time to reflect, only time to do – and this is manifesting itself in something akin to a “flight or fight” response to life’s demands.

In the process we are missing so much, including the discovery of our own true potential and possibilities for innovation.

Rather, let’s slow down a bit and get really curious – we may find ourselves joining the realms of great thinkers and innovators who certainly knew how to do so.


This is an abridged version of the blogpost by Elaine Rumboll for Thought Leader