Why Curiosity Matters

Leadership is about navigating the safest route to success, being willing to explore the unknown and moving forward until the desired destination is reached. Convincing others takes more than turning up with a road map; it requires an understanding of the available facts, an awareness of the diversity of thought and opinions of others, and self-awareness. More than anything, extending your circle of influence begins with curiosity.

One of my favourite children’s books was the Just-So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, especially the story of ‘The Elephant’s Child’. The mental imagery of a young inquisitive elephant who was spanked by all his aunts and uncles for his “‘satiable curiosity” has always remained. Not because I condone corporal punishment for asking questions (which I don’t), but for the idea that curiosity sparks our desire to explore and make better sense of our world.

Living at a time of massive change, developing the thinking skill sets to meet the needs of our increasingly globalised, super connected and complex world starts by harnessing our innate sense of curiosity.

Curiosity boosts memory and learning

Staying curious helps maintain good cognitive health and brain function. Apart from remaining focused and engaged, curiosity drives us to learn and acquire knowledge.

In his book Curious, Ian Leslie explains we are driven by two different types of curiosity. Diversive curiosity as the name suggests is all about novelty and the excitement of wanting to discover “what’s in it for me?”. It’s the type of curiosity that drives us to open up our email box yet again, to continuously check our newsfeed for updates or to quickly rip off the paper off our presents.

This is different from what he terms epistemic curiosity, which is a deeper, more passionate need to know. We pursue this type of curiosity to seek greater understanding, to ask better questions and use our existing knowledge base to solve problems and make better decisions. We seek not just to see what might be in the box but how that discovery can lead to a different or better outcome.

Research by Matthias Gruber and others has revealed how a higher level of curiosity results in better learning and retention of the relevant material. In other words, it primes the brain’s ‘thinking to learn’ skills.

This is because it activates the brain’s reward circuitry and release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the caudate nucleus and hippocampus, both vital to learning and the formation of new memories.

As a kid, I spent countless hours in my Dad’s study poring over his anatomy books, copying the anatomical drawings of different structures; nephrons in the kidney, and the valves of the heart, setting up a life long fascinating for human biology.

Curiosity can be used to overcome a fear of change

Of course, some things we are curious about can turn out to be a bit on the scary side. Exploring a cave might expose you to creatures such as cockroaches, bats or big hairy spiders, which on the first encounter might make us squeal or run away. What makes the difference is choosing to move beyond our fear or disgust to allow the excitement to discovery to translate into curious enthusiasm.

At work, this can help unleash greater adaptability and other talents that otherwise might be overlooked or untapped.

Curiosity begins with asking questions

It’s all about why. As Simon Sinek reminds us in his Ted Talk ‘Start With Why’, asking why taps into the emotional component of our decision-making and is a far more powerful motivator than understanding the what and how.

The why question enables us to seek clarification of the available information. It allows us to challenge our beliefs and cognitive biases that may be clouding our judgement.

Asking why starts to satisfy our need to know and promotes more questions. ‘Knowing’ an answer based on previous experience and knowledge base can be problematic if we are unwilling to consider the uniqueness of any given situation. Which explains why it is only when we delve more deeply into the subject, the more we come to realise there is always so much more to know.

In the digital age where fear, overwhelm and fatigue is diminishing performance, our curiosity allows us to seek better solutions in a way that machines are unable.

Is diversive curiosity stopping you from challenging your world-view and keeping you in the superficial slipstream of thinking?

Are you choosing to use questions to further your epistemic curiosity?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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