Despite the cultural barriers that urge you to suppress it, curiosity may be one of the most important competencies that you will need to thrive in the Digital Age.
By Charles Araujo
Curiosity is a powerful emotion. Being curious about something can lead us to do, and achieve, all types of things. The fact that you’re reading this article is proof in itself. The irony of the title piqued your curiosity, causing you to read it. And yet our modern society and certainly our modern corporate environments have vilified curiosity. "Curiosity killed the cat" is a phrase that we learn at a very young age and it serves to reinforce to us that curiosity is bad and can lead to undesirable things happening to us.
In corporate environments, curiosity, in the form of questioning how things are done, is rarely rewarded. Instead, it seems that people who exude confidence, assuredness and a willingness to "tow the company line" are recognized and promoted. There is a good, historical reason for this. As the dawn of the Industrial Age approached, the industrial barons realized that they needed a workforce who performed consistently and diligently—and without question. The Industrial Age was borne on the back of repetition, conformity and efficiency. Having people question everything each step of the way was the exact opposite of what they wanted. So Industrial Age workers were taught to follow orders from the top down and that being curious was not a good quality.
Even in the management ranks, this attitude was pervasive. The most prized result was the ability to get the most work out of your staff. Managers were rewarded for being strong, stoic and steadfast in their resolve. The problem is that times have changed, but most management practices have not. We are in the midst of a transition from the Industrial Age to the Digital Age and what we need now—namely, digital leaders—may be the exact opposite of what we have.
A Balance Between Confidence and Curiosity
David M. Kelley, legendary founder of the breakthrough design firm IDEO and of Stanford’s design school (known as d.school) lives between two worlds. On the one hand, Kelley is among the planet’s most creative thinkers and has trained thousands of the best designers in the world. At the same time, he runs a large company and must be able to manage that organization effectively. When asked by Fast Company about how he interviews candidates to determine if they would be a good fit for IDEO, Kelley talked about the need for a balance between confidence and curiosity.
"I'm looking for somebody who has a positive attitude and is confident enough to express their ideas," he said. "They're confident enough to disagree with me, confident enough to say what they think and paint a picture of the future as they see it. But at the same time, they're questioning whether there is some better solution and whether they're right or not. It's this balance between confidence and questioning. This represents a kind of curiosity, an open, child-like mind of being enthusiastic enough to talk about their ideas—and questioning them enough to build on that idea rather than think it's all done.”
This type of balance between confidence and curiosity is difficult to find in most organizations today. However, it is exactly what we will need from our leaders as we enter the Digital Age.
Curiosity and the Renaissance Man
This is the fourth article in a six-part series titled “What It Means to be a Digital Renaissance Man” in which I explore the traits that I believe will be required of a modern digital leader. I believe that curiosity may be one of the most important characteristics. The great men of the Renaissance were driven by their curiosity. It was insatiable. They questioned everything. I believe this is an innate human quality. We are naturally curious. But we are taught to set that curiosity aside in the workplace and to follow the rules instead. And the price to pay for not following the rules has often been swift and painful.
However, as we enter the Digital Age, the rules are being flipped upside down and the very things that were once safe and secure are now dangerous and risky. Which is why you need to understand the three reasons that you’re probably not professionally curious today—and why you overcome each of them. The reasons are: