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Three Reasons You're Probably Not Curious

By Charles Araujo
Curious cat

Three Reasons You're Probably Not Curious

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:

Three Reasons You're Probably Not Curious

"It’s Not Your Job"
It may be the very first thing you learn when you enter the workforce: just do your job. Asking someone about how or why they do their job the way they do is a guaranteed way to get a dirty look (or worse). While I think that most of us are naturally interested in learning as much as we can about all sorts of jobs when we get started, the constant reminder to mind our own business eventually wears us down. We slowly tire of the constant rebukes and we put our curiosity aside. But as we enter the Digital Age, the idea that we have one simple job will disintegrate. We will be expected to have a breadth of knowledge across a wide swath of jobs and disciplines. There will simply be no other way to survive. You will need to reawaken your curiosity about every other job and function within your organization—and ignore those dirty looks.

"No One Ever Got Fired for Buying IBM"
I often wonder how much money IBM made solely on the value of its brand. I’m not saying IBM wasn’t or isn’t a great company, but the reality is that this oft-repeated phrase was less a reflection on IBM's inherent quality than it was on the risk-adverse nature of corporate cultures. IBM—no matter how good or bad its solution—was always the safe bet. If something went wrong, but it was an IBM product or service, you had some ground to stand on. But if you selected a different company and things went badly, you were doomed. Today, playing it safe may be the greatest risk of all. You will need to be insatiably curious about everything, constantly seeking out unique and innovative solutions that will enable you to leapfrog the competition. And you will need to be confident enough (there’s David Kelley’s balance) to act upon wherever your curiosity leads you. 

"We’ve Been in Business Since…"
The Industrial Age ushered in an extremely long, sustained period of growth and prosperity for a large number of companies. Many of them are in existence today and are still relying on the very legacy that got them this far. They are proud of their history and their longevity. And that business longevity will be trotted out as a reason to stay the present course and keep doing things the way they’ve always been done. There’s no point in being curious in these types of environments in which there is no appetite for anything new or, God forbid, innovative. But whether they know it or not, companies like this have pretty much run their course. The old rules will not apply in the Digital Age—and these companies will need digital leaders that are brave enough to reshape those rules before it’s too late. You will need to reawaken your curiosity to examine everything about how your company operates, particularly those that are the most cherished legacies of your organization’s storied past.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but there’s a very good chance that curiosity will also be the thing that gives birth to a new generation of digital leaders: the Digital Renaissance Men and Women of our time. As strange as it may sound for something so natural and innate in many of us, curiosity may be one of the most important competencies that you need to thrive in the Digital Age. You must let go of the historical cultural barriers that tell you to suppress it. Go ahead, be curious and explore—and be brave enough to follow your curiosity wherever it leads you.

About the Author

Charles Araujo is a recovering consultant and accidental author of the book, The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change. He is an internationally recognized authority on IT Leadership and liberally shares his message of hope about the future of IT and what it means for all of us. He is the founder and CEO of the IT Transformation Institute and serves on the boards of itSMF USA and the Executive Next Practices Institute. You can follow him at @charlesaraujo.

Editor's note: This is the fourth installment of a six-part article series titled "What It Means to be a Digital Renaissance Man." To read the third installment, "An Important Lesson Most IT Leaders Have Forgotten," click here.

This article was originally published on 07-29-2014