Curiouser and Curiouser!

Curiouser and Curiouser!
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How Curiosity Helps Us Overcomes Fear

“It is impossible for pure curiosity and fear to coexist in any moment.” Tara Mohr.

I was feeling anxious about a business pitch meeting when I came across this passage in Tara Mohr’s great book Playing Big. Mohr continued: “Curiosity energizes us and brings a sense of wonder and playfulness to our work.” I started to wonder what it would be like if I parked my fear and went into the meeting feeling curious instead.

The result was amazing. Instead of feeling a need to promote or sell myself – and entertaining my usual self-doubts – I concentrated on my curiosity about the challenges facing the client. I was quite startled by the result: the client, whom I thought I knew, with whom I had worked previously, opened up and gave me an in-depth and very different picture of the problems facing him and his business. My genuine curiosity about him and his business seemed to unleash a degree of vulnerability and authenticity that I had never seen in this client previously.

Replacing fear with curiosity completely changed the dynamic of the meeting. It was a meeting I thoroughly enjoyed, and I came away energized and full of ideas about possible next steps and I believe the client did too.

I was curious about why replacing fear with curiosity had such a powerful impact. Neuroscience has at least part of the answer – research suggests fear closes down our ability to think, both creatively and rationally. Bruce Perry, an expert in neurodevelopment, told Time magazine that when we feel fear, “problem solving becomes more categorical, concrete and emotional [and] we become more vulnerable to reactive and short-sighted solutions.” So fear is clearly not a help in any meeting when we want to be open and explorative.

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Albert Einstein

On a separate occasion Einstein said: “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence.” Neuroscience is now starting to provide the evidence to support Einstein’s passionate belief in the power of curiosity.

Dr. Matthias Gruber of the University of California, looking at the effect of curiosity on learning, says: “Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it.” Gruber’s conclusion is that curiosity helps us to learn better. I’m curious to see what other proofs of the benefits of being “passionately curious” are unearthed by neuroscience in the future.

“I think, at a child's birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.” Eleanor Roosevelt

I believe we are all given this gift at birth, but sometimes we forget about it, or don’t use it enough.

Here are three ways I think our world would change for the better if we properly valued curiosity:

1. More diversity

We would be more curious about others who are different to us: curious to understand perspectives different to our own. In other words we would embrace diversity!

Diversity in teams leads to smarter decisions, according to Harvard Business Review. Authors David Rock and Heidi Grant of the NeuroLeadership Institute studied the research on diversity in decision-making and concluded: “Working with people who are different from you may challenge your brain to overcome its stale ways of thinking and sharpen its performance.”

With diversity not only do decisions get better – so do financial results. A McKinsey report on 366 public companies with ethnic and racial diversity in management showed they were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry’s average. And a Credit Suisse global analysis of 2400 companies showed that companies with at least one female board member yielded higher return on equity and higher net income growth than those without any women on the board.

2. More creativity

“Around here, however, we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we're curious...and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” Walt Disney

One of my favourite business books is A Beautiful Constraint by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden. This book looks at how companies and organizations including Nike, IKEA, Unilever and the U.S. Navy have used curiosity about how they might work within major constraints as a source of innovation and advantage. “Propelling questions” are the key, according to Morgan and Barden. These are questions that “couple bold ambitions to significant constraints”. One such propelling question was asked of the design team at IKEA. They were asked to “produce a well-designed, durable table that could be made and sold profitably for five euros”. The nature of this question pushed the design team at IKEA to be very curious and look outside the conventional ways of producing a table.

The solution? They found that if they bought doors (not a normal source of table wood) and cut them into four, they made several of the tables and met the budget. Ingenious!

Think of the benefits if this sort of curiosity was brought to addressing not just business challenges but also social challenges like homelessness.

3. Better political debate

“Well, ignorance of course, but mainly polarization” Maya Angelou, asked about the root cause of the problems we have in the world today.

What would happen if instead of heaping disdain, disbelief and at times ridicule on people who have different opinions to us on issues such as Trump, Brexit, immigration, etc, we put our energy into being curious about why people are taking the positions they are? If we did we might learn, as Angelou says, “to see each other and see ourselves in each other and recognize that human beings are more alike than we are unalike.”

“Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.” Samuel Johnson


Acknowledgements: My thanks to Lewis Carroll’s Alice for the title and to Leadership Development Coach Frans Campher who has been encouraging and supporting me as I develop my own curiosity.

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