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How to Lead With Curiosity

All the major breakthroughs and inventions in the history of the world derive from one thing: curiosity. As defined by Mirriam-Webster, curiosity is the desire to know and I would add that it is inherently intrinsic to who we are as a species.

Curiosity is linked to all aspects of human development and it’s what allows us to acquire knowledge and skills so we can support our lives and have an impact on the world around us.

It inspires us to ask questions we want to understand something, create something original, or solve a difficult problem. This is why curiosity has led to so many wonderful breakthroughs because it’s not too far apart from creativity. In fact, it fuels it.

As humans, we have an instinctive desire to seek and explore. It’s a natural, insatiable drive that we should prioritize as much as any other drive because it can lead us to greatness in all aspects of life.

The question I want to work with today is this: if curiosity leads to breakthrough innovations, unbound creativity, and transformative ideas, why aren’t we all tapping into this powerful asset?

The Fear of Saying “I Don’t Know”

Saying “I don’t know” is something most people tend to avoid like the plague. But why is that? What is wrong with admitting that you don’t know everything? Absolutely nothing. Not knowing is a positive. In fact, it opens us up to possibilities.

“I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. I don’t have to know an answer.”

Richard Feynman

What happens when we ignore something? We take steps to seek the information we need and we end up learning a lot more than we originally intended to.

As Chamath Palihapitiya said, “It’s really powerful to be able to say ‘I don’t know’. American culture is this weird thing of know-it-alls. When is learning going to be valuable?”

What We Are Taught About Failure

If you remember what it was like to be a child or if you’ve had the chance to observe a child, then you already know how much curiosity we have in those early years.

Sir Ken Robinson has a great story about this, “A little 6-year-old girl was in a drawing lesson and she was in the back drawing. The teacher was fascinated by it because the little girl could never pay attention so she went over to ask what the girl was drawing. The girl answered, ‘I’m drawing a picture of God’. And the teacher said, ‘But nobody knows what God looks like’, to which the girl said ‘Well, they will in a minute.’

When children don’t know something, they simply take a stab at it because they are not afraid of being wrong. That’s why they are so creative! If you are not prepared for failure, how can you expect to come up with anything original?

By the time we grow up and become adults, we become scared of being wrong, and that’s why there are so many leaders out there who stigmatize mistakes and failure.

This is how people are educated out of their creative potential because we are taught to stick to the left side of our brains, but in doing that, we stop questioning things.

The Work Culture Issue

Work culture often consists of an incentive structure that is set up to stifle and silence curiosity and creativity. However, as Elon Musk has said, “The massive thing that can be done is to make sure that your incentive structure is such that innovation is rewarded and not punished.”

When curiosity is incentivized, innovations occur left and right, so people rise through the ranks and meet their goals a lot faster. As a result, the organization thrives more than ever before.

So, you can see how our curiosity is silenced by external forces since we are children, but that changes today. From this moment on, you are going to turn things around.

Take the stigma and fear out of not knowing and turn it into a positive because that allows you to honor your curiosity by wondering, investigating, exploring, and learning.

What Does This Mean for Your Organization?

When you learn to say “I don’t know” you go from being the carrier of knowledge to being the person who asks interesting questions, and that is a lot more valuable than we’re taught to believe.

One of my favorite things to say in meetings or conversations is “I don’t know, what do you think?” This propels the conversation, leads to collaboration, and it allows you to empower people.

When you stop offering solutions, in the words of Michael Bungay Stanier, “You begin to empower people not by giving them the answer, but by helping them find their own answer. Not by holding onto control, but by giving up some of it and inviting others to sept in and step up.”

By Paul Syng

PSD is a multi-disciplinary design practice based in Toronto. The studio focuses on a problem-solving approach that can take any form or function.