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Why Curiosity?

curiouser & curiouser

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

The World Economic Forum – backed by an outpouring of mildly panic stricken white papers from big name organisational consultancies (1) – hails our era as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We are already riding the rising wave of an increasingly complex fusion of technologies – digital, biological, material, social – which will disrupt, revolutionize and transform almost all spheres of human culture and conduct.  Artificial intelligence, blockchain encryption, genomics, 3D printing, driverless vehicles, ‘the internet of things’, nanotechnology, biotechnology, quantum computing, renewable energy systems; any one of these innovations will have a profound impact on technical, social and organisational structures as we currently know them. The combination of all of them emerging simultaneously is, lightly stated, mind-boggling (2).

We’re entering an era of hyper-complex rapid change which will be experienced by most as serial disruption.
How to cope?
How to manage?
How to navigate intelligent pathways through tumult?

Social researchers and organisational experts from the Harvard Business Review (3) to Brene Brown (4) are proclaiming the value of curiosity to successfully navigate the turbulent cultural vicissitudes of the early 21st century.

But, what is curiosity?

Curiosity is the human trait that has enabled a physically feeble species with an exceedingly lengthy and vulnerable infancy to become completely dominant.  It’s the drive that has led to every important invention and exploration that humans have engaged in, from pre-digesting food by cooking it over a fire, to sending a vehicle (called ‘Curiosity’) to Mars. Curiosity is a dynamic of ongoing inquiry, a virtuous cycle of recurring, adaptive questioning. It’s a proactive journey of questioning, rather than a reactive defensive entrenchment.  Curiosity is a call towards something, rather than a flight from something.  Curiosity is not driven by crisis, but by wonder and awe, and it’s a drive that’s inspired people to take extraordinary risks and endure extraordinary hardships. As James Stephens wrote, “Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will, indeed, it has led many people into dangers which mere physical courage would shudder away from…”

I would like to pose that curiosity is the characteristic best adapted to resiliently navigate the kind of emergent complexity and serial disruption that we face as a species existing on an astonishingly unlikely finite living system.  Curiosity is the most useful response to what is known in strategic leadership as VUCA; Volatility/Vulnerability, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.  It’s a key to innovation, productivity, agility, continuous renewal, well-being and fulfillment.  It responds mindfully to crises, it discovers opportunities in obstacles, it enables the release of outmoded habits and patterns and is a core element of basic resilience. But, oddly enough, curiosity is not taught in schools or places of employment, and, in many cases, it’s actively discouraged.

Why would we discourage curiosity, when it’s many benefits are so very obvious?
Is curiosity dangerous?
What, really, is curiosity?
And, if it’s of value, how do we cultivate curiosity?

This post is the first in a series in which I’ll explore these questions.

We’ll go on a journey exploring wonder and respect, conceptual bubbles and perception blinders, disruption and hard transitions, habit creation and dissembly, resistance and innovation, and vulnerability and creativity.  We’ll look at the nature of ‘questioning’, the neurology of curiosity, the relationship of curiosity to ‘mindfulness’, and how habits and preconceptions can suffocate curiosity.  We’ll look at curiosity and learning, and curiosity as a disruptor and a rebel.  We’ll explore vulnerability, experimentation and failure, and curiosity as a navigator.  Finally, we’ll dip our toes into the real question….how do we ourselves, and our organisations, become more curious?

I hope you’ll join me in this curious ongoing investigation and become, in the words of Lewis Carrol’s Alice, “Curiouser and curiouser”.

 

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(1) Age of Disruption. Are Canadian Firms Prepared. Deloitte.

(2) Above and beyond the exponentially increasing speed of technological innovation we are already dealing with the increasing effects of climate change, resultant mass migrations, increasing inequality, and increasing ethnic division demonstrated by the rise of terrorism, nationalism and authoritarianism.

(3) Tomas Chumorro-Premuzic, Curiosity Is as Important as Intelligence. Harvard Business Review.

Warren Berger. Why Curious People are Destined for the C-Suite. Harvard Business Review.

Todd B. Kashdan, Companies Value Curiosity but Stfle It Anyway. Harvard business Review.

(4) “The rumble begins with turning up our curiosity level and becoming aware of the story we’re telling ourselves about our hurt, anger, frustration, or pain.” – Brene Brown

“Failure can become nourishment if we are willing to get curious, show up vulnerable and human, and put rising strong into practice.” – Brene Brown

Curiosity and Vulnerability

Curiosity is a dynamic of ongoing inquiry requiring that you reveal that you don’t know something.  Your seeking to know something reveals the limits of what you know: that’s what real questioning is.

openheartopenmindCuriosity may also require that you reveal that others don’t know something, and we all know folks who are pretty attached to having all the answers.  They may not like the feeling they get when they don’t have the answers; they may feel challenged, and they may react in an unpleasant way.

Curiosity does more than just expose someone’s ignorance about something; it can threaten to expose something that is being hidden.  If this is the case one can expect to encounter resistance, obfuscation, evasion and even aggression.  This ‘something that’s being hidden’ may be something dangerous, something corrupt, around which there’s a wall of shame[1]. Or it may be an injury, a deep wound, an old painful trauma that’s never healed (shame is, itself, a wound). But, it can also be something beautiful: an extraordinary talent, a passion, a deep love, which is too frightening to expose.  There are many reasons that things become hidden.

So curiosity is a state of unknowing, and requires the admission of unknowing: to be curious we need to be humble and vulnerable.  Because it can expose ignorance, corruption and injury curiosity can be perceived of as dangerous, and this makes curiosity vulnerable to reaction and repercussion[2].  But curiosity also creates vulnerability: its nature is to expose, and it creates vulnerability in those whom it disrupts with its questions.  This may not be their choice; they are put in an uncomfortable situation which may feel ungrounded and out of control.

Because curiosity requires and creates vulnerability, it requires bravery and courage[3].  Bravery and courage are the attributes of warriors.  So, to remain steadfastly curious, you need to be a warrior.[4]


[1] “I ran into this thing that absolutely unravelled connection in a way that I didn’t understand and had never seen…it turned out to be shame. And shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?” Brene Brown ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ TED Talk

[2] Maybe the most archetypal of stories of the perils of inquiry is the Paradise story which opens the Old Testament. It’s not hard to interpret the terrible price Adam & Eve pay for succumbing to the temptation to eat of the Tree of Knowledge as the price paid for ‘wanting to know’.  In this light ‘curiosity’ is depicted as the Original Sin precipitating The Fall, leading to the banishment of the first humans from the Garden of Eden. – Genesis 3

[3] “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.” – Rainer Maria Rilke ‘Letters to a Young Poet’

[4] For Chogyam Trungpa ‘warriorship’ was nothing more than demonstrating the persistent courage to leave the safety one’s own perceptual ‘cocoon’. The way of cowardice is to embed ourselves in a cocoon…perpetuate habitual patterns. When we are constantly recreating our basic patterns of behavior and thought, we never have to leap into fresh air or onto fresh ground.” – Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Chogyam Trungpa

Curiosity & Vulnerability Pt 2: When is it safe to be vulnerable?

We held our first Curiosity Lab on ‘Curiosity & Vulnerability’, viewing Brene Brown’s ‘The Power of Vulnerability’, and then launching into a fascinating discussion, with some marvelous attendees.

Brene Brown’s talk, which is truly worth a watch is, at heart, about the life affirming and revivifying benefits of living vulnerably.  She clarifies that this takes courage, and reminds us that the roots of the word ‘courage’ come from the French ‘couer’, meaning ‘heart’.  For her the definition of courage is “to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.”  Which is also what it is to live vulnerably.

What keeps us from living this way is, according to Brown, uncertainty with regard to our own self-worth.  People who have intrinsic self-worth believe that what makes them vulnerable makes them beautiful.  People who lack this sense of self-worth find vulnerability excruciating.  For them vulnerability risks exposure to criticism, bullying, ridicule, loss of status, ostracisation … simply stated, fear and pain. They don’t experience vulnerability as liberation, but as a potential avenue to disconnection and isolation which, as Brown drives home, are the foundations of shame.  Shame is the gatekeeper of our personal prison cells and bunkers. It chokes out our vulnerabilty.  Brene Brown is a bold advocate of vulnerability.

Miriam, one of our bold participants in the Lab, persisted in posing the question,
“When is it safe to be vulnerable?”.
I’ve been following this question for a few months, and don’t anticipate this particular expedition to end anytime soon.  You could say easily enough that ‘it’s never safe to be vulnerable’ because the very nature of vulnerability is uncertainty and risk.  But the results of someone telling the story of who they are will be very different depending on what their story is, and who they’re telling it to.

 

What does the bullying lion in The Wizard of Oz lack?
Courage.  
“Why, you’re nothing but a great big coward”,  says Dorothy
on seeing how terrified he is after she gives him a slap for bullying Toto.
“I haven’t any courage at all”, says the Lion, “I even scare myself.”  
But why is, after all, Lion so afraid. [1]

Cowardly Lion

There are good reasons for getting anxious about vulnerability.  There a cost for telling “the story of who you are with your whole heart.”  Your story may challenge cultural norms, shatter parental expectations, fray peer relationships, or alienate your employer. It may isolate you or, depending on the story, leave you in danger.  Loss of status, loss of work, criticism, ridicule, bullying, ostracisation, alienation, intimidation, violence … these aren’t fictions. These are real, and most of us have seen them or experienced them, and it can teach us to keep our mouths shut, our true natures ‘in the cupboard’, and our souls enclosed.

 Unlike Scarecrow,
Lion does have a brain,
and maybe he’s using it the way that life’s taught him.  

 

I don’t want to be naiive about vulnerability.
We live in a broken world where people are hurt, and hurt people hurt others, and traumatised cultures are traumatising.  The expression ‘pecking order’ – a reference to group hierarchy – comes from how chickens determine who rules: by pecking the weaker ones to bits.  The corporate and political worlds are said to be ‘full of sharks’.  From schoolyards to monasteries, from house league teams to corporate boardrooms, from cop shops to prison cells, from anonymous strangers on public transit to the person with whom you share your bed: we all have hurts, and we all have the capacity to be hurtful and to take advantage of another’s vulnerability for our own gain.  There are some people who are so emotionally and socially damaged that this is almost the only way they are able to be in relationship: by finding and exploiting vulnerability.

So when is it safe to be vulnerable?

 

 More importantly,
Lion is willing to challenge his fears to pursue what he most needs.

 

I heard an amazing episode on Radio Lab the other day.  The story of Stu Rasmussen, a transgender person from a tiny town in conservative evangelical USA who became…. the mayor.

How did that happen?

Stu, who had lived in the town all his life and ran movies and took tickets at the only theatre in town, started by painting his nails blue. Not pink, or red, but blue.  Then, some weeks later, he painted them pink.  Then, piece by piece, he donned articles of women’s clothing.  Each carefully staged gesture of transformation produced a new burst of gossip and the potential for ostracisation.  But Stu was tactical, and new the town extremely well, and furthermore, everyone knew Stu as a trustworthy, helpful, kind person.

 

So the Cowardly Lion, in search of what he most needs
– courage –
and through many trials and tribulations,
makes it to the ruler of his Kingdom, the Wizard of OZ,
where he fully expects to receive what he wishes for.  

We normally think of curiosity as risk-taking, and this is why we’ve associated it with vulnerability.  But it’s worth considering here that Stu Rasmussen must have had a generous measure of curiosity to so successfully strategise his ‘coming out’[2] in a town so culturally antagonistic to his gender choice.

 

 There Lion discovers that the wizard-tyrant ruling over his Kingdom
is a frightened little man with a lot of smoke and mirrors
who has absolutely nothing to give him.

 

 

Stu understood the culture he lived in. He had it well gauged. That level of understanding takes focussed curiosity: an absorbent watchfulness, an openness to information and new understanding, a concerned interest in and care for the people of the community. That curiosity led him to the careful and deliberately patient strategy that would allow him to – eventually, and not without very great trials and real danger – “to tell the story of who he is with his whole heart.”

 

Almost nothing.
The wizard-tyrant has a medallion for bravery,
for setting out with a cast of misfits to find his courage.

And he has the insight and humility
– aka wisdom –
to bring Lion to see that he always had what he sought for.
His search for courage took courage.  

 

 

Curiosity is the opposite of blind faith:
it’s reconnaissant, observant, watchful, interested.
It’s gathering information through careful observation.
Care-full.
It’s questioning the situation you’re in with an open and non-judgemental mind.
Why is curiosity like this? Because, believe it or not, curiosity is rooted in care.
Seriously.
The word curious come from ‘cure’, and from ‘care’.
Curiosity is about caring.

Gabor Mate, in lecturing on addiction, regularly reiterates that the word ‘vulnerability’ comes from the Latin, ‘vulnerare’, meaning ‘to wound’.  For Mate, “To be a human being is to be profoundly vulnerable. And there’s nothing that you can do to make yourself invulnerable.” I agree, you can’t ever be invulnerable. But, by engaging your curiosity, you can be less or more vulnerable in situations that may be perilous, in keeping with your own limitations.
That is, while caring for yourself.


 


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z2itQkiQUOE

[2] Stu has persisted in identifying as a heterosexual male.
https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/tag/stu-rasmussen/