“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”.
(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.