Thomas Edison once visited Luther Burbank, the famed horticulturist, who invited every guest who visited his home to sign the guest book. Each line in the book had a space for the guest’s name, address and special interests. When Edison signed the book, in the space marked “Interested in,” Edison wrote: “Everything!”
Thomas Edison, who was awarded more than 1,000 patents, was a prime example of curiosity. He said, “The ideas I use are mostly the ideas of other people who don’t develop them themselves.”
That was an understatement. In his lifetime, Edison invented the incandescent light, the phonograph, the hideaway bed, wax paper, underground electrical wires, an electric railway car, the light socket and light switch, a method for making synthetic rubber from goldenrod plants and the motion picture camera. He also founded the first electric company.
Edison refused to let his curiosity be stifled. He was curious about everything.
“Ideas are somewhat like babies,” said the late management guru Peter Drucker. “They are born small, immature and shapeless. They are promise rather than fulfillment. The creative manager asks, ‘What would be needed to make this embryonic, half-baked, foolish idea into something that makes sense that is feasible, that is an opportunity for us?’”
I like that thinking. It validates all my little scraps of paper and two-word dictations, among them my best ideas in infant form. Developing them and watching them grow, seeing where they go from a little seed – and seeing what other bright ideas grow right along with them – that’s what gets my creative juices flowing.
“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity,” according to the late poet and writer Dorothy Parker. That statement is pure genius, in my opinion.
Curiosity is a hunger to explore and a delight in discovery. When we are curious, we approach the world with a child-like habit of poking and prodding and asking questions. We are attracted to new experiences. Rather than pursuing an agenda or a desired set of answers, we follow our questions where they lead.
Socially, curiosity lets us really listen to other people because we want to know who they are. We open ourselves to the morsels of knowledge and experience they can share with us. We relish having discoveries of our own to share.
Curiosity makes us interested in a broad range of information, about the world around us, not only that with direct utility. We learn for the joy of learning.
Are the members of your team curious? More importantly, do you think curiosity is an important attribute for a person to have?
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of “Flow and Creativity,” if people don’t have a strong sense of curiosity, wonder and interest, it’s pretty tough to recognize an interesting problem.
But exactly what are necessary traits to first recognize, and then wrestle with a problem effectively? He advises in his book to always be open to new experiences and have a fluid attention that always processes things from the environment. Without this kind of interest, the author says it’s hard to get to the crux of a problem and then push beyond what is already known to solve it in a creative way.
Managers should strive to evoke curiosity and a passion for knowledge in workers, who will likely respond by becoming immersed in solving the company’s problems creatively.
The best way to empower your employees is to ask questions that spur their curiosity and creativity.
- Challenge the conventional wisdom. Ask questions that move people away from the tried-and-true and help them think more creatively. For example: “What if we give our product away to every 10th caller on Tuesdays?”
- Change the perspective. Pose questions that take a higher view of a problem – that encourage people to think of the long term or the broader implications. “How will this change affect the competition? What will happen to the marketplace as a result?”
- Include the entire organization. Frame questions that address the needs of your organization and the people in it. “If we eliminate unnecessary paperwork, what will happen in the accounting department?”
- Spur excitement. Ask questions that get people excited about possibilities and potential (and not afraid of the price of failure). “Do you see any reason why we shouldn’t put this idea into action right away?”
Curiosity goes far beyond the what-ifs – but that’s the best place to start.
Mackay’s Moral: The only question that doesn’t have an answer is the one that is not asked.