Elaine Rumboll
Elaine Rumboll

Curiosity: A new coping strategy for the modern world?

In a world where things are happening faster, change is the only constant, and the rate of change is itself increasing, it seems only sensible to assess the effects that this fast-paced, communications-enhanced lifestyle might be having on how we live, work and socialise today.

You do not need to look far to see the impacts — many of us will attest to the fact that our own lives have changed quite dramatically from just a decade ago.

But, as we struggle to keep pace with the increasing demands on our time and attention, the question needs to be posed — what are we missing, what opportunities might be passing us by, as we live and work faster?

It is my belief that many golden opportunities for seeing things differently, and for doing things differently, may be getting lost as we increasingly spend more time “keeping up” than “taking stock”. What we really need is to learn to navigate through this changing world more effectively, not quicker, as has been the standard response until now.

This is beginning to be reflected in the growing realisation that the modern business world is perhaps not as conducive to productivity and innovation as we had hoped. Murmurs of the “slow revolution” can be heard with increasing frequency – companies like KPMG are boosting productivity by encouraging employees to spend less time at work. Others have introduced “email-free days” or “cellphone blackouts” in an attempt to limit the many diversions to workers’ attentions while on the job.

In fact, slowing down, and cultivating an authentic sense of curiosity about the world around us, may be the keys to helping us cope more successfully with the demands of modern living.

Research shows, however, that the instinctive response is to try to do more, faster. An international study on urban behaviour conducted by the British Council (2007) suggests urban populations are walking 10% faster than they did in the last decade. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that we are talking 20% faster than we used to.

What a pity then that these efforts do not seem to be buying us more time!

To make matters worse, we are living in an age where the demands on our attention are overwhelming at best. Work, emails, news, advertising, social networking, phone calls, traffic, noise — our attention is constantly being diverted and divided, simply exacerbating the feeling that we are not getting enough done to keep up.

Within such a scenario, curiosity may at first glance seem a somewhat paradoxical antidote to our depleting attention spans. After all, if the demands on our attention are too much to cope with, why would we want to become more curious, which would simply lead to discovering and learning more?

The answer lies in that curiosity is not a simple means to coping with more information, but rather a means to increase the quality of the attention we give it.

After all, attention is a finite resource — it cannot be stored up for future use. And, if we cannot barter in the quantity of this resource then it may be meaningful to engage with what it is that improves the quality of this increasingly scarce and valuable unit of exchange in today’s “attention economy”.

Curiosity emerges as an unexpected response because it focuses our attention by filtering information and helping us to identify linkages between particular pieces of information that may at first appear incongruent. It is not, as some might expect, a fascination with the general state of things. Curiosity is usually aroused by something specific that prompts us to investigate further to find out more; it is stimulated by cognitive uncertainty that leads to increased arousal and exploratory behaviour.

So, in other words, curiosity is a uniquely customised filter for the information we encounter, and a regenerator of our attention or focus in the moment for more effective sense making. It focuses our minds more sharply and it helps us make connections between seemingly random bits of information — thereby enabling us to use our attention more fully and effectively through better quality of engagement.

So, how then does one cultivate a curious state of being?

The answer: by remembering the three mantras of curiosity — one, be fascinated by your own ignorance, two, answers don’t change the world, questions do and three, go slow to go fast.

Be fascinated by your own ignorance

Nobel Prize winner Ernest Rutherford supposedly said, “I am fascinated by my own ignorance”, and he is believed to have had a practice with his team where they had to report back daily on what they had observed that they were previously ignorant of.

This activity of noticing what it is we do not know is driven to a great degree by curiosity. Albert Einstein himself is said to have remarked, “I have no particular talents, I am just passionately curious”.

Fascination with what we don’t know, however, is to many executives a daunting and frightening proposition.

The demands of business today are such that decisions need to be made quickly — there is no time to explore all possible courses of action, and people therefore end up doing the same things again and again, limiting the possibilities for innovation and change. The executives in charge of making hasty decisions of course prefer to feel secure in their own frames of reference, rather than stimulated by new ones, as this makes quick decision-making much simpler.

But as Dawna Markova points out, “the first thing we need for innovation is fascination with wonder (curiosity in its particularity), we are taught instead to decide … to decide is to kill off all possibilities but one. A good innovational thinker is always exploring the many other possibilities”.

So curiosity can lead to innovation. Great.

A lack of curiosity, on the other hand, according to author of the 2009 book Curious? Todd Kashdan, is a breeding ground for stereotyping and discrimination, inflated confidence and ignorance that can actually lead to poor decision-making, dogmatism and rigidity of thought.

Becoming stuck in one paradigm, only seeing the world through a single lens and ignoring multiple perspectives puts a severe limitation on our ability to innovate.

Closing the door on creativity and diversity in the name of speed also poses a threat to businesses constantly on the look-out for the next competitive advantage in the 21st century. If you aren’t being curious, you can be sure that somewhere out there someone else is at your expense.

Answers don’t change the world, questions do

The world we now operate in is now so full of uncertainty and change that it is impossible for anyone in business to hold all the answers. And even if you have the right answer today, it might not be the right one tomorrow.

There is such a wealth of information now available that answers of all kinds exist in abundance. Today’s more valuable skill, therefore, is the ability to steer a way through this information-laden universe by asking insightful questions.

Take Google as a simple example. Using different keywords or phrases to search for the same thing can bring up vastly different search results. What you ask for is directly related to the quality of information and the answers that you get back.

So, it is the ability to ask the right questions that is emerging as a key leadership competency in the 21st century and recruiters are increasingly listing it as a capability they value.

Go slow to go fast

Easier said than done, one might be inclined to think.

However, slowing down is probably one of the most important things we need to re-train ourselves to do if we are to cultivate a more curious state of being. The frenetic pace of life today doesn’t seem to allow for it, but going slow essentially means having time to think.

According to a recent article by Carl Honore titled, “In Praise of Slow Thinking” published in the Huffington Post, “the greatest thinkers in history certainly knew the value of shifting into a lower gear. Milan Kundera talked about ‘the wisdom of slowness’. Albert Einstein spent hours just staring into space in his office at Princeton University. Charles Darwin described himself as a ‘slow thinker’ ”.

All these great minds recognised the importance of having time to think, to mull things over, to consider all options. If they didn’t, we might never have had the opportunity to enjoy the results of their world-changing work.

Leaders and executives, therefore, need to integrate a space for thinking into their daily working lives in order to realise the benefits of a truly curious state of mind. Without slowing down, they will continually fail to innovate.

So what now?

Reflecting on the way of being in the world that many of us now unconsciously and automatically inhabit reveals that, worryingly, we are slipping into a robotic way of living and working where the emphasis is on keeping up, rather than setting the pace.

There is no time to plan, no time to reflect, only time to do — and this is manifesting itself in something akin to a “flight or fight” response to life’s demands. In the process we are missing so much, including the discovery of our own true potential and possibilities for innovation.

Rather, let’s slow down a bit and get really curious — we may find ourselves joining the realms of great thinkers and innovators who certainly knew how to do so.