“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” ~ Albert Einstein
The gift that Eleanor Roosevelt said should be endowed on every child.
One of the most permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect, according to Samuel Johnson.
And to Einstein, who described himself as “passionately curious,” a miracle if it survives formal education.
Tweet #140 of our award-winning book, #Thought Leadership Tweet: 140 Prompts for Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign states:
Thought leaders are brave; explore areas others don’t, raise questions others won’t, and provide insights others can’t.
None of which happens without curiosity.
But what does it mean to be curious? What are the most important curiosity factors that reveal when we are using it? And what’s it good for?
What does it mean to be curious?
According to Carnegie Mellon’s George Loewenstein, who has researched curiosity extensively, it is the feeling that occurs when we experience a gap between what we know and what we want to know. Curiosity, then, is an intriguing blend of thought, emotion, and motivation. It’s a way of making sense of things when new information doesn’t seem to fit existing expectations. (For more of a backgrounder, download Professor Loewenstein’s classic paper The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation here.)
Key Curiosity Factors
As a former freelance journalist, academic researcher and all-round inquisitive person, I could see from Loewenstein’s “information gap” theory how I’ve always gone about scratching the “itch” of my own professional and personal curiosity:
First, with a compelling question that I wanted answered.
Second, by knowing a little about the topic but nothing like enough.
Third, by drawing on the knowledge and insights of others to help me close that information gap.
Which is exactly how Egremont Group developed its thought leadership position.
Egremont’s Head Office of the Future
Egremont Group is a UK-based change management consultancy that also wanted to demonstrate its value to clients in the organizational design space. Having already looked at the changes a leading pharmacy would need to make for the World of 2020, the firm turned its attention to what another of their target audiences–human resource (HR) professionals–might not yet have anticipated.
1. The Questions:
Egremont wondered: Are HR professionals adequately prepared for the changes we are likely to see in the next 5-10 years when more millennials enter the workforce, wanting a different experience than their parents; when tele-working potentially replaces the physical commute; or when head offices are expected to manage more crowdsourcing and social media in the workplace? How might these trends change the design and processes of the head office of the future?
2. The Knowledge Gap:
There was plenty of information in cyberspace about each of the issues that Egremont felt were pivotal to this project overall. But no one appeared to have bought them together into some kind of understandable model. It was through taking this next step–bridging the gap between what was known and what more their clients would want to know–that Egremont Group moved beyond mere content curation or content marketing, to thought leadership.
3. The Communication Piece:
One of the smart moves that Egremont made in order to continue closing the information gap and make their thought leadership known to a wider audience, was to partner with the UK’s premier human resources magazine. Together they conducted a jointly branded survey that was sent to the magazine’s existing database of HR professionals, representing Egremont’s target audience. They followed that up with a breakfast briefing and panel discussion that brought in perspectives from a broader range of voices.
Why is it important to curiosity to communicate with others who might think differently to ourselves? As British-Canadian psychologist, Daniel Berlyne (1924-1976) suggested, “Conceptual controversy produces curiosity.” He tested this hypothesis experimentally with fifth and sixth graders. Groups were brought together with the intention of fostering consensus or to stimulate argument and conflict. Interestingly, the children belonging to groups that were encouraged to view the topic as controversial were almost three times as likely to attend an optional film on the topic, shown during recess, as those for whom the goal was to find agreement.
As Egremont points out on their website:
Our people are naturally curious and creative and always on the look out for new ideas and knowledge which will enhance our capability and that of our clients.
This firm never went into the Head Office of the Future project intending to become thought leaders. As Professor Loewenstein reported in The Psychology of Curiosity, ancient philosophers including Aristotle and Cicero have always referred to curiosity as “intrinsically motivated.” What this means is that curious people choose to bridge the information gap because of an innate desire to learn more and to create value. As such, external rewards are a consequence of curiosity, but not the primary driver.
Curiosity’s Link to Innovation
Curiosity is dually important for innovation, in its link to creativity and divergent thinking, and second in its role as an intrinsic motivator to sustain interest in a given area. ~ RSA Social Brain Center Report
One of the biggest killers of curiosity–and from there an inability to be truly innovative–is the assumption that what you believe or know is right. I see it all the time, from marketing folks who think they know what their customers want (without having gone to the trouble of asking them), to authors who are absolutely convinced they have the idea for a book that no-one has ever had (until I ask them to go do a competitive analysis on Amazon and try and prove themselves wrong). In psychological terms, such people are “poorly calibrated.” Meaning they believe their ability (or assessment of a situation, or knowledge about a topic) is greater than it actually is. It’s why we all claim to be “above average,” for example.
In the RSA report mentioned above, they write:
When an expectation about the way the world works is violated, curiosity is piqued.
But that comes with a rider. It depends on the extent of the “violation.” Too little and you just go “eh, whatever.” Too much and the fear response tends to kick in. Resulting in a response of “They don’t know what they’re talking about,” followed by seeking out evidence to support your position. Known also as “confirmation bias.”Curiosity: What's out there that piques my interest, about which I have the humility to admit I don't know enough? Click To Tweet
What worries me is how incurious most people are. And technology is only exacerbating that. When was the last time you went into a bookstore (should you even be able to find one) or a library, and trawled the shelves with no specific purchase in mind? Just to see what you might find there? When did you last choose to read something different, other than what Amazon’s algorithm recommends for you? Or those people you’re connected with on LinkedIn? What new knowledge might you learn from checking out the “obscure” (but often hugely fascinating) articles in the likes of AtlasObscura, Commentary Magazine, or The New Statesman, as just three examples?
Conformity is no friend of curiosity. What is, is a desire–no, the confidence, as we say in #ThoughtLeadershipTweet (tweet #8)–to take the route that 99.9% of industry experts don’t even see. And you are never going to see what’s different or live up to that indiscriminately used and now almost totally meaningless term “thought leadership,” without asking yourself one key question:
What’s out there that piques my interest, about which I’m humble enough to admit I don’t know enough?
What do you think?
Dr. Liz Alexander is a co-founder at Leading Thought and co-author of #Thought Leadership Tweet. As consulting co-author, she collaborates with aspiring authors who desire to write thought leading books. Impulsive, creative, with an innate need to explore, a love of controversy and good argument, Liz considers herself a highly curious person.
Connect with Liz on LinkedIn. Follow her 140 character musings on Twitter: @LeadThought and @DrLizAlexander