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Imagine our world if the parents of Leonardo DaVinci, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs had told them to shut up and just do as they were told. And yet, parents, teachers and managers seem to do everything possible to crush curiosity. Ironically, it’s the catalyst for everything business seeks: productivity, growth and innovation. Curiosity is also the engine behind every list of high-demand workplace skills, including critical thinking, problem-solving, emotional intelligence and creativity.

These skills can’t be taught in the traditional sense: Students and workers can’t memorize facts and formulas, and, upon passing a test, be declared proficient. Mastering them requires a high, healthy dose of inquisitiveness, which, unfortunately, we lose over time. 

As kids, we pick up every object, dirty or shiny. We touch it, smell it and even taste it. Psychologist Jean Piaget says that we come into this world as tiny amateur scientists. We ask, “What is it?” and “Why?” repeatedly. From the first time we discover our own hands, we embark on a nonstop experiment to explore everything.

But along comes a parent, teacher or stranger who slams the door on curiosity with these words: “Just put it down and pay attention.” It happens at work, too, thousands of times each day. Employees ask, “Why do we do it this way?” and are told, “That’s the way it’s done around here. If you want to make it, just do what you’re told and stop asking so many questions.”

Fortunately, curiosity is an innate human behavior. It’s not really a new skill that we need to learn, but one that we need to nurture. So what has to happen for us to unblock and unleash it? Dr. Diane Hamilton has identified four factors that stifle curiosity. She’s labeled them FATE: fear, assumption, technology and environment. Our goal, individually and collectively, should be to identify which factor(s) may be blocking our curiosity—or that of our employees—and create a plan to remove it.

How to Overcome FATE

Fear:

It’s the most prominent of the factors and is also the opposite of curiosity. It’s responsible for the dreaded, “Yeah, but what if it doesn’t work/what if I fail/what if I look stupid?” Fortunately, most of our fears are not impenetrable walls but fragile mirrors and glass. Often they are just imaginary. Franklin D. Roosevelt probably summed it up best: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Antidote: Ask yourself, Are my fears real or contrived? Give yourself permission to be vulnerable and venture outside your comfort zone one small step at a time. Ask a different person each week about something they’re into that you don’t fully understand. “Why do you like football, NASCAR, listening to podcasts?”

Assumptions:

Familiarity is the curse of curiosity. We get comfortable with the way things have always been done. Assumptions make our life easy, convenient and safe. But in today’s world of accelerating change, assumption is dangerous and can be catastrophic because norms are being disrupted at an unprecedented pace. Many supposedly immutable truths are now being exposed as no more than myths and old wives’ tales (remember that notion that a four-year college degree is the golden ticket to a middle-class income and decades-long career?), and referencing the past is no longer as good a predictor of the future. As the saying suggests, “you know what happens when you assume.”

Antidote: Follow the lead of Priceline co-founder and social entrepreneur Jeff Hoffman and “info-sponge”: Each day, read something that has nothing to do with your industry, your business or your interests. Write down the things that you found interesting and ask, “How can these disrupt my business or my life?” Remove your filters and regain your childlike wonder of seeing something for the first time.

Technology:

Technology has opened up a world of opportunity. Information is now available at our fingertips, but it’s increasingly difficult to keep up. It’s easy to be overwhelmed with social media and fake news. We don’t need to remember phone numbers, directions or history. We just “Google” it and answers appear. Will technology make us lazy and dumb or smarter with the democratization of data and information? It depends—and curiosity seems to hold the key.

Antidote: Technophobia won’t keep you safe. Likewise, blindly embracing technology is dangerous, too. Its presence in our lives is inevitable, but you can—and should—impose your own limitations on it, too. Like the antidote for assumptions, use that childlike wonder to ask why, how, what, when and where as opposed to relying on algorithms.

Environment:

We have been taught to conform and learn answers, not ask questions. We worry about what others think more than wonder what can be. One of the most popular complaints I hear from managers concerns millennials and Gen Z: “Why can’t they just do what we say?” Managers just perpetuate the adulthood assault on curiosity, but then complain about the lack of innovation and drive within the next generation.

Antidote: Sir Ken Robinson’s popular TED talk explores the idea that schools kill creativity, not grow it. The same process happens in business. Open your mind. When others ask “why,” thank them. Curiosity is not a sign of disrespect or disloyalty but strength. 

Image: Creative Commons