“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence.” ~ Albert Einstein
Curiosity, defined as “a strong desire to know or learn something” is a skill we’re all born with in abundance, and it fuels our cognitive development as children. Questions are a great expression of the curious mind, and that’s the reason a three-year-old will ask their primary caregiver as many as 300 questions per day. Despite its remarkable power, our curiosity-muscle can atrophy significantly over time, and as we reach adulthood our question-per-day count has dropped to the low double digits at best.
There are many possible reasons for this decline Leader, but perhaps the most pervasive are: (1) the ever-increasing pressure to have all the answers; and its ugly cousin: (2) fear of failure.
As we get older, we become conditioned around the idea that answers are more valuable than questions. It starts in school where we’re taught that there is one right answer and all you need to do is remember it long enough to regurgitate it on the test. As we progress into our working life and in our careers, we are increasingly looked at to be the ‘expert’ – the one with the all the answers. We are discouraged from asking the difficult and challenging questions that threaten the status quo (usually by those that are most invested in it). We are encouraged to become managers, mentors and teachers so we can share our answers, wrapped up as pearls of wisdom to be passed down to the next generation. And so, the cycle continues.
The second threat to the beautiful question is a fear of failure. Failure is another very natural part of the early learning process: you cannot learn to walk if you fear falling down. Yet over time we come to see failure as a bad thing – something to be avoided at all costs. To reveal a lack of knowledge or understanding by asking a question is increasingly seen as a form of failure as we progress in our careers. Experts don’t ask questions, they give answers, remember?
Phrases like “Curiosity Killed the Cat” are handed down through the generations as a way to indoctrinate us to the idea that to be curious is a dangerous thing. And the thing is, being curious does have risks.
Being willing to explore the unknown means that you will sometimes fail. It means accepting and revealing that you don’t have the answers. It’s means you’re willing to challenge conventions, push boundaries, and fall down in the process. That requires a willingness to be vulnerable, but also a belief that when you fall (for fall you will), you have the strength and resources required to pick yourself up, dust yourself down, and carry on.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it also led to the invention of the lightbulb, space travel, and the iPhone along the way. Failure is learning. Embrace that idea and you get to change the world, Leader.