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Posts Tagged ‘Curiosity’

Willie Mays

Truth be known, I didn’t want this dog. We had just lost our 15-year-old golden retriever, Ozzie (named after then Nebraska football coach, Tom Osborn), and I consoled myself with the promise that without a dog, we could come and go as we please.

That was not the decision of the more influential members of my family, who offered to name our new puppy after arguably the greatest baseball player of all time. That was nearly 2 years ago, and I am happy to report that Willie Mays has established himself as arguably the most popular member of our family.

In those brief two years, Willie has reminded me of several valuable lessons for leading a creative life:

#1 Sniff everything: Willie reminds me to be curious. Ask questions. Who marked this tree and that fire hydrant? What are you cooking tonight? Who’s shoe smells like this? What dog was recently hanging around your pant leg? All questions asked innocently and without judgment. I find that emulating Willie’s eager curiosity feeds my creativity. It helps me to open pathways to learning, dispel false assumptions and generate new ideas.

#2 Wag your tail a lot: When someone walks in the house, it goes something like this: the tail starts up like a propeller, Willie leaps skyward, hoping to kiss the person—on the lips if at all possible—and then upon landing, he pees in excitement. By all accounts, he goes overboard in his greeting; yet it does remind me to be enthusiastic, keep a positive outlook and let people know that I care about them. People pay attention to that sort of thing. They’re more apt to listen to ideas. And offer their own. It might even earn me a pat on the head.

#3 Be playful/be daring: Everyday, Willie reminds me of the value of being playful and daring. He, himself, is an insatiable game player who takes incalculable risks. He’ll diverge on all the things he can steal that will get someone to chase him—shoes, napkins, pillows, underwear. If he knows you’ll chase him for it, he’ll go after it. And just when we think we have everything beyond his reach, he finds something new to take. Willie sets an example: He uses his playfulness and daring to overcome barriers and lead to the next big idea (of what to steal).

#4 Persistence pays: Willie can wear you out. He’ll tease you till you chase him. He’ll bark until you get the ball out from under the chair. He’ll whimper until you take him for a walk. He’ll stare you down until you give him a bite. The guy is persistent! And sometimes, that’s exactly what you need to solve a problem, make a creative breakthrough or convince someone that your idea is worthy.

#5 Let sleeping dogs lie: After all the curiosity, tail wagging, playfulness, daring and persistence, even Willie has to take a break. He is a great napper. And it reminds me of the importance of taking a break from work to refresh and re-energize. Then, when Willie wakes up, he takes a speed lap around the back yard, announcing to the squirrels that he’s back and ready to resume the chase.

In the end, I suppose the real takeaway is this: look for life lessons where you find life’s joy.

Now I’m off to play a little catch with Willie Mays.

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How does curiosity get piqued? What is the value of being curious? And, most importantly, what can you do to become more curious?

Wondering why I ask these questions? It’s because I’ve noticed a paradox in my work facilitating innovation and change leadership: Professionals who are considered experts, are naturally evaluated by what they already know. The prevailing thought is, “Experts get paid a lot of money to know, so it might look bad for them to question their own knowledge.” Perhaps they consider questions the sign of a novice; or worse yet, something over which children obsess. Expertise and knowledge, then, can be a barrier to curiosity; yet, curiosity is what built the knowledge and expertise in the first place.

Here is what I mean by curiosity being at the root of knowledge and expertise, as well as the driver of innovation and change leadership:

1. Curiosity drives active learning.

As a way to illustrate the potential power of curiosity on our proclivity to learn, I can imagine this difference between a naturally curious person—or active learner—and myself in my usual reactive learner mode:

ME: I touch a hot stove and I learn to never do that again. It hurts!

NATURALLY CURIOUS PERSON: Learns the same thing I did when touching a hot stove, but then asks, what makes the stove hot? How do people feel pain from heat? How does the skin heal itself? What are the common factors that make people touch hot stoves? And on and on! These questions could lead to learning about physics, medicine, psychology, risk management—curiosity naturally opens up new avenues to knowledge. Because of curiosity, maybe someone will invent a stove top that cooks food without being hot to the touch. Maybe we’ll get an instant burn-healing ointment—or some sort of smart-alarm that senses when a cook gets too close to the burner.

Active learning drives innovation.

The point is, innovation, itself, is a learning exercise. In other words, innovation doesn’t come from knowing, it comes from asking. There’s a risk to this when you have to ask, “Have I been defining the right goal? Have I been solving the right problem? Do I understand the nuance of context? Are there motivations I haven’t yet considered? All of these are hard questions for an expert to ask. Still, you must be curious and open to exploring all the uncharted paths on which your questions take you—even if (and here’s your second risk) you have no assurance it will lead you to the promise land of innovation. Albert Einstein is a great endorsement for following curiosity’s many paths. When asked about his work process, he said, “How do I work? I grope.”

Curiosity drives engagement (which drives change).

Here’s something else I’ve noticed: When I’m naturally curious, I  become naturally more engaged. Sometimes it’s a desire to fill gaps in my knowledge. Other times, my curiosity is piqued by a problem to be solved…something to figure out. So now, if I’m not feeling engaged in something that I know I should be, I try to become curious. What is the one question I can ask that will invest me in a meeting, in a task, in a conversation? How can I use my curiosity to engage in and lead change?

This all leads me back to one of my initial questions: What can you do to become more curious? I know I could do better, so I’m just asking…

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