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  • Jerry Schuitema

Curiosity feeds the cat.

The important role of this basic human trait to our well-being.

What would you do if you saw a group of people gathered on a street corner? It was a question often asked of news reporting candidates. If they said they would walk away, they stood little chance of being employed because they lacked one of the basic and important traits of a journalist, which is passionate curiosity.

Tiring somewhat of all of the heavy stuff in current affairs, I have been reflecting on the days of my youth and some popular forms of barter at the time. I thought of my mother’s indignation with a shopkeeper offering her some Chappies bubble-gum instead of a penny in change. Of course, her refusal made me angry with her! One of the attractions of that messy chew was the “Did you know” trivia on the wrapper, and I used to save them to become a human Google to my friends.

That made me think of the power of curiosity, and my son who has developed the most irritating of habits. Whenever I ask him a question, he responds with a refrain: “Google is your friend.” It is a reminder of how much information is at our disposal, and how easy it is to access it. But beware the Googler in your midst. You could be having a casual conversation with a group of friends when one interrupts with: “You are wrong! I’ve just Googled it.” And a trivial conversation becomes a heated, acrimonious exchange.

In this era of information overload and the IT explosion, the initial assumption that it would lead to a much more informed society is now being questioned quite seriously. Some are arguing that much of the media that people have easy access to, distribute misinformation rather than authentic content. Even conventional news outlets are not immune. It is also argued that predilection confirms prejudices rather than challenging them. Still, one cannot deny that in a functional sense, we are much better off than a few decades ago.

This all reflects on curiosity itself, which, as it turns outs, is a serious, albeit badly neglected science. Yet, it is self evidently one of the most important features of being human. It is the driving force behind knowledge, discovery, innovation, development and prosperity. It can be used or abused; encouraged or supressed and manipulated by malevolent forces that result in an entire nation, society or even a generation losing its head.

A key assumption of the science of curiosity is that it has the same framework that we apply to much of human behaviour: nature or nurture. Astrophysicist and author, Mario Livio says “Curiosity is a fundamental human trait. Everyone is curious, but the object and degree of that curiosity is different depending on the person and the situation.” That difference is influenced by many factors: culture, gender, and individual circumstances and preferences. For instance, an unemployed homeless individual will be curious about very different things from those of a derivatives trader, or the guru on a mountain contemplating the meaning of life. I’m often appalled at the extent to which even well-educated and highly functional people simply avoid exposure to current affairs because they “find it too depressing”.

The key question is whether we understand curiosity enough, especially how it can be nurtured at the broadest level to encourage the acquisition of knowledge and discovery. Curiosity was at the centre of the success of post-war South Korea. I witnessed this in two Korean participants in a management development programme at the Oxford Centre for Management Studies in the mid-80’s. They had little understanding of English, and would record every word of the 6-8 hours lectures daily; play it back to an interpreter in Seoul; study the material, and join classes the following day as familiar with the material as any other participant.

Curiosity may be one of the most unappreciated and neglected attributes that we have in society. It is often discouraged by parents in children, yet one can only imagine how advanced they would be if you answered all of the more than 70 questions they ask daily. One should never discourage curiosity. Indeed it may be more appropriate to review not only all those areas where it is discouraged, but where it can be developed and nurtured. Do the formal structures and curricula of schools, for example, deliberately encourage curiosity in the subject being taught or do they simply “impose” learning on the learner?

I believe one of the most fruitful endeavours companies themselves can undertake is to encourage curiosity in the workplace. I have personal experience of how it is suppressed and often destroyed, especially at first line supervisory level. Knowledge and understanding of their working environment are the most empowering tools workers can be given – beyond simply having knowledge of the task itself. We are daily dealing with the toxic fruits of that neglect. I have witnessed too, how often that light can be switched on by demonstrating the direct link between the worker, the task and service to society through service to the customer. And then showing how value creation affects rewards for all. It is fully captured in the Common Purpose; Common Fate model and the Contribution Accounting Methodology.

In a broader sense and at societal level, we clearly have to become more curious about curiosity. Unless you are a cat, of course.

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