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Chapter 7
The Power of CURIOSITY

A sense of curiosity is nature's original school of education.

CURIOSITY is a vital catalyst of personal brilliance. Actively exploring the environment, asking questions, investigating possibilities, and possessing a sense of wonder are all part of being curious. In effect, curiosity is the cure for boredom!

Curiosity requires freedom-freedom from the barriers that inhibit discovery. Questions are key. Once you open up to the nuances of life, it's easy to find things that fascinate you and to begin wondering "why?" and "how?" 

Curiosity works together seamlessly with awareness, focus, and initiative. While the gift of awareness helps you assess how things are, curiosity helps you clarify problems, ideas, and situations, and it encourages you to explore how they could be different.

  • When you're curious about something, your mind shifts into an investigative mode of thinking, which amplifies your awareness.
  • Following the path of a question expands your focus because each bit of information that you gather gives a greater perspective.
  • Curiosity can get you going! There's nothing like a burning question to trigger your initiative.

Curiosity jump-starts personal brilliance. Questioning takes you to deeper levels of knowing and helps you relate to others. When you develop heightened curiosity, you improve the quality of your life by asking better questions and being receptive to new ideas. The desire to expand your understanding motivates you to go beyond the surface. You learn more because you have a desire to know more. When you approach an idea, person, or situation with a heightened sense of curiosity, your natural tendency is to "quest" for additional information. Even when you can't immediately apply what you learn, you are training to keep your curiosity muscles "buff."

Another advantage of being curious is that your brain is designed to reward you for exploring fresh ideas and trying new activities. When you experience novelty, your brain produces more dopamine-an important brain chemical that lifts your mood and increases your sense of well-being.

How Did They Do That?

Curiosity is the wick in the candle of learning.

Have you ever wondered, "How did they do that?"

For example, you know that Henry Ford was an innovator. After all, he built the Ford Motor Company and played a big part in developing mass-production techniques for our most common mode of transportation. But what you might not know is that curiosity was a critical catalyst in the early stages of Ford's innovations.

As the story goes, Ford was attending a French automobile race and witnessed a crash on the track. His curiosity got the best of him and he left the grandstand to take a closer look at the wreckage. As he sifted through the pieces and parts, he was surprised how light they were. Solely because of his curiosity, he learned about "vanadium," the strong, lightweight metal alloy that was used in the racecar. Because of vanadium's strength relative to its weight, Ford was able to solve a major production problem. This coincidental discovery allowed Ford to produce 15 million Model-Ts!

But wait just a second. Was this discovery really just a coincidence?

There were hundreds of people at the race. Likely, they all filed out of the stands and went about their business after the race was over. Henry Ford's simple curiosity-wondering what happened and what he might learn from closer examination-led to a major innovation affecting almost every person on the planet. I'll bet he didn't even know exactly what he was looking for in that wreckage. But curiosity led him there to discover the hidden treasure.

Curiosity in Action

Man's mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions.

My graphic artist, Arnie Friedlander, and I were at the print shop reviewing a new poster when Arnie disappeared. A few minutes later I found him sitting on the floor of the pressroom in a pile of scrap paper. The sheets were scrapped because the press had accidentally printed multiple photos on top of each other on each page. Arnie, with the curiosity of a child, sat with the scraps and said, "Look at this. These images piled on top of each other make you wonder what's beneath the surface. I can use this concept."

It's not surprising that Arnie wins awards for his commercial artwork. His heightened level of curiosity gives him an edge. He hones that edge by putting all four catalysts of personal brilliance to work.

Ask Questions

It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.

Without new questions there are no new answers.

As a professional speaker and active member of the National Speakers Association, I have the privilege of sitting in on many speeches. I am most intrigued by the traditional question-and-answer period. Frequently, after an hour-long presentation when it's time to take questions, there aren't any. This astonishes me. If the presentation was interesting and engaging, there must be hundreds of questions about the basis for the ideas, how to implement them, and the next steps to take. Even if the presentation wasn't so hot, there are scores of possible questions of a challenging nature to discover a better approach to ingesting the information.

There are many reasons for this "no questions" phenomenon. Nervousness in front of a group, fear of looking foolish, and not wanting to show off in front of peers are just a few. The biggest problem is that we train ourselves to repress questions. After all, if we're not going to voice the questions because of all the unpleasant social issues, why bother coming up with questions at all? By acting in this manner, we are effectively reinforcing the opposite of the habit of curiosity.

Curiosity Exercise #1

At the next presentation you attend, write down three questions that dig deeper into the subject matter. Since you are fighting social pressures, you don't have to actually ask the questions. However, at a future presentation, commit to raising your hand and asking a question or two. See what happens.

Dig Deeper

The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

The depth of questioning is also important. Many times digging past the first or obvious answer is necessary to generate innovation. For instance, The Kimberly-Clark Company wants to know what their customers want. This company listens to what their customers say and digs deeper to discover what they really mean. It was this habit of deeper questioning that resulted in the development of "pull-up" training pants for toddlers. Kimberly-Clark listened beyond the mere words to hear parents' wishes that their kids feel grown-up even though they are still in diapers. In this case, curiosity led to millions of dollars in profit.

Curiosity Exercise #2

Whether you have a traditional job or not, it's important to keep your resume up to date. Don't update your resume only when you anticipate being downsized or you just can't take it anymore. Many personal development gurus suggest that you update your resume constantly, and I agree. Remember that you can't get the right answers without the right questions. While updating your resume, here are some questions to keep in the forefront of your mind:

  1. My major task/project for this week is challenging me in the following way/s: ___________________________
  2. In the last three months I learned ___________________________
  3. The most important addition to my personal network in the past three months is ___________________________
  4. What makes me uniquely valuable is ___________________________
  5. Others think of me when they think of ___________________________
  6. By next year they will also think of me when they think of ___________________________

Wonder and Doubt

To believe with certainty, we must begin with doubting.

In terms of innovation, questions come in two basic forms-wonder and doubt. The questions of wonder come from not knowing or not having been exposed to something before. Innovation can spring from a question based in wonder because this type of curiosity looks at something from a new perspective.

A great example of achieving success through a sense of wonder is the high school student in Lincoln, New Hampshire, who successfully cloned the rare orchid plant Lady's Slipper. April Dovoluk didn't know that the plant was notoriously difficult to transplant, and nearly impossible to grow from seed. She also didn't know that scientists had been trying to clone Lady's Slipper for years without any success. She simply knew that the plant was on the endangered list, thought it was pretty, and felt it would be a good idea to help it spread. April's success astonished the orchid world. April and two fellow students on the project, Tyler King and Katie Sokolski, won second prize at the prestigious 1996 International Science and Engineering Fair.

The questions of doubt come from knowing and then challenging with a question. In order to ask questions that generate innovation, you need to entertain doubts. Without doubt, there can be no learning and there can be no progress. If the student is not permitted to doubt the teacher, there is a limit placed upon the learning. The ego of the teacher must allow for doubt-often a scary allowance when faced with forty teenagers or a room full of CEOs. This applies to any teacher, boss, supervisor, or parent. If doubt isn't promoted, the teaching session may be completed, but true learning may not occur.

A good case in point is powered human flight in the 1950s, where success resulted in large part because of doubt. An entire base of knowledge was generated concerning flight and the related disciplines: aerodynamics, physics, metallurgy, and engine design. Based on this body of knowledge, certain ideas about what was possible took shape. For example, according to what we "knew," we could not fly fast enough to break the sound barrier. Experts said that at the speed of sound, propellers would disintegrate and wings would fall off. This was true, based on the science of the time. Fortunately, someone doubted the commonly accepted wisdom-namely that it was impossible to fly faster. New designs using the proper scientific laws, rather than the currently accepted laws, were necessary. Without healthy doubt, curiosity shuts down and innovation does not occur.

Although difficult, if we can accept that we are not absolutely sure of anything, we can allow productive doubt to flourish. It's wonderful that someone doubted that man can't fly, that we can't communicate instantly over large distances, and that we are at the mercy of diseases like the plague. 

As human beings, "knowing" the answers helps us to feel in control of our lives. However, it is through suspending our beliefs and questioning our knowledge that we make true advances in our life and the lives of others.

Curiosity Helps You Really Learn

People learn something every day, and a lot of times it's that what they learned the day before was wrong.

What do you know? I mean, what do you really know? As Nobel Laureate physicist Richard P. Feynman said, "Knowing the name of something and knowing something are two different things. If you know the name of a bird, you only know what other people call it. What do you know about the bird?" We live at such a frantic pace, learning can serve as a pleasant way to stop and smell the roses. Curiosity can help you notice more detail about your surroundings. Don't settle for knowing just the name. Really learn about it.

Curiosity Exercise #3

Take a moment to study your hand. The human hand is a marvel of engineering. Wonder how it grasps objects, why the knuckles are placed where they are, and how its size, relative to the rest of your body, affects its use. Explore your hand's range of motion and rotation. Question why there are little hairs on the back of the hand, but not on your palm. Theorize about why you have fingerprints. You get the idea. Really learn about the hand. Get past the label and explore completely. Then go to the next step. How can you use the information in other areas of your life? This same type of curiosity motivated the famous inventors throughout history.

Research and discovery can be learned just like any other skills. The World Wide Web and the hyperlinks that allow you to dig deeper into related subjects are a perfect analogy to describe how curiosity can work. A curiosity practice session should be very unstructured. Don't place a time limit on your work. Wonder and wander. Let the information you discover guide you to the next step. Get wrapped up in the activity of learning. Ask the next question, and the next question. Over time, you will be able to generate questions and answers more quickly and fit your research into required timeframes.

Are You Too Old to Learn?

You will stay young as long as you learn, form new habits and don't mind being contradicted.

I regularly hear people say that they're too old to learn. They say they are at the stage of their lives where they just don't want to know any more. Politeness requires that I repress my desire to shake them. Only 35 percent of Americans have read a book since graduating high school. Only 20 percent say they have ever been in a bookstore. Why do people want to stop learning? Have you ever said, "I don't need to know that?"

Learning can and should continue until the very end of our lives. A great example of life-long learning in action is the Senior Theatre Association. This organization represents senior citizens throughout the world who are members of theater companies. The membership is quite diverse. Members may have acted once in their high school play and then after retirement renewed their interest. Or, perhaps after being dragged to a play, they may have become involved with set design, costumes, or props. Some of them are even retired Broadway actors. These thespians know that the process of learning their lines, building sets, and rehearsing their roles keeps them young.

Actress Birdie Larrick suffered a stroke while performing one evening. She completed her performance. After all, the show must go on. Following a short hospital stay and some physical therapy she was right back at it within a few weeks, and she was as sharp as ever. She attributes her ability to bounce back to her intense curiosity and desire to do something new and learn from the experience, even at the age of 82.

Marilyn, an acquaintance I met at a social function, is a veteran high school physical education and health teacher, with twenty years of experience in an inner city school environment. I was astounded by what she told me in our first conversation. She told me she only read what she needed to learn, and if it doesn't apply directly to her, she doesn't want to know about it. Someone who teaches our children was telling me she didn't care to learn.

I was curious about her motivations and what caused her to feel this way. I asked about her youthful idealism when she started as a teacher. We continued our discussions and began to work together in a coaching relationship. I asked Marilyn a number of questions that caused her to reexamine her life and her goals. As a result of the personal brilliance material and exercises she began to have a more expansive view of her possibilities.

Marilyn, while recognizing the importance of her work as a teacher, decided she wanted to help many more people than she can reach in her classes. Marilyn began to research the possibilities that would allow her to continue reaching her students at an even deeper level, while also influencing better teaching practices within her school, school system, and ultimately throughout the state.

Marilyn began to research what was possible. Her reading load increased exponentially with little stress because Marilyn shifted back into a learning mode. Learning, and learning about teaching, was fun again. This sense of curiosity has changed Marilyn's outlook. Her excitement came out as she asked questions of school administrators and leaders of various school programs. The fire was lit and people took notice. Marilyn was offered an opportunity to pilot a new program that educates physical education teachers on new methods to use in the classroom. She has been very successful, speaking and training throughout the country, having a positive impact on thousands of students while still doing an even better job for her local students.

Whatever your age, curiosity can lead you off the beaten path into exciting new territory. Steve Wilson is the founder of the World Laughter Tour. For many years, Steve practiced as a psychologist while building a professional speaking career around the subject of using humor and laughter in the heath care professions. At about the time Steve was slowing down his practice he decided to take advantage of an opportunity to do a speaking tour in India. Why? He was curious how his ideas might be accepted in a totally different culture.

While there, Steve experienced the concept of laughter clubs, which existed throughout India. Steve became very curious about the concept and his desire to learn more about it prompted him to invite a practitioner to the U.S. so he could observe how this concept could be applied in North America. Steve's curiosity, along with the other catalysts of innovation, has resulted in a phenomenon that is sweeping through North America's long-term therapeutic care facilities. Steve's curiosity led to opportunities he didn't even know existed. His quest for more and better information is having a significant impact on his life and the lives of many others. Curiosity pays off.

Curiosity Quest

The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.

What was the last idea or topic that you researched, just because you wanted to learn more about it? For me, it was thoroughbred racehorse breeding. While I have no intention of breeding horses, one of my friends was getting into this new business and I participated in his learning curve just because it was interesting. Questing for information, even when it doesn't seem to be pertinent, will enhance the curiosity that may be lying dormant within you. I didn't exercise my curiosity with the intention of directly benefiting from the information, but my newfound knowledge of horse breeding and racing has opened the door to some new business relationships. That's the funny thing about knowledge. You often don't recognize the benefit of what you've learned until you've learned it.

Curiosity Exercise #4

Part 1

Here's a challenge for you. Write down a question that has piqued your curiosity. It might be general, such as, "How are clouds formed?" Or, it could be very specific, such as, "What do I need to do to get the promotion I want?" Spend one hour finding the answer to your question.

Part 2

When time is up, use the Curiosity Checklist below to identify the research areas you used in your quest. Based on the checklist, is there something else you want to investigate?

Curiosity Checklist

  1. Check the resources you have on hand
    • Dictionary
    • Encyclopedia
    • Telephone book/Yellow Pages
    • Books and tapes
    • Maps and guidebooks
    • Internet search
    • Memory and personal experience

  2. Check with people who have experience in the area you're researching
    • Family, friends, acquaintances, and co-workers
    • Industry experts
    • College and university professors
    • Groups and organizations
    • Professional practitioners, such as doctors, lawyers, etc.
    Once you have covered your options in #1 and #2, conclude your quest with #3.

  3. Checks and Balances
    • Look for information that conflicts with what you have found.
    • Share what you've discovered with a few people who know nothing about the topic you are researching. Children can be wonderful resources for honest, to the point, feedback.
    • Facilitate your own focus group to see how others respond to your findings.
    • Conduct a survey to see how others respond to the questions you're exploring.

The power that comes from heightening your curiosity is truly unlimited. When you put judgments aside, you can come up with some of your most brilliant ideas. One of my favorite stories that illustrates the essence of asking high-quality questions is a parable of sorts that I heard Dr. James E. Loehr tell in his Mental Toughness Training audio program. The story involves a court jester and his king.

The court jester's role in the kingdom was to amuse the king and his court. He was the only person in the land who was permitted to poke fun at the king. He made an art of asking himself questions that led to clever ideas for songs and skits. One day, however, he went too far in making fun of the king and the king sentenced him to death. The king's advisors pleaded with him to show mercy to the court jester who had served him well for many years.

The king called the jester before him and said, "I cannot rescind my order for your death, but I can show you mercy by permitting you to choose the way you want to die."

If the jester would have responded based on what he had seen previously, he most likely would have asked for a "quick and painless death." But this man had been honing his curiosity skills for many years. Instead of falling back on dogmatic beliefs, he paused to ponder the question more deeply. Finally, the jester responded, "Given the choice, your majesty, I choose to die of old age."

© 2005 Jim Canterucci.
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