Cracking the Growing Curiosity Gap

Is FATE Holding You Back?

Have you ever heard someone say, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?”  I’m sure you have. I hear it a lot. You might have even uttered these exact words yourself. It’s a lie: it seems you can teach old dogs new tricks if the “dogs” are curious. For most of us, it is just a weak excuse, a symptom of laziness or fear. The more honest answer might be: “I don’t want to learn new tricks.”

Diminished curiosity is not just an “old people” problem either. I hear it from people in their 30s and 40s too, sometimes even younger people. 

“I’m too old to learn it.”

“I don’t understand technology.”

“I don’t see what’s wrong with the way we’ve always done.”

“I was never very good in school.” 

“My boss won’t pay for my class.”

Surely, we all go through periods of stagnation and no matter how hard we try, our brains age too. But fortunately our curiosity drive is not dictated as much by our aging process as by our own attitudes and behaviors. When our attitudes change, then so do our brains – when we make the effort. So I’m back to what I said earlier. The reason so many people aren’t curious: laziness and fear.

That’s great news. First, we are all living longer and it’s good to know that curiosity doesn’t have to become another casualty of aging. On the other hand, the pace of change under which we now live will only accelerate, making curiosity the premier prerequisite skill for personal and business survival.

Let’s look at what world leaders have determined to be critical core skills impacted or influenced by curiosity.

  • More than one third (36%) of all jobs across all industries are expected to require complex problem-solving as one of their core skills. (Compare that to only 4% that will have a requirement for physical abilities such as physical strength or dexterity.) 
  • Social skills—such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and collaboration—will be in higher demand. 
  • Content skills (which include digital literacy and active learning).
  • Cognitive abilities (such as creativity and mathematical reasoning). 
  • Process skills (such as active listening and critical thinking).

Source: World Economic Forum, Future of Jobs

Underlying nearly every one of these skills is curiosity. Without it, growth – personal and business – stagnates, innovation flounders, and the worst-case scenario: machines will be kicking more people off the payroll faster. The SHIFT is hitting our plans so the time for a growing curiosity gap couldn’t be worse.

So how did we get to this place when so many people seem to be struggling to keep up, when businesses can’t enough top talent. And how do we fix it?

New research by Dr. Diane Hamilton offers a solution. Fortunately, curiosity is an innate human behavior. It’s not really a new skill that we need to learn but one that we just need to unblock and nurture.

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 discover everything. But then comes along a parent, teacher, or stranger who slams the door on curiosity with these words: “Just put it down and pay attention.” We’re taught “don’t ask questions, it’s impolite. Respect your elders and authority.”

It happens at work too – thousands of times each day. Employees ask “why do we do it this way” and the boss answers “that’s the way it’s done around here. If you want to make it around here, just do what you’re told and stop asking so many questions.”

To close the curiosity gap, Hamilton has identified four factors that crush our child-like curiosity and stifle our learning as we get older.  She calls them FATE: Fear, Apprehension, Technology, and Environment. That’s great news for businesses struggling to grow and innovate and workers wondering how they will get jobs that won’t be replaced by machines. It turns out that curiosity doesn’t have to be taught, but unleashed.

Fear. Fear is the opposite of curiosity.

It’s the most prominent of the four factors that block our curiosity.  It unleashes 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.”

Assumptions. Familiarity is the curse of curiosity.

We get comfortable with the way things have always been done. We get comfortable in our cocoon of busy-ness. Assumptions make our life easy, convenient, and safe. Once we assume, we think we can move on with our lives. We accept the strategy that If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. In today’s world of accelerating change and disruption, assumption is dangerous because norms are being disrupted at an unprecedented pace. As science fiction blurs with reality, referencing the past is no longer such a good predictor of the future.  As the saying suggests, “you know what happens when you assume.”

Technology. Technology opens up a world of opportunity.

It blows the doors open and walls down on possibility. 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? Our level of curiosity seems to hold the key.

Environment. Knock down the walls.

Many people came from a time when we heard things like curiosity killed the cat or we should mind our own business. Teachers and parents were under pressure to teach toward testing. We were taught to conform and learn answers, not ask questions. We worry about what others think more than we wonder what can be. One of the most popular complaints I hear from managers focuses on 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. Fortunately it’s easy to just “Google” whatever question you have or subscribe to online courses. Our environment is no longer retrained to the four walls of classrooms. Learning opportunities are ubiquitous and so is mobility.

Is FATE holding back your employees? Is Fear, Apprehension, Technology, or Environment holding strangling your career?  The Curiosity Code Index (CCI) is the first assessment of its kind, developed to determine the factors that might inhibit optimal curiosity.

Curiosity is the DNA of skills that will keep humans working, prospering, and thriving. Curiosity is the spark that will help organizations improve engagement, innovation and productivity. Get started here. Order your Curiosity Code Index and get ready to unleash innovation, engagement, productivity, and even emotional intelligence.

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