During a 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, Steve Jobs related an anecdote about an experience he had shortly after dropping out of college that conveys one of the qualities that led to his success — a quality that many, if not all, highly accomplished individuals possess. Although he had dropped out of college, he was free to take any courses that might interest him. So, he decided to take a calligraphy course.
“I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great,” said Jobs. “It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.” But it was also totally useless. At least, it was, until Jobs designed the first Macintosh computer 10 years later. “It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.”
Forget about feline mortality, curiosity is a trait well worth cultivating.
There are few domains that curiosity doesn’t touch upon. It’s been shown to help people avoid confirmation bias and therefore avoid decision-making errors, to increase innovation regardless of whether a job is inherently creative or not, to improve group work by helping individuals see each other’s perspectives, and to improve learning and memory in general.
Not only that, but researchers studying seven different leadership competencies (specifically, results orientation, strategic orientation, collaboration and influence, team leadership, developing organizational capabilities, change leadership, and market understanding) found that curiosity was the best predictor of strength in these domains.
Asking the right questions
That’s all well and good, but how can we go about cultivating curiosity? For author, entrepreneur, and investor Tim Ferriss, it’s all about being more curious than you are afraid of embarrassing yourself. “We all have a preoccupation with looking dumb,” he says in his Big Think+ video.
We are social creatures, hierarchical creatures, and we don’t want to shame ourselves, humiliate ourselves. But recognizing that, by zigging when everyone else is zagging, with that particular context, you can actually develop a superpower. And that is asking dumb questions.
By asking “dumb” questions, you’ll often find the answers that others are too ashamed or not curious enough to pursue. Too many individuals are more concerned with not rocking the boat or are stuck in the mindset of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” As a result, apparently glaring mysteries go unexplored, obvious issues go unresolved, and dumb questions go unanswered. Being curious and willing to speak one’s mind in this environment can indeed serve as a superpower.
Ferriss also suggests letting your curiosity lead you to even apparently absurd questions. “The power of the absurd question is really something that I’ve paid a lot of attention to in the last few years,” he told Big Think. “These types of absurd questions don’t allow you to use your default frameworks for solutions. They don’t allow you to use your base of current assumptions to come up with answers. It forces you to think laterally.”
You’ve probably heard of lateral thinking in the phrase “think outside the box.” It’s the ability to find solutions to problems through reasoning that doesn’t seem immediately obvious or direct. It requires creativity to do well, and creativity requires curiosity. The creative innovation of implementing a beautiful typeface design in the Macintosh computer required Jobs to first have felt curious enough to seek out what was then ostensibly irrelevant knowledge in a calligraphy course. For more on curiosity and questioning, check out Ferriss’s advice in his Big Think+ video below.