Strengthening your Curiosity Muscle

Curiosity-Road-Sign-815955 - blog imageI tuned the car radio to our local National Public Radio station during a road trip this past Saturday. Radiolab (the show about curiosity) was airing. How convenient, since I knew that this month’s blog topic was on curiosity.

Saturday’s Radiolab program, “Guts”, was fascinating, even though the subject was potentially distasteful. The focus was on our digestive system. One of the featured stories highlighted the curiosity of Dr. William Beaumont.

The date was 1822. Alexis St. Martin had been shot in the stomach. Dr. Beaumont was the physician attending to his wound. Mr. St. Martin did survive. However, his stomach wound never closed, thereby creating a permanent opening accessible from outside of the body (known as a gastric fistula). Unless covered, this fistula would allow ingested food to leak out. Conversely, this fistula would also allow external access to the internal stomach.

It was this circumstance that aroused Dr. Beaumont’s curiosity. Since he had such an available “laboratory” at hand, he could study (in real time) the effects of the stomach and digestive system on food that has been placed in the stomach.

Listen to the NPR story to satisfy your curiosity about the details.

Imagine Dr. Beaumont’s self-talk as he was conducting these experiments. “Hmmm – let’s see what happens when I insert (food item) in the stomach. Or how about this? Or this?” And of course, his notes explicitly detailed the results of each experiment. His curiosity and findings earned him recognition as the Father of Gastric Physiology.

Curiosity as an Organizational Competency

The importance of curiosity as an integral part of our scientific and technological advancement is common knowledge. But what if we looked at the subject on a more global level. How does curiosity advance the act of leading?

The act of being curious is not just consigned to the Research and Development department. In progressive organizations with effective leadership, curiosity is a requirement of all employees. [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]Great leaders are curious. Great leaders also foster an environment of curiosity among their team.[/inlinetweet]

Curiosity as a Muscle

Compare your curiosity level with a muscle strengthening process. The more you target the muscle, the stronger it gets.  How can you tell if your curiosity muscle needs strengthening?

  • Muscle - blog imageDo you and your colleagues speak in statements or in questions? The ratio of questions to declarative statements is an indicator of your ability to be curious and drive curiosity.
  •  Do you and your team know how to question? Do you applaud those who find the information gaps and then search for the answers? Do you allow time for your team to be curious?
  • Do you have a “need for cognition”? Or do you subscribe to the “faster is better” philosophy? Ian Leslie, in his book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Life Depends on It, writes of the “Need for Cognition” (or NFC) as a scientific measure of intellectual curiosity. He states that there is a rising premium on people with a high NFC.

Curiosity as a Disruptive Force

Julie Winkle Guilioni, author of the blog post “Curiosity: It’s the New Black” describes curiosity as “the capability to demonstrate keen interest, an inquisitiveness spirit, an eager drive to understand and an appetite for experimentation.”  This definition certainly communicates a positive advantage for all workplaces.

But, at times, the curiosity waters may be a bit murky. Ian Leslie describes the messy side.

“Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or, at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of a smart question nobody has yet thought to ask.   It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant.”

What leader would want to voluntarily bring this Leslie-described impulsiveness and unruliness into the workplace?   Or at the very least, who has time for curiosity – especially when faced with an impending deadline?

The short answer – the great leader.

Yes – curiosity disrupts.  But disruption is what we need to get us to “next”. The forward-thinking, effective leader knows that a rewarding tomorrow will not be a clone of today, but rather a product of our questions and learnings. [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]Curiosity is a never-ending path. Each question asked prompts another question formed.[/inlinetweet] So the path does vary. And with each turn and bump, opportunity exists.

Your Curiosity Action Plan

How do you strengthen your curiosity muscle?

  • R-E-A-D. Then read some more. Reach for a book with a purpose – to be entertained or educated or enlightened. Whatever it may be. Reach and read.
  • R-E-F-L-E-C-T. This is a cyclical process – read – reflect – read – reflect – on and on. Reflection does not need to be cumbersome or time consuming. Reflect on your position as it relates to what you read. Do you agree or disagree? Are you satisfied with your enlightenment gain – or do you need more? Can you apply what you have read to better yourself, your family, your friends, and your colleagues?

As we come to a close on this topic, consider this small piece of perspective from a December 2014 episode of CBS’s The Mentalist:

Vega: “Curiosity killed the cat.”

Jane: “It also cured Polio.”

Businessman tensing arm muscle and looking at camera on white backgroundYour call to action. Let’s get curious. What do you want to know about? Where will your curiosity lead you? Let us know how you are strengthening your curiosity muscle.


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