Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked why

“Play that is directed by the child, not the parent, is the key to cultivating curiosity.” – Todd Kashdan

This evening I was treated to my 7 year old son playing the piano – not the pounding childish make-noise kind, but nor the rote practice kind assigned by music teachers.  And I take nothing from either version of playing the piano – both quite valid in figuring out this instrument. But he worked the piano in a moment of utter focus finding melodies he invented.  It was nothing Mozart-like of a young prodigy, he was simply exploring the piano in a very present and exploring way – finding rhythm and notes on his own.  He’s never had piano lessons beyond watching and listening to my own piano tunes I learned long ago.  It was just simple curiosity about what the piano sounds like.

When we are in a curious state, we ask probing questions, read deeply with intent, manipulate and examine objects, and persist in activities and tasks which we find both challenging and stimulating.  Todd Kashdan has conducted studies with his colleagues which demonstrate that curious people tend to become more curious over time (curiosity breeds curiosity) and ultimately find greater enjoyment and even live longer too.

Study after study reveal that true and lasting competitive advantage comes from having talented and engaged people.  The surest way to wither your sense of engagement is to curb your curiosity.  Curious people are more competent, knowledgeable and expert.  Not only that, curious people have stronger relationships, more physical and mental resilience, and even cultivate a stronger sense of meaning in their lives.

So when we are trying to find more “engagement” in our work, or as a leader cultivate that high level of engagement, there are three clear variables.  First, the right people; then those people in the right seats; and doing what they are good at and love. Those three components to engagement look like this:

  1. Recognition of Role: Everyone must have a clear understanding of what role they play in the larger context of the organization. Demographic studies suggest this demand started in earnest with Gen X, and now Gen Y pretty much refuses to be part of a work environment that isn’t entirely transparent.
  2. Executable Talent: Show up with the skills yo. This is part talent selection, and part talent development. Every organization and leader must create an environment where curiosity and intellectual growth is expected.
  3. Passionate Commitment: Parts 1 and 2 are important but for full engagement, a passionate belief about what the team, the function, and the organization as a whole is trying to do remains paramount.

Two out of three of the above is nice but insufficient. Someone with skills who lacks belief in the mission is a flight risk. The most intolerable might be the prima donna who refuses collaborative efforts. As John Tucci, CEO of EMC says, “I have taken very talented smart people who did not play on a team and shown them the door.”

Understanding context, building skills, and being passionate aren’t easy to have on a consistent and thriving basis but maybe the key is simply to remain curious.

Here’s a tip that really works.  When trying to build new knowledge, or figure out how to connect with someone who might be on the opposite side of your viewpoint, ask a simple open question that mines what they know about.  This works on almost any topic – vegetarianism, the Iraq War, whether we should renew our catering contract, whatever…  Ask something open and probing, for example, “Help me understand why being a vegetarian (buying from a particular vendor….whatever) is the best choice for our community (our company, again whatever the topic).”  If asked in an honest inquiring voice, you are more likely statistically to be viewed as empathetic and even intelligent in your curiosity. Stay open, be curious, enrich your life.