Developing Curiosity with Purpose

Curiosity May Have Killed the Cat, but It Could Mean Living With Purpose for You and Me

Most of us are curious about something from time to time. We turn the page, peek behind the curtain, or ask the question to give us a glimpse into something we are intrigued by. A lot of the time we have a random curiosity about things that don’t really matter. But putting curiosity to work for us can reveal purpose.

Blind curiosity can lead a cat, or a person, into dangerous territory. Beast or boy can follow a rat and quickly find himself the prey. But curiosity with a purpose, or intentional curiosity, can lead to great discoveries.

The word “curiosity” comes from the Latin “curiositatem,” meaning “desire of knowledge, inquisitiveness.”

Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”

There is a big difference between random curiosity and purposeful curiosity. Undirected, our curiosity may be entertaining, interesting, even educational. But when we intentionally guide our curiosity toward a particular end, by focusing our questioning along a special path, we can benefit greatly.

I apply this principle of purposeful curiosity to my work in human performance improvement. I become a performance sleuth, looking for clues like Sherlock Holmes, trying to see the barriers and signs that no one else sees. Intentional curiosity about the system as a whole brings into focus issues that may normally be overlooked.

Intentional curiosity works best when we start at a thirty thousand foot view, then begin to zoom in to specific things through meaningful questions. A well-known technique that can be applied is the “5 Whys” which, as the name implies, consists of asking a series of why questions to uncover the source of a problem, or the heart of an opportunity.

Here’s a simple example of the 5 whys in action:

  1. Why did I lose my job? Because the company had too many employees.
  2. Why did the company have too many employees? Because they lost business during the recession.
  3. Why did they lose business during the recession? Because customers had less discretionary income.
  4. Why did customers have less discretionary income? Because they didn’t save enough when times were better.
  5. Why didn’t they save when times were better? Because they didn’t imagine that the economy could get this bad.

There are, of course, many possible answers to each question, so you can explore those possibilities and test various hypotheses to see how valid they are. Still curious about the Five Whys? Visit MindTools.com for more details.

Another great tool to use is appreciative inquiry, which leads you down a positive path toward a desired future built around a positive core.  In other words, you come up with a series of questions that guide your thinking around what has been successful, meaningful and life-giving in the past. By digging into the positive core, you can identify what you want to see more of, what you want to move toward in the future.  A central question to get you started in appreciative inquiry is:

 “It’s five years in the future; you go to work and discover that your life is the way you always wished it would be.  You are experiencing success in your job, feeling fulfilled and clearly in your “sweet spot.” Your family life is energizing, your home a place of peace and joy. You have meaningful friendships and have found a place to serve in the community that gives you a sense of giving back.” Now, describe how you got there. What specific things did you do to achieve this ideal life?

More samples of AI questions for a variety of applications can be found at the Appreciative Inquiry Commons.

Whatever tool(s) you choose to aid you in you in applying intentionally curiosity, be sure to identify your purpose and ask “what’s possible?” Intentional curiosity is ultimately about moving you toward your goals, helping you make positive progress in some area of your life. Being intentionally curious will lead you to useful discoveries that help you bust through walls that have hemmed you in. You never know, there just may be a great prize behind that door that you’re nervous about opening!

Go ahead…take a peek!

Recommended Resources:

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day
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Here We Go Loopty Loop: Learning Through Introspection

Double-loop earning

Chris Argyris says, “People consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between… the way they think they are acting and they way the really act.” This is the basis for Minding the Gap, my blog that strives to uncover what we say we want from the way we actually behave.

Evaluation is happening all around us in the workplace. We look for feedback on programs, conduct “lessons learned” meetings at the end of a project, and complete annual performance appraisals all in an attempt to determine if we are on track and identify what we can do better next time.

But when it comes to self-evaluation, looking within to see how we may have contributed to any missed opportunities, or even a complete derailment of a project, we suddenly get defensive. Argyris says this tendency is especially prevalent amid highly successful smart people. Success leads to an inability to objectively scrutinize where we may be in error. He says,

Because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure.

Argyris identifies two types of learning:

Single-loop: One-dimensional learning that provides a response based on the undesired action. For instance, a thermostat kicks in when the temperature falls below the desired (set) temperature.

Double-loop: Reflective learning where people evaluate why something went wrong. It is a root cause analysis that includes introspection.

And others have gone on to identify a third loop, which Argyris was sceptical about:

Triple-loop: Described as “double loop learning about double loop learning,” this type of learning seeks to understand the learning process itself and about our beliefs and perceptions.

To be truly introspective, to discover why we may be contributing to a problem and admit our own mistakes, takes a huge dose of vulnerability and humility. This is why it is so difficult for successful people – they don’t want to look foolish. It’s much easier (safer) to analyze the external reasons for something going wrong than to ‘fess up to our contributions.

Argyris suggests the best place to start to develop double-loop learning is through simple case studies. Here’s what it might look like:

  1. Identify a persistent issue – a real problem that needs to be dealt with.
  2. In 1-2 paragraphs, describe the situation.
  3. Write out a script of how you might discuss the situation with other stakeholders (employees, co-workers, bosses, etc.).
  4. Write out any thoughts or feelings you will likely have about others’ responses.
  5. Now you’re ready to analyze the issue and include stakeholders in the discussion.

Some things that may be discussed are group dynamics, priorities, blind spots, roles & responsibilities, and other factors that sometimes limit our ability to objectively evaluate your own behavior and biases. Introspection is not always pleasant. We like the idea of being reflective, but only when we see our overly-optimistic view of ourselves. When our motivations, limits and contributions look ugly, we want to quickly gloss over them. Having a humble and teachable spirit, an ability to see the truth about who we are but not letting that truth overwhelm and discourage us, is the key to learning the way Argyris describes it.  

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