We hear gloom and doom about the future every day. But we are not cats. Our natural curiosity has the potential to create a wonderful future. If we energize it. Read on to do so….

“You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be the most useful.”
— Madame Curie (a very curious woman!)

No one should be surprised to hear us say curiosity is a key value of highly creative people and innovation inspiring leaders. It’s one of those easy “duh” statements. Curiosity fuels the acquisition of new information. Our brain takes in information and sorts, categorizes, relates, leverages and combines with what is already present to create novel connections. Novel neural connections are the source of all that is new, all that is creative, and all that leads to innovation. So curiosity is key. We’ve written about all of the values here.

Energizing Curiosity in Your Innovative Brain: A core value of innovation leadership

True stories from which to learn:

When Starbucks first launched their line of bottled Frappuccinos in supermarkets, they did not sell well, so Starbucks blamed the partner company that provided the sales force. A logical conclusion, but also one that showed a lack of curiosity. Because once the Frappuccino was launched in the Starbucks retail coffee stores, sales of the product in the supermarket took off. A more curious response from Starbucks wouldn’t have blamed the sales force, but would have wondered, “in what ways might we sell more product?”

Two researchers from Clorox thought they knew what would happen when they mixed two chemicals together — a gloppy mess. However having recently taken one of our courses in creative thinking decided to try it anyway. While they got the gloppy mess that they expected, they also decided that it had some marketable cleaning properties that subsequently turned into a new product. Is curiosity good? That’s a great question…

“Creativity exists in the plane of previously unconnected thoughts.”

Can you develop your curiosity? Yes, with kindling.
Are you curious about why neurologists call it kindling? Glad you axed. If you heat with a woodstove, you know that there is a need for adequate clearance between your stove and combustibles, especially wood. Over the years, as the stove heats the wood near it, the kindling point or ignition temperature of that same wood gradually lowers because of the heat/re-heat cycle. In time, it will actually combust at a temperature much lower than before it was exposed to the heat/re-heat cycle. This is known as the kindling effect.

As time passes, neural pathways that are regularly exercised fire with less provocation as well.
So toss another log on that mental fire of yours and create some innovative heat!

A more important question to ask is, “what you can do about it?” Like so much of what we think about when we look at the creativity that leads to innovation, there is a subtle cultural belief that some people are curious and some people are not…and that’s just the way it is. However, curiosity is in fact one of those malleable, learnable personality traits.

Have you ever wondered if curiosity is static for an individual? Have you ever wondered if you could create a dynamic in your leadership that caused people around you to be more curious? Heck, have you ever wondered if you might become more curious? Wonder now. Actually ask yourself the question. Take a moment to think to yourself “What might be all of the things I could do to enhance curiosity in myself and the people around me?”

Really. Don’t just read the question and move on. Stop for a moment and think it, then see what shows up.

“What might be all of the things I could do to enhance curiosity in myself and those around me?”

Now, maybe you get some interesting answers to that question, and maybe you just get the same old /same old. Whether you create useful answers is not the key to energizing your curiosity. The key is in asking questions!

Curious Habits
Developing a new habit of asking more questions than you do at this point in your life is essential to energize your curiosity. New, potentially useful information comes from asking questions. Questioning is a cognitive pattern that can be habituated to an optimal level in the human brain. Curiosity is questioning. By training your brain to question more, you can train your brain to be more curious.

The Neuroscience of Curiosity
Every thought we have is an event that exists physically in the neurological pathways of our brain. The more often we repeat a certain thought, the more robust the particular pathway needed for that thought becomes. And interestingly, the more we repeat a certain thought pattern, the more readily that neural pathway fires in the future. In other words, the more you have a thought pattern, the easier it becomes to have it again. Neuroscientists call this increase of ease in neural firing “kindling” and we can leverage this physiological mechanism to increase an individual’s curiosity.

We can get a good glimpse of this process by looking at the neurology behind the development of an incapacitating fear, or phobia. Human beings are not born with phobias, they are created. Phobias begin either with an unpleasant experience, i.e. a very rough airplane flight, or a compelling story told to us about an unpleasant experience, i.e. seeing TV coverage of a plane crash, or listening to the story of someone who is very afraid of flying on planes. The neural pathway required for the thought “flying is dangerous” has been energized and fired. If that thought pattern is repeated frequently, and no countervailing pattern is fired (“flying is safer than driving”, for instance) then the kindling effect allows that pathway to fire more easily and frequently in the future, resulting in a full blown primitive “fight or flight” response, which can be experienced as a panic attack and seen by others as a phobic reaction.

This neural kindling tendency that we all have can create some hassles for us, as in a phobia, or it can be leveraged to create something useful, like curiosity.

When you asked the question “What might be all of the things I could do to enhance curiosity in myself and those around me?” you fired the neural pathway of that specific question as well as firing the general neural pathway of seeking newness.

Seeking Newness
The more frequently we fire the Seeking Newness (SN) pathway, the more readily it fires in the future. So, if we want to increase our curiosity, we need to find ways to fire the SN pathway as frequently as possible. So the curious question is: “What might be all of the ways I could fire my SN pathway more frequently?”

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Albert Einstein

Tools and Tricks to Foster Curiosity
-The great sage Alex Trebek, the host of the TV game show Jeopardy, provides useful wisdom every time he says, “please phrase it in the form of a question.” We can use that advice to put our problems in jeopardy of going away by phrasing them as a question. Twist your complaint (I work too much.) to a question (How might I work less? In what ways could I make work more fun?) Read more about this technique here.

-When you hear someone say “it can’t be”, ask, “why not?” Our colleague and genius researcher Andy Aleinikov likes to say “’Why not every not.”

-Hang a reminder question on your bathroom mirror: “What am I curious about today?” or “What am I interested in learning about today?”

-Google or Yahoo search “Curiosity” and see what you find. (Make sure your cat is nowhere near your computer screen when you do this.)

-Have each person at your dinner table tell a story about something new they learned each day, or play the board game “LifeStories.”

-If you’re in airports a lot like we are, pick up a magazine that you wouldn’t normally read. Make yourself read at least one article in it that does not look interesting. Really! You can give up 10 minutes in an airport, don’t you think?

There are a ton more techniques, we’re sure, and we’re curious about any ideas you might have to help fire the SN pathway. Drop us an e-mail with any ideas that pop up for you.

The bottom line is this: There are problems at work, at home and in the world that desperately require wise solutions. Those solutions will rise out of the novel connections created in human minds. Those human minds can only make novel connections if new stuff is entering those minds. New stuff only enters our minds if we’re curious.

New Rule! If we want to fix what’s wrong in the world, we need to be curious. And if you want to be more curious, you can fix that. Want to know how? Then re-read this article…curiously!  Watch our video

So rather than being “in trouble” save the future with curiosity!

As with all of the writing emerging from the Innovation Leadership practice at New & Improved and posted in the blog  of our website, the material above was written collaboratively with many minds. A principle contributor and frequent co-author over the years has been Jonathan Vehar. Jonathan and Bob wrote a book together that we think you might enjoy. “More Lightning Less Thunder – How to Energize Innovative Teams.” You’ll find a more extensive exploration of the material above there.

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