May 30, 2019

Cultivating Curiosity: The New Learning Imperative

By: Gary Schoeniger
Photo by Stephen Hickman on Unsplash

Learn How to Think (and Act) Like an Entrepreneur

Part 4/8

Among the most distinguishing characteristics I’ve noticed among entrepreneurs, is an unusual desire to learn. It’s not that they are great students in the traditional sense, (in fact, in many cases, it’s quite the opposite) yet they always seem to be engaged in learning, usually through non-formal and informal means.

For example, they learn through observation and inquiry, through experimentation, adaptation, and reflection, a process known to educators as experiential learning. They learn through YouTube videos, podcasts, lectures, audiobooks, and other self-directed means. They learn through formal and informal peer networks and support groups, they learn from mentors and informal advisors. The point is they always seem to be seeking knowledge that will enable them to expand their understanding and accomplish their goals.

The question is, why do they behave this way?

More importantly, what can we learn from them that we can use, not only to cultivate our own curiosity, but also to encourage our children, our students, and our workforce to do the same?

We are all born curious and naturally inquisitive, with an innate desire to learn and to explore. It is the driving force not only behind human development but advancements in our understanding of the world, our ability to identify and solve problems, to adapt, and to improve the overall quality of our lives. In other words, curiosity is the driving force behind innovation and entrepreneurship.

Why aren’t more of us this way?

While some may be inherently more curious than others, what begins as a robust trait often becomes more fragile over time. While some maintain a strong sense of curiosity throughout their lives, our innate sense of curiosity can be diminished or discouraged as a result of life experiences.

For example, as children, we may have been discouraged from asking too many questions. After all, as a parent, an endless barrage of “why”, “why not” and “what if” questions can be overwhelming. Yet, as parents, our response—patiently providing answers and encouraging exploration versus expressing frustration or discouraging further inquiry—can make an enormous impact on a child’s sense of curiosity. The use of passive entertainment in the form of television, movies, and video games as a proxy for effective parenting can also go a long way to diminish a child’s innate sense of curiosity.

Our systems of education, designed for the industrial era, rely on rote memorization and standardized testing that also dampen our innate sense of curiosity. As numerous studies have shown, children entering preschool are highly curious and eager to learn. Yet almost from the moment they arrive in school, their curiosity begins to wane. According to author and psychologist, Susan Engel, preschoolers between the ages of three and five will ask their parents between twenty-five and fifty questions per hour, yet they will ask less than two once they arrive in school. By the time they reach middle school, they basically stop asking questions entirely. Not surprisingly, at about this time, student engagement begins to plummet. And, as students become less engaged, the more likely teachers are to rely on extrinsic rewards (or threat of punishment) which further undermines their intrinsic desire to learn. As a result, learning is often perceived as something to be endured rather than the source of fulfillment and growth. In his book Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, author Alfie Kohn describes how attempts to manipulate students with incentives may seem to work in the short run, yet they ultimately fail and even do lasting harm to our innate curiosity and desire to learn.

Curiosity is also often discouraged in the workplace. As organizations focus on repetition and efficiency they often become rule-bound, relying on processes and procedures that encourage compliance rather than curiosity. In many cases, questioning is perceived as a threat or an act of defiance. After all, we are not being paid to question things, we are being paid to follow the rules.

In many ways, we’ve been socialized to function within highly stable routinized systems that stifle rather than stimulate our sense of curiosity. Instead, we learn to memorize facts and follow the rules. We learn to stop asking questions and to accept things as they are. Without realizing it, we develop an external locus of control—a deeply held, mostly unconscious belief that our lives are controlled by external forces that are beyond our control. As a result, our sense of curiosity atrophies and we become distracted and disengaged. Like school, work becomes something to be endured rather than a source of meaningful contribution, challenge, and growth.

Yet the factors that diminish our curiosity are not all externally imposed. As adults, we also do it to ourselves. As we grow older, we develop a mindset, a collection of deeply held beliefs and tacit assumptions that becomes an established way of thinking—a mind-set—that drives our behavior. Faced with a daunting array of choices, we learn to rely on what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to as our fast-thinking brains—memorization, mental shortcuts, heuristics, and habitual patterns of thought—in order to more easily navigate the complexities of day-to-day life. After all, it’s much easier to exploit prior knowledge than it is to explore new. Without realizing it, we become creatures of habit operating on autopilot. Assured of our beliefs, we often become set in our ways.

So what makes entrepreneurs so curious?

The answers may lie not in their hereditary traits but in the nature of the goals they pursue. As I discussed in a previous piece, the pursuit of a compelling goal can shift our perspective and change our behavior in subtle yet profound ways. A compelling goal activates within us a powerful motivational force that energizes us, activating our faculties in ways that extrinsic rewards and threat of punishment cannot. In other words, entrepreneurs are more likely to be intrinsically motivated to learn. After all, as numerous studies have shown, we learn best when we are searching for answers to our own questions.

When we are pursuing what is right for us, our psyche produces the energy, the focus, and the fortitude that are necessary for the achievement of a meaningful (and difficult) goal. We no longer assume that our lives are controlled by others, or that someone else will tell us what to do. Rather than fitting in and following rules, we must now learn to figure things out for ourselves. And by doing so, we activate our innate curiosity and awaken a natural desire to learn.

Rather than accepting things as they are, a compelling goal lures us out of our comfort zones, beyond the confines of familiarity, habitual patterns of thought, and daily routines. No longer constrained by externally imposed rule systems, the compelling nature of our goals calls us to explore new and unfamiliar terrain. Where circumstances once discouraged curiosity, they now demand it. The compelling nature of our goals enables us to become more focused and therefore less susceptible to distractions and less likely to rely on auto-pilot as we become more alert and highly engaged.

As Google’s education evangelist Jamie Casap once said, “Stop asking students what they want to be when they grow up, ask them what problems they want to solve and what they need to learn in order to solve those problems.” In other words, the secret to cultivating curiosity in ourselves and others lies in the pursuit of a compelling goal.  

As the world continues to change at an unprecedented rate, the mindset that once enabled us to thrive is rapidly becoming obsolete. In many ways, we are training our children, our students, and our workforce for a world that no longer exists. In his book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, author Ian Leslie writes, “[a] society that values order above all else will seek to suppress curiosity. But a society that believes in progress, innovation and creativity will cultivate it, recognizing that the enquiring minds of its people constitute its most valuable asset.” Simply put, if we are to adapt to the demands of the 21st century, we must recognize curiosity as the key that unlocks our innate desire to learn.