Curiosity, sheep, the knowns & the unknowns

Habits can be a good and bad thing for an entrepreneur, giving a clear sense of focus, a rhythm and guidance to keep heading for the north star to make stuff happen, and yet paradoxically, the wrong habits end up ultimately in addiction to doing the wrong things repeatedly.

We’ve all got an addiction, which stops us from doing more productive things. As a youngster, I remember visiting the various seaside piers in the north-west of England where the capacity of slot machines to keep people transfixed was the engine of the gambling tourist economy. It was only a bit of fun, but feeding those 10p coins into the slots at a pace, well, they were never to be seen again.

But despite this, you went back and fed them time and time again. The slot machines were in an environment designed to keep people playing until they had spent up. Of course, these days we’re all captive to a smartphone screen explicitly designed to exploit our psychology and maximise ‘time-on-device’ every waking moment, everywhere we go.

The average person checks their phone 150 times a day, and each compulsive tug on our own private slot machine is not the result of conscious choice or weak willpower, it’s engineered. A Harvard math genius named Jeff Hammerbacher took the job as first research scientist at a startup called Facebook. Hammerbacher states: the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to keep people clicking through.

Digital addiction is quiet subtle because it’s an immersive user experience, but habit forming. When you get to the end of an episode of Blue Planet on Netflix, the next episode plays automatically. It is harder to stop than to carry on, and this tech driven addiction is everywhere. Facebook works on the premise you are vulnerable to social approval, and that ‘likes’ will draw you in repeatedly. The habit of ‘second-screen’ simply feeds and cultivates this dislocated dance.

Similarly, LinkedIn sends you an invitation to connect, which gives you a little rush of dopamine  – somebody wants to know me – even though that person probably clicked unthinkingly on a an auto-menu of suggested contacts – or simply a recruiter trolling you. Unconscious impulses are transformed into social obligations, which compel attention, which is sold for cash.

What concerns me most about this growing trend is it’s turning us all into sheep. I live in the East Lancashire hills surrounded by them. Sometimes I get so angry with the simple life they lead. They just stand there, looking like they’ve never questioned anything, never disagreed. Sometimes I think they must have wool in their ears.

We laugh at sheep because sheep just follow the one in front. We humans have out-sheeped the sheep, because at least the sheep need a sheep dog to keep them in line, whilst humans keep each other in line.

Sheep are not curious, but contrary to what you may have heard or even expressed yourself, sheep are not stupid. They rank just below the pig in intelligence among farm animals. Simply, sheep react to the domestication that has decreased their instinctive behaviour and increased their docile nature, and being ‘one of the herd’ is what they’re all about.

But we need to build an ability to just be ourselves and be thinking and not be doing something banal like smartphone addition – it’s the sheep equivalent of simply standing there for following the herd. That’s what the smartphones are taking away. Underneath in your life there’s that thing, that forever empty, that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone. That’s why I think that people text and drive because they don’t want to be alone for a second and be thinking for themselves.

In this vision we are all trapped in a Mobius loop of technological determinism. Product creators are powerless to do anything but give people what they want, and paradoxically users are helpless to resist coercion into what they’re given and all of us are slaves to whatever technology wants. No one is accountable while everyone loses dignity.

Bottom line, we’re not asking enough questions, working around issues to be more curious, more cognisant of what we don’t know, and more inquisitive about everything, to organise our thinking around what we don’t know. It’s becoming a bad habit to simply spend time on our smartphones browsing without purpose. We need to be less curious about people’s social habits and their photos and more curious about new ideas and learning.

Asking questions can help spark the innovative ideas that many startups bring to market. In my research, I track business breakthroughs, and from the Polaroid instant camera to the Nest thermostat and the recent startups like Netflix, Square and Airbnb you find that some curious soul looked at an existing problem and asked insightful questions about why that problem existed, and how it might be tackled, and came up with a solution.

The Polaroid story is my favourite. The inspiration for the instant camera sprang from a question asked in the mid-1940s by the three-year-old daughter of its inventor, Edwin Land. She was impatient to see a photo her father had just snapped, and when he tried to explain that the film had to be processed first, she asked: Why do we have to wait for the picture?

When we open ourselves fully to our curious natures, we are able to ponder without limits. Curiosity isn’t about solving problems, it’s about exploration and expansion. Curiosity can start and lead anywhere, and that’s precisely the sort of broader mindset startups need. So how should we go about promoting a culture of curiosity within a startup as part of its business model? It’s essential to be curious about several things:

Be curious about your people Many startups work hard to attract people with inquisitive mindsets and then stick them in an environment in which curiosity is discouraged as they pivot to ‘business as usual’. Hire people with a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences and aptitudes and then enable those differences to spark off each other as they work to create a cohesive but flexible unit. Building a culture of curiosity starts with seeing the individuals behind the job role.

Be curious about customers Don’t see customers simply as a transaction or an opportunity for a future revenue stream, understand why they buy from you and their business model, and the mechanics of their businesses. You need an external focus beyond nice words, mastering the ‘seeing and feeling’ of the customer, be curious about your customers: ‘what would the customer say to this?’ An enquiring mentality, asking ‘is this the best we can do?’ will bring success.

You work harder on what you’re curious about When was the last time you lost track of time working on something? If you’re curious about something, you’ll worker harder than the next person, who is just trying to maximise some other metric. If you follow your curiosity, you’ll end up somewhere nobody else is. Meanwhile, people who aren’t curious are trying to figure out who they should catch up with. They create a whole universe of the uncurious, parroting something someone else told them.

Be curious about the outside world We all need to take our focus off our immediate surroundings and get curious about people, about trends taking hold, about other cultures and points of view. About anything and everything beyond our too often insular worlds. Ideas know no hierarchy. We need to get better about responding to ‘What if?’ with ‘let’s find out’ rather than ‘let’s wait until someone else tries’.

Curiosity makes your mind active instead of passive Curious people always ask questions and search for answers. Their minds are always active. The mental exercise caused by curiosity makes your mind stronger, and it makes you observant of new ideas. Without curiosity, new ideas may pass right in front of you and yet you miss them because your mind is not prepared to recognise them. Just think, how many great ideas may have lost due to lack of curiosity?

Curiosity will conquer fear and uncertainty even more than bravery will. And that’s the point: A culture of curiosity inspires courage. The courage to challenge all those assumptions and hesitations that for too long have held us back, and those unknowns.

It was this belief in following his curiosity that shaped the philosophy of Andy Warhol. I read that Warhol would just walk around New York City on rainy Sundays. That was one of his favourite things to do, and that gave him ideas and inspiration. He called it From A to B and Back Again.

Of course, curiosity is the key trait for finding out what we don’t know. I’m always minded of former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who made semantic history on 12 February 2002 when he gave the profoundly perplexing explanation about ‘known knowns’,’known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ in relation to Iraq.

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Those four sets of simple word pairs, used by Rumsfeld to describe military strategy, also convey powerful conceptual ideas with relevance to developing your startup thinking. Satisfying your curiosity and making entrepreneurial decisions based on knowns – truth, facts, and evidence – are far more likely to succeed than those based on hopes, wishes, and mythology. Let’s take a look at these four sets of word pairs as they relate to curiosity.

Known Knowns In a perfect world, known knowns would be facts based on lean startup experiments, customer development, product testing etc. Known knowns would provide reliable and valid facts and evidence on which decisions could be based. However, most known knowns are not really known knowns, they are a small category of knowledge.

Known Unknowns These are variables we are fully aware of but have no reliable data to accurately describe. This is a large category, especially if we are completely honest with ourselves about what we really know and do not know. Therefore, we are very likely to underestimate the number of unknowns that surround us. Do we truly understand the variables that drive the success of our brands?

Unknown Unknowns These are the blind spots—the problems, issues, and variables of which we have no awareness, information of knowledge. These are often the most dangerous variables and situations we ever face because they can catch us completely by surprise. Strong emotions and rigid opinions can blind us to obvious truths. We need to listen, accept, and learn find that such research can reveal many of the unknown unknowns.

Unknown Knowns There are things we know but don’t know we know. This is a strange category, and one might argue is an impossible category, a contradiction. When someone points it out to us, we say, “Of course. I know that. This relates back to an earlier assertion that people think they know more than they actually know. Once facts are presented, we easily can delude ourselves into thinking we already knew the information.

We can know things but not realise how important they are. We can know things but not understand how the pieces fit together or know what is causing what. We can be blind to the obvious or blind to the implications of the obvious. It’s curiosity that brings us an awareness of how things connect. What this conveys is that ‘knowns’ are fewer and rarer than people believe, and ‘unknowns’ are ubiquitous. They surround us on all sides.

I’ve learned that following my curiosity is the best thing to do. I’ve doubled down on curiosity. I read books I’m curious about. The best example is Steve Jobs, and how he dropped in on that calligraphy class, and how he was captivated by the letterforms. It had no practical application at the time, but he was curious, and then he built in all of that typography into the first Mac. You can’t connect the dots moving forward.

To know whether something is worth doing, or to know whether something was worth having been done, you need a metric for success. Next time you’re deciding what’s worth doing, try this metric. Ask yourself: What am I most curious about? I’m curious that sheep only sleep 3.8 hours in a day, meaning they are active 20.2 hours a day. What do they think about for all that time?

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