Don’t have wool in your ears, be driven by curiosity

Unconscious habits stop us from being more productive, none more so than our compulsion to check a smartphone screen, explicitly designed to exploit our addictive psychology. This is not the result of passive addiction or weak willpower, it’s engineered. A Harvard math genius, Jeff Hammerbacher, took the job as first research scientist at Facebook and created the original algorithm that tracked our online behaviours.

What concerns me most about this behaviour is it’s turning us all into sheep. Where I live I’m surrounded by hills, and surrounded by sheep. 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. But we’re in danger of following the herd ourselves.

Sheep are not curious, but contrary to what you may think, 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 be heard rather than one of the herd, to build the habit to be ourselves and be thinking, not doing something banal like smartphone addition, trapped in a repeatable mobius loop of technological determinism.

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

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

The Polaroid story is a 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 taken, 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?

More recently, Steve Jobs’ curiosity for design sensibility became an essential part of Apple’s core culture and product differentiator. His genius may be outside the reach of most of us, but his quest for understanding is worth emulating.

When we open ourselves fully to our curiosity, we are able to think without limits. Curiosity isn’t about solving problems, it’s about exploration and experimenting. Curiosity can start and lead anywhere, and that’s precisely the sort of broad, open mindset startups need.

Curiosity is the driving force behind discovery and learning, continually building upon itself, allowing your mind to open to new ideas, fuelling our imagination. It’s fundamental to our success, it shapes your instinct to explore which should grow into an instinct for inquiry, and it ultimately helps you discover amazing things about what you can do now and in the future.

A curious mind can relate and connect ideas better. Maintain an open mind and be willing to learn, unlearn and relearn to find get the answers you seek. Your curiosity will develop into an amazing discovery. Something you will easily identify with and can pursue further. Curiosity can give you more and better building blocks to develop creative solutions. It fuels the soul and drives innovation.

So how do you create and sustain a culture and the mindsets of curiosity within a startup as part of its business model, when the pressure is on in a race to simply get things done? Instead of the think-build-ship routine which quickly becomes a wash-rinse-repeat cycle, adopt more of the build-measure-learn heartbeat, with its essential focus to be curious about feedback, learning and iteration, on several levels:

Be curious about the outside world We all need to take our focus off our immediate surroundings and get curious about other people, their thinking, about trends, 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’.

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 how your offering in turns helps your customers’ customers. You need an external focus beyond winning the next customer, and see them as a source of innovation: ‘what would an existing or new customer say to this?’ An enquiring mentality, asking ‘is this the best we can do?’ will bring success.

Assume nothing, question everything Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers – Voltaire. The acquisition of knowledge and learning derives its energy through questioning. Brilliant ideas can come out of a better question. Einstein reckoned that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he would spend the first fifty-five minutes making sure he was answering the right question. Start asking better questions to find the right answers.

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. Building a culture of curiosity starts with seeing the individuals behind the job.

Be curious about what you’re working on 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 world of the uncurious, parroting something someone else told them.

Curiosity makes your mind active instead of passive Curious people’s 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?

Curious minds connect information better Leonardo da Vinci was insanely curious.His observation and belief that ‘everything connects’ informed most of his work. Making connections between seemingly unimportant things is perhaps one of the most crucial creative thinking skills you can ever master.

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 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 back in 2002 when he gave the profoundly perplexing explanation about known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns in relation to the military conflict in 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 three 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.

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.

Curiosity has been a major factor behind many scientific and technological discoveries and the advancement of human development. It’s never too late to starting focusing on developing curiosity instincts. Begin practicing mindfulness and be conscious of your immediate surroundings. Be curious about things you usually ignore.

Following your curiosity can lead to the breakthrough ideas you have been waiting for as a startup founder, but you can only harness and make the most of curiosity if you recognise and accept the need to make time for it. As Walt Disney said, We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

Back to sheep. 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? But don’t be a sheep. Either you get eaten by a wolf today or else the shepherd saves you from the wolf so he can sell you to the butcher tomorrow. Assumptions are quick exits for lazy minds that like to graze out in the fields without bother. So ask yourself, What am I most curious about?

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