Why you shouldn’t always just ‘Google it’
Why you shouldn’t always just ‘Google it’
“What is Area 51?”, “How to eat pineapple”, “How to floss dance”. These are just three of the most searched for questions and phrases of 2019. In fact, every second of every day, we ask Google over 40,000 of these factual, monotonous, fun, interesting, and, quite frankly, bizarre questions, making it the most visited site on the planet by far.
It’ll be no surprise either that another of the world’s most popular sites is Wikipedia. I’m willing to bet that over the past week or two you’ve found yourself deep inside one of those Wikipedia ‘rabbit holes’, unearthing information you didn’t realise you had the slightest interest in; mindlessly jumping from one fact to the next.
The Internet is buzzing with questions from humans. Surely, this automatic reliance on our devices to help us find quick, instantaneous answers might suggest that we humans are a naturally curious bunch, but are we really?
We are all born curious, but do we stay curious?
Children ask a staggering 73 questions a day, compared to just 20 that adults ask. If you have young children yourself, you will have undoubtedly experienced the unrelenting, unfiltered, yet wonderful bombardment of their constant “who…?”, “what…?”, “why…?” and “when…?” questions. The minds of children are primed to find out more about everything and everyone around them.
Children are the epitome of curiosity, which is defined as “an eagerness to know or learn about something.” But research indicates that this level of curiosity tends to decline at an early age; between the ages of four to five years old, around the time they start going to school in fact. Why so young? If you think back to your school days, being curious probably wasn’t a trait that was reinforced to you as ‘valuable’ or one that was needed to be successful in life. Instead, children were often encouraged to focus and learn, rather than question and learn. I like to think the situation is different now.
As we entered the world of work, our curiosity was tempered even further. Even today, rather than encouraging curiosity within their organisations, leaders often shut it down, mostly subconsciously, because they wrongly believe it to be inefficient and unproductive. Not only that, but as explained in this Harvard Business Review article, “As people climb the organisational ladder, they think they have less to learn. Leaders also tend to believe they’re expected to talk and provide answers, not ask questions.”
In my mind, this has to change. We must all realise that valuing curiosity - challenging and questioning the status quo and learning all there is to learn in the process - is the only way we will really explore the world we live in and transform it for the better.
Why becoming more curious will help us to become better at our jobs
Research shows that becoming more comfortable with asking “Why?” more often, and proactively unleashing our natural inquisitiveness in the process, will make us more successful. In a study of 120 employees, researchers found that natural curiosity was associated with better job performance. That’s no surprise to me, after all, some of the biggest and brightest minds in the world are or were also the most curious, including Albert Einstein who was famously quoted as saying, “I have no special talent, I’m only passionately curious.”
In fact, becoming more curious can help us improve in many areas of our work. A curious mindset can help us become:
- Less susceptible to confirmation bias, making it unlikely that we’ll seek out opinions similar to our own and therefore let go of our long-held assumptions and preconceptions
- More creative and innovative in both our thinking and output
- Increasingly adaptable and able to make difficult decisions more easily, especially during times of crisis
- Increasingly adept at remembering new information, even if that information isn’t relevant to what we were initially curious about
- Better at developing stronger relationships with others – in fact, during social encounters, curious people are seen as more interesting and engaging
- More mentally active – your mind is a muscle and the mental exercise caused by curiosity makes it stronger and stronger
- Better at dealing with negative situations or rejection
- And, interestingly, more future-proofed against the machines, as Spencer Harrison, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD explains in his TedX Talk, “Curiosity gives us the edge over machines – machines will never ask why”.
The link between curiosity and learning
Research also indicates that opening our minds and allowing ourselves to question, to ponder, to be more curious, will in turn help us to become better learners. Whether we realise it or not, as explained by McKinsey & Company, learning in itself is a skill, and it’s entirely possible to learn more, and more frequently when we’re more curious.
Developing a curious mindset will help us to get one step closer to becoming intentional learners – a skill which McKinsey believe to be fundamental to success in the coming decades - whereby we treat every moment as a learning opportunity and find joy in the exploration and discovery of answers. After all, curiosity is often what gets our learning started, it sparks inspiration and it’s the catalyst to growing our knowledge and expertise.
Many people have simply not been taught how to learn effectively, yet learning well, with curiosity being a big part of that, is so key to long-term success, particularly right now. After all, back in January this year - which now feels like a lifetime ago - The World Economic Forum declared that the world was facing a ‘reskilling emergency’. Now, only a few months later, as the planet faces the most disruption any of us are likely to experience ever again in our lifetimes, that skills emergency has become even more stark.
So, in my mind, it has never been more important that we all try to be far more actively curious about the world we all live in; to ask questions and debate, instead of simply accepting things for how they always are.
“Why?” should become your favourite question
So, how can we stimulate our natural curiosity and prime ourselves for the learnings and lessons ahead of us in this new era of work? The first step is simple – ask. more. questions.
When was the last time you sat through a meeting, with what you thought was probably just a ‘stupid question’ at the tip of your tongue? It happens to all of us. We don’t ask those questions because we worry about how others might perceive us, because we don’t want to be seen as vulnerable, because we don’t want to dent our egos. We don’t ask those questions because upholding a glossy, ‘all-knowing’ exterior of ourselves to the world is far more important to us than having our questions - questions that we tell ourselves were probably just ‘silly’ any way - answered.
To reignite the curiosity we were all born with, we must get more comfortable with asking more questions, more often, even at the risk of looking or feeling stupid in front of our peers. Only by asking questions will we see the full picture and really challenge how things have always been done. Only by asking questions will we start to see and do things differently. Only by asking questions will we ever learn anything new.
As Bob Borchers, VP of Product Marketing at Apple, puts it in his TedX Talk, curious people who ask curious questions live a life of discovery, not a life on autopilot. Wouldn’t you rather live your life like that? It’s time we all recognised the value in asking questions. No matter how mundane those questions might appear on the surface, the answers they will uncover and the discoveries they will lead to will likely be anything but. And remember, when you find answers, you find understanding and you learn something new.
A great place to start is to begin asking questions of all aspects of your life, of things you’re interested in, of the world around you. Don’t passively accept things around you as being just how they are, ask “why” they are, and realise that the limits of what you can be interested in are limitless. And, when asking questions of others, try asking open-ended questions, as explained in this Berkeley piece, “Asking open-ended questions - those where the answer is truly unknown to the inquirer - and showing interest and asking follow-up questions are likely to make a responder go deeper, which will likely produce more curiosity in you.”
In a work context, why not switch your frame of mind to be more curious about any specific feedback your manager may have about your performance. Probe for this feedback by asking the right questions of them, instead of avoiding the conversation all together. Lastly, becoming more curious around your own behaviours and motivations via self-reflection may also be enlightening.
As Borchers puts it, your career should be about questioning “why?”.
It’s OK to not have all the answers or to fail sometimes
So, we understand that in order to become more curious we need to ask more questions. But what about answering questions posed by ourselves and others? The society we live in tends to tell us that it values only those answers that are right, not those that, granted, might not be entirely correct, but could generate equally useful exploration. So, to become more curious, we must see the value in the latter. What I’m saying here is that it doesn’t matter if the answers we give aren’t always right, or if we fail from time to time, just so long as we learn from that. Scientists are maybe the best at doing this. They sit at the edge of the unknown by definition. They hypothesise about what might be and then seek to discover or invent. Oppenheimer spoke about how science and scientific approaches can influence how society thinks about itself so well back in 1953 in the Reith Lectures, and it’s as true today as it was then.
As I’ve written about in the past, similar to those people with a growth mindset, curious people see life as an endless opportunity to learn. They understand that failure is part and parcel of the learning process. Curious people understand that curiosity naturally leads to failures, but that doesn’t stop them from exploring and discovering new things, as the reward of doing so – learning and expanding their minds - is far greater.
This McKinsey & Company article shares some advice that really resonated with me on this topic. If you’re faced with a project at work that you think will be fraught with failure, issues or risks, then reframe your mind to think of that project as a ‘once-in-a-career’ moment. By doing so, you’re telling yourself that this may be the only opportunity in your career that you’ll have the opportunity to deliver a project like this. This will help inspire your curiosity and “…squeeze every drop of learning from even the most challenging circumstances.”
Try doing things you don’t know how to do
As this Psychology Today article explains, another way to develop your curious mindset is to try doing things you don’t know how to do. So, think of all the things you can’t do but would like to be able to do – it can be as simple as something like juggling, baking bread, playing tennis or picking up a musical instrument, or as exciting as learning to water ski or to drive a car.
If you’re curious enough, you can learn to do anything. But don’t just choose to learn things you are naturally good at. Instead, chose to learn things you have a natural interest in. When you do, you’ll discover you’re naturally good at a lot of things and your preconceptions around what you can and cannot do will be quashed. This revelation will serve you well in all aspects of your life, not least at work.
No one better encapsulates this point than Stephen Robinson, Founder of 52Skillz. Robinson believes that as we grow older, we become more comfortable and stable, tending to stay in the same place both physically and mentally. As he explains, “…it seems like we live our lives in a constant state of maintenance, working a job that we don’t necessarily enjoy to buy things that maintain and elevate our comfort level. And 20 years later, we wake up and realise we’ve spent our lives maintaining rather than living.” All of us are at risk of falling into that safe routine, unless we intentionally switch paths and let our natural curiosity loose.
So, Robinson made a list of all the things he’d always wanted to do, but never had the guts to do and set up a YouTube channel. As the name, 52Skillz, suggests, he committed to learning 52 new skills – one for every week of the year. He’s learnt how to survive in the Amazon, how to backflip, how to write and perform a song, and in his TedX Talk, he explains how he’s learnt all of these things, which I thought might be useful to share with you:
- Write down what you’re curious about and what you want to learn – writing things down makes your goals feel more real
- Add a deadline or target - this will create some urgency around what you want to do
- Create accountability by letting friends and family know what you intend to learn
- Understand that part of the learning process is failing – change your mindset to realise that if you’re failing, then you’re growing as an individual. And this brings me on to my next point…
I’m sure many of you reading this will have picked up new hobbies or tried new things during periods of lockdown across the world. In doing so, whether you realise it or not, you have been flexing your curiosity muscle – so keep that up. What do you want to learn next? As McKinsey & Company explain, “The key is to avoid stagnation by feeding your mind with something new.”
Instead of living your life on autopilot - just going through the motions, maintaining your level of ‘comfort’ - your default setting should always be to explore, not to automatically just ‘Google it’. I hope this blog has gone some way in showing you the real value that reigniting your natural curiosity can bring to your life. So, give yourself permission to ask more questions, more regularly, to get answers wrong, to fail and to learn. If you don’t, you’ll be stuck, and who wants that?