Curiosity: A Superpower

The Disruption Lab had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Debra Clary, author, speaker and healthcare executive. In our conversation with Debra, we learned about her passion for developing leaders to increase their impact and contribution. She shared how recently her boss asked her, Can curiosity be learned? Sparking the inquisitive learner in her, Debra set herself on a course to gather and assess the data. In her article below, she shares several highlights from her findings, and insight into the relationship between cultivating a curiosity mindset and a leader’s success in innovation and growth. The Disruption Lab extends our special thanks to Debra for sharing her thought-leadership and artful story-telling with our Members and audiences.

By: Dr. Debra Clary

An Interesting Question

Socrates, the classical Greek philosopher, recognized and used the power of questions to unlock learning and insights. He pondered achievement-focused questions throughout his lifetime, among them: What are the predictors of achievement? Why are some highly accomplished while others are not?  The answer to these questions, which has eluded psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists for centuries—may finally have a simple answer: Curiosity.

Curiosity, defined as an insatiable quest to learn new knowledge and make connections in the world, may be the greatest predictor of achievement. And most profound is the fact that curiosity is contagious.

Intelligence and conscientiousness enable curiosity

In addition to Curiosity, researchers at Goldsmith University and later at the University College of London (2012), found evidence of two additional factors that significantly drive achievement: 1) intelligence and, 2), conscientiousness.

Einstein-level genius is not required. The researchers espouse that intelligence need only be in the ‘normal’ range, that nothing is out of reach for the average person. Conscientiousness signals drive and determination—the thirst for wanting more now. We might experience a person with a high need for conscientiousness as someone who is impatient.

“Curiosity may be the single best predictor of an individual’s success because it incorporates intelligence, persistency and a hunger to learn.”

—Sophie Von Stumm, Psychologist, Researcher

Curiosity is a State, not a Trait

Children, on average, ask a question every minute and 56 seconds or 390 questions a day. They are highly inquisitive beings trying to make sense of the new world they find themselves. It’s easy to imagine infants and toddlers in a permanent state of curiosity—either verbally asking a question or merely pointing expecting a response. In a longitudinal study conducted by University of London, it was determined that children that have their questions answered, or attempted to be answered, experienced higher academic achievement, are more emotionally stable and socially connected than those children that did not. Meaning that curiosity is a factor for achievement in young children. Curiosity is a state not a trait and as research suggests, can be fostered and encouraged. As leaders, we can learn a lesson from children on ways to develop an organizational culture of curiosity.

Why do we become Incurious?

If curiosity is so good for us and our organizations, why do we grow less curious as we age? As adults we do not regularly ask 390 questions a day. Incuriousness is made up of several factors: 1) We become experts in our fields and we are rewarded for performing and delivering that expertise, for example as a Medical Specialist, Tax Accountant, or Financial Officer. Even a disruption innovator can become locked into a single mindset. I don’t mean this in a pejorative way, but we become ‘know-it-alls’ versus ‘learn-it-alls’.

2) The other contributing factor of an incurious state is time—or experiencing a lack of it. Reflect on your average workday. We overschedule ourselves with meetings and activities which can lead to telling people what to do versus engaging in a conversation filled with curious questions to finding breakthrough solutions.

A Curious Question

What is the secret elixir to inspiring curiosity? A question. Leaders who want to create and inspire curiosity will lead with questions, meaning, questions that stem from an honest desire to understand and learn something they don’t already know. The key word here is learn. Curious questions begin with, what or how or are open ended to deepen understanding. Curiosity involves asking questions and are an essential superpower for reaching new heights and new places of insight. Just think about great leaders you know, and you’ll likely see this questioning trait.

In summary, curious people will increasingly be in demand and it is a leader’s superpower to inspire a culture of curiosity. The answer to Socrates’ age-old questions of achievement is simply curiosity, which can be learned and is contagious. What do you need to do differently to turn on your superpower?

Dr. Debra Clary, author, speaker and healthcare executive

If you have a question or comment for Dr. Debra Clary, please contact [email protected]



11 thoughts on “Curiosity: A Superpower

  1. Great insights on the power of inspiring curiosity in others. Brain science is teaching us that curiosity becomes a less prevalent state of mind as we grow more comfortable in our mental heuristics that allow us to use less brain energy to “figure things out”. The “fast thinking” defined by Daniel Kahneman is much easier than the “slow thinking” of our uniquely human prefrontal cortex. Curiosity requires an “open mind”. Most of us would much rather not have to rethink our predetermined conclusions about matters of value to us. Thus, the power of great questions (Socrates and Jesus were leading proponents) is an approach which can open minds when the questions generate curiosity, rather than contentious defense. Good leaders and innovation coaches rely on the art of the question to spur change in the face of staunch status quo proponents. Thanks for the insights.

  2. What a fantastic article. We so often encourage people to “Get to Curious” but rarely do we give them the space to do so. Dr. Clary is right, we are so over-scheduled that there is no time for curiosity. This is a fantastic reminder to return to “learn-it-alls” vs. “know it alls.”

  3. Oh, my …Dr. Deb…You have nailed perhaps the most critical information any leader will ever need in order to be successful. “Ask questions and listen to the answer!” The KEY to powerful leadership is indeed curiosity. Leaders are curious to truly know and understand the members of his or her team. The personal connection that springs forth from their responses is foundational in building relationships of trust. A curious person is both “interested” and “interesting.” You have made it crystal clear that this gift can be learned via practicing the process of being a learner. Your comments underscore the importance of desiring to learn new and fascinating information about one’s industry, technological changes, etc. And, in addition, a leader who is an interesting person usually has an expanded world view that has emerged from that gift of curiosity. You have supplied the keys to acquiring this gift: Ask questions beginning with “What?” or “How?” Every human being will enhance his or her life experience by absorbing your wisdom and applying it, both personally and professionally. Personally, I have seen you “practice what you preach” with massive leadership success as a result. Thank you for sharing such unique and life-changing insights.

  4. What an enlightening article. When I think about the financial and time investments made in some complex leadership programs that have limited long term benefits, this concept makes so much sense. Every leader can develop the trait of curiosity not only for themselves but for their teams. I am curious … can you follow up this article with some additional information on how curiosity has the same positive affect for individuals as they transform through new roles and seasons in their life?

  5. Great article about a topic many of us have heard about, but without much explanation as to what and how! It takes courage to be curious and your smart approach as to why we should encourage it and lead with it is brilliant. Thank you for bringing this important insight to the forefront!

  6. I agree with Larry Bridgesmith’s comment: “Most of us would much rather not have to rethink our predetermined conclusions about matters of value to us.”
    The genuinely curious seek out opposite points of view from their own, differing opinions, and thoughts from other perspectives. Leaders who foster curiosity might say, “Here are my thoughts for you to react to. Come up with better approaches.”
    Steve Jobs once said “We don’t hire smart people to tell them what to do. We hire smart people to tell us what to do.” Only a leader secure enough to be truly curious has that perspective.

  7. This was so interesting, and begs the question of whether changing the structure of our day full of meetings at work to allow for “curious time” and connecting with others could be a facilitator of change and transformation. I always find curiosity begets excitement as people discover new information, create new ideas and connect with colleagues. It’s time for more of this energy in our every day life and could imagine a future role could be Chief Curiosity Officer in an organization to infuse it through all employees and stay nimble for growth. I think you’re on to something Deb and laud you for inspiring people to be more curious!

  8. Really impactful piece. Thanks Deb for its clarity and thought-provoked influence–two things spoke to me which include the point that we are prized or valued for our skill-sets and expertise and that may be a cause as to why we lack curiosity in the end–not because we aren’t curious because we don’t want to be perceived as “not-knowing”; and the word, ‘conscientiousness’ which is underutilized in the corporate world but an empowering part of leadership and strategic navigation, and how this enhanced level of awareness can drive curiosity and its unleashed superhero power. Thanks Deb. Appreciate your leadership always! Dianne Timmering

  9. Thank you for sharing your various perspectives on the value of curiosity. While it certainly applies to the workplace and leadership development, it’s just as meaningful in our daily lives. For example, I’m an avid hiker. And, when I come upon a trail that I’ve never explored, I immediately get excited because I anticipate that new discoveries will be made thanks in part to my curiosity.

  10. I’ve been a CIO in a large law firm for more than 20 years, 35+ year career in technology. I am only now realizing the extent to which curiosity should be part of my management philosophy. It started with “The Business Case for Curiosity” published in the Harvard Business Review” in the September – October 2018 edition. My favorite quote from Deb Clary’s piece is “Curiosity may be the single best predictor of an individual’s success because it incorporates intelligence, persistency and a hunger to learn.”
    —Sophie Von Stumm, Psychologist, Researcher. I’ve been thinking through recharacterizing my internal innovation philosophies to suggest “all true innovation begins with curiosity!”. Would love to explore this the role of curiosity in innovation strategies more. Thanks Deb Clary for a motivating piece….

  11. This article continues to inspire me after bookmarking it to revisit a couple times. It’s now in my OneNote to ensure I remind myself and share it with our internal and external teams. The call to move from ‘know-it-alls’ to ‘learn-it-alls’ is critical to success as and individual and especially to be a sustainable leading team/organization. And, it takes a true high functioning team to be effective at being a ‘learn-it-all’ team. I greatly appreciate the inspiration to do this.

    The two things I’m going to do to make this happen; first, take time to reflect, and second, be bold enough to take this viral in the workplace and with non work relationships to really learn. Regarding taking time, earlier today I read Tom Bilyeu’s blog about “Thinkitation”, where he says “Don’t Just Meditate – Thinkitate” It requires time and a process he outlines. If you’re reading this and you don’t know about Tom, you need to. This article so compliments his leadership and overall life philosophy. Afterall, it’s all one in the same.

    Thank you again for inspiring curiosity that will make a lasting pivot.

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