The Power of Why


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Of all the traits I value in a team member, curiosity is one of the highest. For me, it’s tied to intelligence, ambition, and of course, creativity and innovation.  A healthy sense of curiosity is what separates a great worker from an uninspired drone.  If you’re looking for a spark to light up your company, consider looking for curious people.

Amanda Lang is the author of “The Power Of Why: Simple Questions That Lead to Success,” and she believes curiosity is the most important driver of what she calls “creativity with a small C.”  She writes: “Most social scientists differentiate between two distinct types of creativity: big C—the kind of inventive genius that Jobs, Mozart and da Vinci had—and small c, the more common variety of innovative creativity that a session musician or a good surgeon or, for that matter, [an inventor] might have.”

But creativity comes in small packages, too, and that’s where most of us find our own. We tinker with things that already exist, trying to make them smoother, faster, easier, better in some small way. Lang says researchers describe this tinkering mentality as “mini c, the kind that people demonstrate when they’re concocting a recipe or solving a math problem.”

Creativity, innovation, and most improvements come from people who are interested in why – and how – things work. Their favorite questions begin with “why” and sometime, “why not?” In fact asking a good question is the first step to making anything better. Why didn’t this work the way we thought it would? How could I design this so someone outside the company could use it? What else could benefit from this tweak?

One good question can start your improvement, but asking only one question can also be your downfall. It’s sometimes too easy to stop when you have the first plausible answer. Lang writes: “Just stopping at the first plausible response is how a lot of us get stuck and find ourselves unable to solve problems, both at work and at home. The rush to get the questions over with and land on an answer is also why we can wake up one day and realize that we’re trapped in the wrong line of work, the wrong relationships—the wrong lives, even.” So even when you think you have the answer, it’s important to continue to question what you see, feel, or think you know.

The problem is that we’ve lost the knack for asking questions.

It’s not our fault. We’ve had the joy of asking questions beaten out of us at an early age. We start out as babies with boundless curiosity – it’s how we learn about the world and master new skills. But as we get older, parents, teachers, and other adults get tired of answering our endless stream of “why?” and gradually teach us that we’re better seen and not heard.

Later, in school and from our peers, we learn how asking questions can make us feel uninformed, even stupid, and we learn to let some other poor guy ask first. We simply lose the habit of curiosity, and by high school, we sit in numb silence, waiting for teachers to tell us what we need to know for the test. Needless to say, this is not a recipe for stetting the world on fire.

Lang asks: “Why, when it’s so easy and natural for little kids to question and challenge and test everything, have so many adults lost these habits? Why do we equate “childlike wonder” with naïveté, when it’s clearly linked to success in ways that are tangible and quantifiable in the world of business? Is it possible to retrain ourselves and reignite our natural curiosity?”

I’ll provide some of her answers in future posts.

 

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