Expertise Versus Curiosity


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In a previous post, I wrote about The Power of Why: Simple Questions That Lead to Success, a book by Amanda Lang. In it, she makes the case for curiosity as a key indicator of success in your personal life and in business.

Lang believe that most business people believe in the power of expertise. People who know things are smart people, and what they think matters. The problem with this theory is that experts are creating ideas based on what has worked before. Things change. What worked before, even yesterday, may not work today.

The most successful experts are those who hang on to their curiosity – asking questions and following the answers where they lead.  Amanda Lang says we’ve been conditioned from our first years to think of experts as the ones with answers, not questions.

So as we progress in our education and our thinking processes, we’re encouraged to practice convergent thinking. “Convergent thinking is all about analyzing options and solutions in a rigorous, analytical fashion to converge on the best one and figure out how to implement it,” writes Lang. Convergent thinking has a hard time holding two opposing things true at once; it wants us to believe something is one thing OR the other, not both at once. That’s just confusing, and makes it harder to find the right answer.

Our assumption is that there IS a right answer, and ONLY one. The world is much too complex for a single, right answer most of the time, especially in business, where competing interests, changing markets and new technology make everything fluid – and full of possibilities.

Divergent thinking, Lang says, “starts with questions, as many as possible. ‘Why would tweens want a widget? What if the widget were free?’ The goal is to generate more ideas by letting your mind wander within the preordained constraints.” And we often start with brainstorming, but most of us rush through that process to try to converge on the right answer, or the consensus answer – the one we can all agree on. We end up back on the convergent treadmill to the same old ending.

Curiosity as a mindset means asking lots of questions – channeling your inner three-year-old. Asking lots of questions Why does this work? What do you like about it? What if we did it like this? Why not? How does that make it different? Even silly questions, like “What are the worst ideas we can come up with?” have purpose. Take all the terrible (often hilarious) bad ideas you come up with and turn them on their head. You’ll find some true gems during that process.

In fact, Lang writes, “Curiosity is the antidote to complacency, but only if you act on whatever it is you discover. Many floundering companies don’t get in trouble because they didn’t ask questions but because they didn’t believe or weren’t willing to embrace the answers they found. Instead, they relied on past experience: the products, services and approaches that had always been winners in the past.”

There are ways to spark this fresh, curious mindset in your business and personal life. Lang writes about a university professor of architecture who asked students to draw a common object like a candlestick. Then he’d turn it upside down and ask students to draw it again. “Without fail, the upside-down version was miles more accurate. The reason is simply because our brains stopped classifying the object as ‘candlestick’ and simply perceived a bunch of lines and curves, which we were then able to copy more accurately.”

Think of all the times you see a problem, an assignment, or a person, as something familiar. “I’ve done (or seen) this before,” you think. And you go into autopilot mode. What if you could instead, get curious, and approach it as a brand new challenge?

One change is that mistakes are no longer failures, but learning experiences. You can live the way Thomas Edison did when he famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

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