Experts must stay curious — for themselves and for others

It’s a classic tale of human nature’s flaws when an accomplished person begins to neglect the attitudes that got them to where they are. And it’s a flaw that has the power to bring down many of the world’s greatest experts. Indeed, as we become more adept at the things we do, keeping our ego in check becomes ever more important.

Curiosity is a trait that turns a gifted person into a master. Particularly in tech, an industry that sees continuous disruption from emerging trends, the people who reach the top are the ones who have lived out a passion for learning. The ones who always need to get under the hood to figure out how things really work. The ones who seek to understand before seeking to be understood.

As we grow in experience, however, we’re at risk of losing our curiosity. People look up to us for the answers, and sometimes it feels more important to look like we have them than to admit that we’re actually not sure.

Staying curious is about acknowledging that we can never reach the point of knowing everything, even in a niche area of expertise. And that we can learn from anybody — even our juniors.

This is the attitude that makes a master out of someone. And when we become a master, staying at the top relies on our ability to retain this curiosity and passion to learn.

Why is curiosity important?

Curiosity is deemed to be an important leadership trait. And this can seem strange on the surface. Because when we think of leaders, we think of people who have been there and done it. Curiosity is for their subordinates; it’s up to them to find creative ways to fulfil their leader’s vision. They ask the questions, and the leader answers them. Right?

Well, in reality, leaders that don’t ask questions are not competent leaders. Asking questions is the most basic way to try and understand a problem. And without fully understanding the problem, we can’t possibly focus our strengths on finding a solution.

It sounds like basic stuff. But I see time and time again that many people — and too many people in leadership positions — are afraid to ask questions. Overcoming this arrogance and fear of being judged is critical to staying curious, and yet it’s an insecurity that actually grows in some people the higher up the “chain” they get.

Curiosity is important because, when it’s triggered, we think more deeply and logically about the decisions we face. And the result is that we come up with more creative solutions.

By staying curious, we continue to innovate, rather than trusting unconditionally in what has worked for us in the past. This is an essential component of success in a rapidly-changing market. And it’s crucial in setting a good example to the people we’re leading.

On a personal level, staying curious also keeps our minds active. It keeps life interesting. Because if we fall into the trap of trying to live on autopilot, sooner or later we will just stop thinking. And when that happens, we’ve officially hit a ceiling as far as our personal growth is concerned.

Why do we lose our curiosity?

It’s an unfortunate paradigm that we lose our curiosity with age. It seems that the epiphany of discovery — that sense of excitement to learn and try out new things — begins its downward trend as early as the onset of adulthood.

There’s a degree of inevitability to this. To a child, curiosity is critical in his or her journey to become an independent adult. A three-year-old approaches making a paper aeroplane like it’s an advanced form of aerospace engineering. For an adult, of course, it’s a fairly straight-forward recall of our past experiences.

And it’s partly because, as time goes, we seek to become as efficient as possible with our time and energy. Trying something new or investing time into learning about a new concept feels like too great a risk, particularly if there are no obvious signs that our current strategy is broken.

This is true, too, of business. While businesses often pride themselves on their culture of curiosity, the reality can change as pressure to be efficient grows. Leaders feel uncomfortable with the risk and liability that is carried by approaching something differently to the norm. And while there’s certainly no need to reinvent the wheel, business leaders should be careful not to stifle innovation in their drive for efficiency.

Of course, losing our curiosity can also be down to arrogance or mere complacency. The more experienced we become, the less necessary learning feels. We decide that we know enough. And this can be a huge curse for both business growth, our personal development and the development of people around us.

How can we stay curious?

As with everything that makes up our mindset, staying curious is a choice that we make. By making a conscious decision to be more curious in everyday life, we will start to see new opportunities open up for ourselves.

Here are few ways in which we can all do more to stay curious.

1. Have an open mind.

Before you shut down somebody’s opinion or cut them off while they’re trying to explain something to you, think about what you might learn from the exchange. Even if you’re more experienced in your field than somebody else, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have valuable knowledge to share with you.

Keeping yourself open to alternative perspectives is a prerequisite to curiosity. If you find yourself starting to close off to new ideas, that’s a big warning sign that you are losing your curiosity. Taking more time to listen to and understand others is a good remedy for this.

2. Ask why.

Curious people don’t take anything for granted. They always want to get beneath the hood, to understand how something works or why it’s made that way.

Asking ‘why’, and asking questions in general, is critical to understanding the problem or situation that lies in front of you. Try not to fear judgment when you ask questions, even if you think your question might be stupid. Many crises can be averted just by people feeling more comfortable asking questions. And when it comes to your personal growth, knowledge won’t always come to you. You have to be in active pursuit.

3. Get comfortable with being wrong.

Being wrong about something doesn’t make you any less accomplished or valuable. The most successful people embrace being wrong, because it gives them an opportunity to correct a misunderstanding. It’s never something that you should take personally.

Curious people often discover that they were wrong, or in some way misguided. This is an essential part of learning and improving. If you’re desperate to be right about things all of the time, you’re more likely to close yourself off to the people who actually have the facts — and this can lead you to make bad decisions.

4. Rediscover the fun in learning.

Adults can rediscover their childlike wonder simply by getting out of their comfort zone. Trying something new, like scuba diving or snowboarding, can reignite the type of curiosity necessary to master something. But the key is to see it as a pleasurable experience, even if it’s difficult.

Try to avoid perceiving any kind of discovery as “boring”. If somebody spends their free time working on something that doesn’t interest you, put yourself in their shoes. They have found passion in something that others tend to dismiss. This immediately demonstrates the type of positive attitude that will lead them to achieve long-term success.

The great scientist Albert Einstein once described curiosity as “holy”. He also said “it’s enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day”.

So in light of that, there’s no need to worry if you find yourself doing things on autopilot or shutting yourself off to new ideas. Some small steps in the right direction each day will help you to rediscover your curiosity and stay creative and innovative.

I’m Philip J. Keezer, president and founder of management consulting firm Grindstone Capital. Dedicated to hard work, learning, positivity and accountability.