An essay by Greg Orme

Greg Orme is a globally acclaimed thought leader, author and keynote speaker who has delivered more than 350 talks to executive audiences around the world. His work with London Business School and others focuses on how leaders and organizations thrive in a world of accelerating change by developing behaviors, processes and culture that support creativity, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit.

This technological shift is challenging the very essence of what it means to be human. News headlines pose existential questions that used to belong in the pages of science fiction: Will a machine take my job? If we can't compete with artificial intelligence, what's left? And even ...Do I matter anymore?

People are anxious about the skills they need to survive. In the face of this tsunami of change it's tempting to cling to what you know. But intellectual retrenchment is dangerous, as we need to do the opposite. In 2017, a team of Nesta researchers analyzed the skills people will need in 2030. They advised focusing on: "...developing the uniquely human skills ... such as originality, fluency of ideas ... lifelong learning and reskilling." Writer and journalist Ian Leslie concluded in his 2017 book "Curious": "The truly curious will be increasingly in demand. Employers are looking for people who can do more than follow procedures competently or respond to requests; who have a strong intrinsic desire to learn, solve problems and ask penetrating questions." To successfully differentiate ourselves from artificial intelligence, we need to become even more human, humans. Our uniquely human, innate urge to be curious is a great place to start.

Sadly, curiosity is not always encouraged at work. In the risk-averse, results-driven, top-down cultures of many businesses, it's often seen as an impertinent threat to the boss, or at best a rather wasteful luxury. But to survive in a changing world, we all need to be creative. The first step toward more creative thoughts is always curiosity. There's good news. You can develop your natural curiosity with practice. It's not just a personality trait, but also a state of being. It's like any skill. Exercise it, and it will get strong. Neglect it and it will become weak and flabby. So, here are a few helpful routes to help build your curiosity muscles.

Kickstart your brain's curiosity circuit

Neuroscience researchers at California Institute of Technology recently revealed human curiosity follows an inverted U-shape. It turns out we're not very curious about subjects we know nothing about. We get more curious when we know just a little. When we have some of the picture, but there's a piece missing, it's like an itch we must scratch. We grow less curious again as we become experts in a domain. In other words, to boost your curiosity about a new area, learn the basics. Curiosity is self-fulfilling, a small amount inevitably leads to more.

Learn from the curiosity virtuosos

Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci was a true polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer. He was self-taught, and poor at maths, but his curiosity raised him above even his most brilliant peers. For example, Leonardo was so inquisitive about how the human body works that he was one of the first to dissect corpses to help him render his anatomically perfect paintings. The eminent art historian Kenneth Clark called him "the most relentlessly curious man in history." His biographer Walter Isaacson encouragingly observed: "His genius was of the type we can understand, even take lessons from. It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observation." We can learn from Leonardo.

Explore wide and deep

Leonardo's success was his ability to make connections across disciplines - arts and sciences, humanities and technology. In the same way, Steve Jobs, in his famous product demonstrations, often concluded by showing a sign at the intersection of Liberal Arts and Technology Streets. Jobs knew ideas are sparked when curiosity connects different fields of knowledge and specialty. We're living at a moment when this is happening whether we like it or not. Incredible technologies like 3-D printing, machine learning, neuroscience, expanding mobile networks and nanotechnology are themselves blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological worlds. So it's up to us to develop a kaleidoscope of interests and look for the connections. That's where innovation lies.

Calibrate your radar

To develop a fully functioning "curiosity radar" you need to upgrade your sources of information. Write a list right now of what you read, the YouTubers and podcasts you subscribe to, who you seek out to learn from face to face, the meetings you habitually attend - even the conferences you go to. Shake them up a bit. At the same time, identify focus areas that you are particularly curious about, and make a list of unanswered questions in those spheres. Every day Leonardo returned to his "curiosity" list, which included such dazzlingly varied questions as: "Why do people yawn?", "What does the tongue of a woodpecker look like?", "What happens when light hits your eyeball?" A habit of intentionally learning from others is shared by the billionaire founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. An early colleague recalled: "He went to school on everybody ... I don't think there was anybody Jeff knew that he didn't walk away from with whatever lessons he could." Finally, surround yourself with other curious people. Curiosity is contagious, but so is incuriosity.

Ask more questions

Of all the behavioral changes I see business leaders attempting to make, asking great questions is the most difficult to start and to maintain. Innovative, successful people are now those with the best questions rather than all the answers. As the astrophysicist Richard Feynman said: "I would rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned."

Albert Einstein once famously said: "I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious." We need to emulate the Alberts, Leonardos and Jeffs of this world and exercise our own curiosity muscles. Competing with artificial intelligence is pointless. Instead, be what they cannot: a curious, creative human being.

Published: April 2018

Images: Nina Tiefenbach for Delivered.