Curiosity doesn’t kill

I’ve had Esther Dyson’s article Technology’s Mental Frontier on my mind for a few days now. She raises some great points about education and technological advancement:

Indeed, perhaps the biggest culture/value challenge of all is short-term thinking. Around the entire planet, we are approaching some kind of singularity, with the market pandering to our fundamental short-term natures by offering us instant gratification and long-term destruction.

Education does the opposite. It enables us to improve our lot by building things — using first fire and wood, and now computers and machines — to overcome our physical limitations and to create technology to extend and enhance our lives. Will technology and learning prevail, or will our susceptible, long-evolved weaknesses overcome us?

I think she raises a question that is more important than we might think. One of the things I worry about is that the instant gratification Esther talks about is making us less likely to be curious about increasingly difficult problems. I’m not arguing that Google is making us stupid. Instead I’m arguing that the ability to get answers to almost any question we can dream up has consequences. By filling our brains with easy answers we become less likely to go after those wicked problems — problems that are “difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize”.

To combat this issue we need to cultivate curiosity in our schools and workplaces. Cap Watkins recently mentioned how curiosity is one of his hiring requirements:

If you’re intensely curious, I tend to worry less about other skills. Over and over I watch great designers acquire new skills and push the boundaries of what can be done through sheer curiosity and force of will. Curiosity forces us to stay up all night teaching ourselves a new Photoshop technique. It wakes us up in the middle of the night because it can’t let go of the interaction problem we haven’t nailed yet. I honestly think it’s the single most important trait a designer (or, hell, anyone working in tech) can possess.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher also talks about this in her article On Content and Curiosity:

Curiosity keeps us hungry. It leads us to tackle new challenges when the easy questions have all been answered. It makes us wonder how things could be better — even when they are, if we’d just pause to admit it, pretty damn good already.

If answers come to us too quickly too often, we lose that essential sense of curiosity that drives us to solve difficult problems. If you don’t believe me, just spend some time with a 3-year old. Sometimes when I build puzzles with my daughter I get carried away and help a little bit too much. My daughter always responds by slowing down her own efforts, eventually declaring that she can’t do it. But when I hold back, and give her just enough guidance instead of solving the problem myself, her curiosity — the need to see that final picture — takes over until she forces herself to figure it out.

We need to cultivate this on two levels. First, we need to guard ourselves against a loss of curiosity. Skip Google and think instead. Don’t use an app to help you with Words with Friends (it’s ok, we’ve all done it). Solve the problem the long, hard, stupid way every once in a while.

Second, we need to do everything we can to grow curiosity in those we have influence over — employees, co-workers, kids, etc. And how do we do that? I think Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said it best in his French poem Dessine-moi un bateau1:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

I’ll let your curiosity drive you to figure out what the “endless immensity of the sea” looks like for your situation.


  1. Link via Kevin Kelly