At the risk of sounding Seinfeld-esque, I want to kick off my post about curiosity with a question or two. Here goes… So, what’s the deal with curio cabinets? How come no one except your great aunt has a curio cabinet? When did they fade away and why?
You may be wondering why the decline of curio cabinets matters and why anyone would really care.
I’m here to tell you, you should care.
Once popular, curio cabinets, have gone the way of the dinosaur. Curio cabinets grew to prominence in the 18th century as Europeans rose out of the industrial revolution and began to move and trade more freely around the world. Often glass-fronted, wooden structures, these cabinets contained unique treasures, varied items from the natural world collected from travels as mementos and keepsakes. Objects were displayed as a way to tell the stories of adventures, cultures, and new landscapes. It was a way to showcase knowledge and a way to signal status. In his book, Curious. The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, author Ian Leslie calls curio cabinets an “elaborately constructed selfie” of a past age.
In some circles, and in Leslie’s own view, the drop-off in curio cabinets mirrors the very death of curiosity itself.
So, What Happened to Your Curiosity?
A colleague of mine (thanks Mary!) recommended Leslie’s book and I found it to be a remarkable exploration of the lost art of curiosity. There are a lot of forces at work cutting short our curiosity.
Information Is Everywhere
Attention spans are lessening and answers to our almost every question are easier to come by. The internet has not helped matters. In short, it’s too easy to get an answer so we no longer need to be curious. We no longer experience the frustration of not knowing and, as it turns out, the ‘not knowing’ is actually what fuels our curiosity. Curiosity is stimulated both by understanding AND by the absence of understanding. Motivation to learn plays a big role. Leslie writes, “Information fuels a curiosity by creating awareness of ignorance.” First, we must be aware of our knowledge gaps.
The Mystery is Gone
Our bountiful age of technology has its benefits, but it has turned mysteries into puzzles. As Leslie comments, we have become a culture where we no longer conquer mysteries. Instead, we are hardwired to solve problems. These are two different modes and require different skills. Problem-solving focuses on answers while mysteries require associations, tangents, and little reassurance that one or even multiple answers will be found. We turn to search engines and quick fix answers but, Leslie offers, “making things easier can come at a cost — there can be hidden value in difficulty.” Ironic, considering that so many original internet browsers have names that signal quest and adventure… Explorer, Safari, Navigator… when, by their very nature, they cut short a lot of our curious exploration.
“We are becoming so used to easy answers
that we’re forgetting how to ask questions.”
Boredom Isn’t What It Used to Be
Another curiosity killer. Lack of boredom. That’s right. We aren’t bored like we used to be. Boredom — those moments when we have to invent ways to occupy our minds, when imagination takes hold and invention begins — no longer occurs as it once did. When there is any moment of waiting or inoccupation, we just pick up our smartphone and, voilà, blissful surfing along a wave of newsfeeds, aggregators, and Google searches begins. The mother of invention has moved on.
Trap Often our own prejudices and bias can stand in the way of acknowledging our knowledge gaps and of our curiosity. We slot other people into stereotypes and make assumptions. It must be guarded against in our insights and empathy work with clients. We meet a consumer and, based solely on appearance, mannerisms or demographics, we can hesitate. We wonder if they have anything of value to contribute to our learning. Most assuredly they do, but we must check our biases in order for our curiosity to engage.
Lack of curiosity, of course, has an impact on brands and businesses. Without curiosity and without the audacity to tackle mysteries (vs. merely solving a puzzle), innovation flounders, Me-Too products dominate, and bottom lines stagnate. At Ignite 360, curiosity is a mainstay of our work but it must be intentionally practiced in order to thrive. We see the challenges our clients face in fostering their own curiosity while meeting tight budgets and hitting quick-turn deadlines. It’s hard but oh-so-critical to make the effort to resuscitate our curiosity.
How Can You Regain and Rebuild Your Curiosity?
Changing a corporate culture stands as a daunting prospect. Small steps and personal change feel much more do-able and, perhaps, can serve as examples on how to stem the tide of the curiosity death knell. Leslie shares many thought-provoking ideas. Here are a handful:
Read Fiction. Take time to absorb and enjoy art, specifically literature. These are mysteries that help us live outside ourselves and see the world differently, through the eyes of the author and characters and scenes. Leslie points to the famed economist Adam Smith as being an avid reader of literature to help him model his way of thinking. And, a 2013 New School study found that people performed better on tests of social and emotional intelligence after reading fiction.
Seek Diversity in Sources. Seek new sources of information, sources different from those around you and your work team. Diversity of information sources helps with innovation as Leslie points out, “innovation relies on unexpected collisions of knowledge and ideas. When everyone accesses the same information in the same way, it becomes harder to make original connections.” It might also help us practice greater empathy.
Don’t Outsource Your Curiosity. Curiosity is not the area to delegate. Practice it. Self-limit your reliance on the internet for easy answers. Linger in a state of mystery a bit longer. Look to other means beyond Google and see how it feels.
Don’t be Afraid to Ask Questions. You don’t need to (always) be the smartest person in the room or in the meeting. Expose some vulnerability by asking instead of stating in order to mine for those knowledge gaps. Asking questions is an active demonstration of curiosity to know and learn and grow.
And, here’s a little curiosity for you. Today is Read Across America Day. It is. So, if you are curious, here are other books on my recommended reading list … my diversity of sources, if you will. I’m curious to hear what you think and receive your recommendations as well. Let’s go forth and #becurious!
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis
Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turtle
What the Fork Are You Eating? An Action Plan for Your Pantry and Plate by Stefanie Sacks
And, if you want to dive into the curio cabinet topic further and really get your mind blown, check out Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler.