A look at how the tendency to wonder and inquire is a secret to success for Hollywood producers, entrepreneurs, and innovative designers. (A version of this article also appeared on FastCoDesign.)
Brian Grazer is one of the most successful producers in Hollywood, with film credits that include Splash, A Beautiful Mind, and Apollo 13, along with TV hits such as 24, Arrested Development, Parenthood, and the currently red-hot Empire. So what has helped Grazer climb to the top in one of the most competitive industries? Clearly, he has strong creative instincts and a great collaborative partner in Ron Howard, with whom Grazer co-founded Imagine Entertainment. But as Grazer sees it, one of his greatest assets—one that has fueled his success at every stage of his career—is his insatiable curiosity.
“Curiosity is what gives energy and insight to everything else I do,” Grazer writes in his new book, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life. In the book, co-authored with the business writer Charles Fishman, Grazer explains that his penchant for wondering and questioning has consistently led him to new ideas and fresh opportunities—while also helping him to overcome fears, broaden his thinking, and become a better manager of others.
Who knew a little curiosity could accomplish so much?
Well, lots of people, actually. Decades ago, Einstein urged us to “never lose a holy curiosity,” while Walt Disney proclaimed that curiosity was a key to his company’s success (“We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”)
More recently, there’s been a fresh wave of champions extolling the virtues of curiosity. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has theorized that innovation is fueled, in part, by the “curiosity quotient” of innovators. The psychologist Todd Kashdan asserts that curiosity has all kinds of life-enhancing benefits, such as improving personal relationships. Author Ian Leslie’s recent book Curious contends that curiosity may be the “most valuable asset” of any society that aspires to progress and creativity. (See my earlier post about Ian Leslie’s book.)
My own book, A More Beautiful Question, draws a direct connection between curious inquiry and many of today’s most innovative entrepreneurs and designers. Design breakthroughs such as the Square credit card reader, Pandora internet radio, the Nest thermostat, and the business model for Airbnb all began with curious people wondering why a particular problem or human need existed—and how it might best be addressed. In today’s Silicon Valley, coming up with the right curious question can ultimately yield a payoff in the billions.
So it’s a great time to be curious, right?
Yes and no. With vast amounts of information at our fingertips today, we can quickly learn more about anything that piques our interest—we can satiate curiosity almost as quickly as it arises. But according to author Ian Leslie, that’s not necessarily a good thing. “By making it easier to find answers, the Web threatens habits of deeper inquiry—habits that require patience and focused application,” Leslie writes. In today’s info-drenched environment, it’s all too easy for a curious-minded person to bounce “from one object of attention to another, without reaping insight from any,” Leslie writes.
The key to making one’s curiosity more fruitful and productive, according to Leslie, is to harness it at times: to take what scientists call “diversive curiosity” (a non-discriminating interest in anything and everything new) and apply it in a more focused, directed, and sustained manner; this is known as “epistemic curiosity.”
In my own research on innovators, I found many of the most successful ones to be people of wide-ranging curiosity who also knew when and how to narrow their focus, channeling their curiosity in a particularly promising direction. The founders of Airbnb, fresh from design school, were curious about a lot of things, but when they found themselves wondering about a particular question—Why were so many people having trouble getting a hotel bed at peak times in San Francisco, while so many other people around town had empty apartments, bedrooms, or available air-mattresses?—that’s when epistemic curiosity kicked in, as they began to pursue the issue and eventually acted on it.
I found a similar scenario at work in many innovation stories. From the creation of the Polaroid instant camera—which began when founder Edwin Land’s curious young daughter wondered, “Why do we have to wait for the picture?”—to the more recent breakthroughs that led to Pandora and Square, in each case the initial curiosity about a particular situation/problem led to a much deeper dive into the problem in an endeavor to solve it.
As Grazer notes in his book, “Persistence is what carries curiosity to some worthwhile resolution.”
That may be the most important lesson to learn about getting the most out of curiosity, but it’s not the only one. Here are a few more tips, shared by Grazer and others, on how to tap into your natural curiosity and apply it in ways that can help you professionally and personally.
Use curiosity to broaden your horizons and discover new possibilities.
How do you find great problems to solve and stories to tell? By getting out of your bubble and exploring the wider world around you with open eyes/ears and a receptive mind. There are infinite ways to do this; Grazer does it via his “curiosity conversations.” On a regular biweekly basis, he arranges to have a talk with someone outside his domain (over the years, he has chatted with everyone from Andy Warhol and Jonas Salk to Steve Jobs and Barack Obama). “I don’t sit in my office, gazing out the windows at Beverly Hills, waiting for movie ideas to float into my field of vision,” Grazer writes. “I talk to other people. I seek out their perspective and experience and stories, and by doing that I multiply my own experience a thousandfold.”
I encountered a similar philosophy and approach at work with IDEO creative director Paul Bennett, who travels widely, observes local customs and behaviors closely, and documents his findings in his blog, The Curiosity Chronicles. Bennett told me his explorations of other cultures and worlds provide an endless source of inspiration that invariably finds its way back into his work at IDEO.
Having a broad perspective and a wide knowledge base is particularly valuable in today’s multi-disciplinary work environments, where “T-shaped people”—whose skills and knowledge run wide as well as deep—tend to fare well. In terms of broadening one’s interests and being open to many new perspectives, this is where wide-open diversive curiosity can be quite useful—as long as it’s combined with more focused, epistemic curiosity. Let your curiosity range far afield, but also know when it’s time to dig into a patch of fertile ground.
Use curiosity as a self-motivating force.
In his book, Grazer talks about how curiosity helps him overcome fear and break out of ruts. “It does that by getting you comfortable with being a little uncomfortable,” he writes. When undertaking something potentially risky, “I try to set aside my fear long enough to start asking questions. The questions do two things; they distract me from the queasy feeling, and I learn something about what I’m worried about.”
In my research, I learned that asking questions of oneself can be surprisingly motivational: Embarking on a difficult task by first inquiring, “How might I actually do this?” can be more effective than just ordering yourself to do it. I also found that asking yourself certain questions can help to overcome fear of failure. Part of the reason self-questioning works is that it sparks your own curiosity—and tends to get your mind quickly working on possible strategies and solutions to the challenge at hand.
Use curiosity to inspire and lead others.
If you share your passionate interests and questions with those around you, it can spark their interest. We tend to think of curiosity as a trait—i.e., you’re either highly curious or you’re not—but author Leslie notes that is more of a state, and that it waxes or wanes depending on circumstance. Studies cited in Leslie’s book show that curiosity seems to flourish in environments where questioning is modeled and encouraged.
Hence, “If you’re the boss, and you manage by asking questions, you’re laying the foundation for the culture of your company or your group,” according to Grazer. He notes that a leader should strive to foster a culture of inquiry wherein people at all levels are asking each other questions. “That helps break down the barriers between job functions and also helps puncture the idea that the job hierarchy determines who can have a good idea.”
The best thing about curiosity? It’s contagious.
What have you observed about curiosity? Do you believe it’s an inherent trait or can it be nurtured and maximized?