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Curiosity has been widely recognized and cultivated as being an essential ingredient for good leadership, sound company culture, successful team-building and personal mental health. Since children are the trailblazers of curiosity, we need not look far — to the young generation growing up before us, or backwards, into our childhood recollections — to reconnect with the taste of curiosity and be inspired by the power it can unleash.
1. Be forever questioning the obvious.
Children are born with innate curiosity and typically begin to ask “why” of just about everything very soon after they have mastered the basics of language. It helps them build their toolset for interpreting the world. Early childhood educators often advise parents to stimulate this tireless quest for knowledge by turning the why question on its head and asking the child, “Why do YOU think this is so?” This can be a more interesting way to handle queries, while also deepening the child’s thinking process.
Unfortunately, rigid upbringing, negative experiences and societal norms can stifle the natural flow of curiosity that we are born with. We therefore often reach adulthood with a strong dose of acquired self-censorship when it comes to questioning, not least because it can be perceived as a challenge to established authority.
One very simple, effective and fun way we can tap back into our potential for solving entrepreneurial issues through curiosity is by using the system of the “Five Whys” as explained by Charles Duhigg, New York Times reporter and author, in his book Smarter Faster Better. Inspired by the management philosophy used at Toyota automobile plants, Duhigg postulates that the root causes of a given situation can be uncovered simply by asking “why?” enough times — exactly as young children do. This makes you think more deeply about the choices you make and helps reverse-trace the root causes of a given situation. It is applicable to a variety of circumstances; in a personal example, this procedure helped Duhigg discover how a negative family dynamic that recurred every evening was in fact caused by a morning habit.
2. Be forever learning about what you don’t know.
We must let go of our embarrassment around admitting — even to ourselves — that we don’t know, so that we can creatively re-frame situations from new angles and perspectives. Children have no issues about openly manifesting their ignorance and unabashedly pushing past the comfort zone into the potentially risky area of discovering the new and unknown. In truth, learning is a never-ending journey, at any age.
How can we practice rekindling our innate potential for exploring boldly, without damaging our grown-up ego? Expansion and fruition of our hidden (or acknowledged) curiosity for learning can be achieved at different scales and to suit every situation and taste, through a variety of empowering actions.
It can take the form of enrolling in an online course about something we have always wondered about, but never dared to engage in. Platforms like EDx offer a vast array of free courses from some of the world’s best universities. That, incidentally, is how at the “ripe old age” of 45 I began my personal online learning journey that whisked me from Italy to South Korea, and then to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston!
But, there are also a wide range of tiny daily actions that can meaningfully expand the boundaries of our perceived limitations. If we toy with introducing deliberate variations in our normal routines that might at first feel uncomfortable — like smiling at every stranger we come across today, or choosing to spend half an hour with someone we actively dislike — we will begin to perceive the powerful shift in possibilities that this type of practice can generate.
3. Be forever creating with humility.
We can — and should — be inspired by how children build and take apart, to then build again. A very interesting insight can be drawn from the example that Peter Skillman shared in his 2006 TED Talk about the Marshmallow Challenge. This design exercise consists in building the tallest freestanding structure using 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string and one marshmallow — all within 18 minutes.
Skillman observed that the best teams are kindergarten children. That is because they just keep building prototypes rather than engaging in theorizing, and because they don’t waste time seeking power.
4. Be forever challenging assumptions.
Having spent over 15 years of my life as a full-time mother raising and observing her five children, I have learned firsthand how apt children are at turning assumptions inside out and thereby redefining possibilities. One of my favorite examples is how children in a playground, if left unhindered, will expand their mental and physical exploration through climbing up the slide “in the wrong direction,” right after having mastered sliding down it.
This occurrence (to my personal mirth) tends to cause great disruption amongst the supervising adults. It is a great pity that most of them do not consider the enormous benefits triggered by such an action. Children are our teachers insofar as they show us how harnessing our curiosity can explode our potential in all domains, especially entrepreneurship.
5. Be forever forward-moving and forward-looking.
Imagine what stage humanity would be at today if toddlers gave up after the first, second or third time they tripped over while learning to walk. The human race would be moving around on all fours. Babies and young children swiftly move past and beyond failure, without wasting time and energy to self-commiserate.
This is what we, as entrepreneurs, can and must draw inspiration from. Honda founder Soichiro Honda is famous for having said that “success is 99 percent failure”. We must rinse, repeat, pivot and tweak. Letting go of predictability and embracing adversity are the secrets to what philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls becoming anti-fragile.
In other words, failure is nothing but another essential building block towards greater resilience and ultimately, towards success.