Pandora’s curiosity compelled her to open the box. It was a gift from Zeus. But, she was warned not to open it. On opening it all manner of evil was released on humanity. Curiosity led to chaos. Yet, a small postscript to the story is that hope was also released. So, it seems that there is a mixed message to this tale of human curiosity.
We could interpret this ancient Greek tale in all sorts of ways: “best to leave things in the box”, “curiosity is dangerous”, “do as you’re told by those in authority”… I wonder if these are implicit messages many of us have imbibed?
Francesca Gina writes “In most organizations, leaders and employees alike receive the implicit message that asking questions is an unwanted challenge to authority” (HBR Sept-Oct 2018). She explores the many benefits of curiosity along with some of the features of curiosity that have led to good outcomes. My own observation is that curiosity is generally under-rated in many places.
Consider openness for a moment as a quality aligned with curiosity. Gina refers to curiosity preventing us from errors like confirmation bias (looking for things that confirm what I already believe) and creating a culture of open information sharing. Both good things.
But how do you genuinely foster openness when you have a business or a complex organisation to run? I remember speaking with a tradesman who somewhat dismissively referred to his apprentice as a nuisance. The problem was his apprentice would be constantly asking questions, slowing down the work. The tradesman finally told him that he had no time to answer his questions – that is why he went to TAFE: “Leave all your questions for your teachers” was his attitude. (It’s difficult for me to judge him as I didn’t have the pressure of running his business.)
The Pain of Curiosity
Tania Lombrozo refers to curiosity as a complex emotion, “Is it more like frustration or more like anticipation? Is it a painful reminder of what we don’t (yet) know, or a thrilling beacon towards what we might soon discover?” (Is Curiosity a Positive or Negative Feeling).
is it more like frustration or more like anticipation?
On the plus side, it drives us and nurtured well, will lead to better outcomes. On the minus side, could it become a smokescreen: ever searching, but never finding, ever asking, but never answering? Not all things can live in a state of open-endedness – perhaps. This, it seems will be the eternal dance we make between the open-handed and closed-handed things of life. The genius then is creating the right context for curiosity to thrive.
For my part though, I wish we were all that little bit more curious and driven to asking why more often.