Why we should focus more on nurturing curiosity

Dr Nicki Morley shares her own learnings about curiosity and explains the importance of developing this natural skill wisely

Sesame/Digital Vision/Getty Images

While attending a training course focused on important topics like growth mindset and growing your confidence, I was curious that there was no mention of curiosity as an important skill for personal development. Throughout my journey of self-discovery as a leader I had come to appreciate that curiosity seemed to underpin my greatest strengths and those of others; in fact I became obsessed with learning about the topic of curiosity and was surprised to discover how fundamental it was for all human progress. A few authors, as I will demonstrate in this piece, had spotted the importance of curiosity for certain aspects of personal development, yet it never made a centre state appearance in any training or self-help books. What I recognised, however, was that, according to Francesca Gino’s The Business Case for Curiosity, curiosity was somewhat feared by organisations as it was associated with risk taking and inefficiency – perhaps that was why it was hidden away? 

Researching curiosity

At its broadest level curiosity is amazing because it’s something that even the most powerful computers don’t possess. It is also at the heart of human development – how else would you have learned to walk if you weren’t curious to take that first step? Curiosity is also fundamental to human intelligence. In Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, Ian Leslie highlights the work of Sophie von Stumm, which suggests curiosity is not only the biggest predictor of academic success, but essentially enables all the factors driving human intelligence. 

Once piqued, curiosity shows up in the willingness to ask questions – ultimately powerful ones, which, in Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap, Collins et al suggest is the foundation of successful organisations. In Curiosity: The Neglected Trait that Drives Success, Robinson agrees and presents evidence to suggest it is important for employee engagement, boosts your memory, increases job enjoyment and can prevent burnout. Curiosity, when focused, supports creativity and innovation, and without it there would be no language, no printing press, no laptop and no internet, as it is fundamental to human discovery. 

What I also discovered through reading the writings of Orme, Leslie and Ashcroft, Brown and Garrick, was that curiosity is malleable and can be developed. Curiosity is affected by context, is contagious and is fuelled by knowledge. The challenge they posed was that while we are born curious, this wanes as we get older. It was reassuring to realise we could learn to be curious, and we could nurture it back to full strength. 

One day my curious mind led me to read Mindset by Carol Dweck, who discussed at length the benefits of having a growth mindset. Those with a growth mindset, says Dweck, focus their lives on the idea that ‘nothing ventured is nothing gained’, while those with a fixed mindset focus on the idea that ‘nothing ventured is nothing lost’. The fundamental difference between these two mindsets is how one thinks about failure. This distinction opened a deeper connection to personal effectiveness when Dweck proposes that the greatest gift a parent can give a child is to foster a growth mindset by teaching them to be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy the effort and keep on learning. Intrigue, learning, effort – all I would argue are fundamentally linked to curiosity. Another important connection to curiosity was the idea that those with a growth mindset also saw failure as a learning opportunity. It is therefore important to realise that curiosity is also fundamental to overcoming fear. Authors such as Susan Jeffers, who wrote Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, often talk of the idea of leaning into our fears, and curiosity can give you the inertia to take that first step. 

In summary, curiosity on a grand scale is fundamental to human progress, but at a more focused developmental level curiosity seems to underpin many of the valuable assets of personal effectiveness, in particular having a growth mindset. 

Cultivating curiosity

Here are three ways we can support individuals to be more curious: 

  1. Encourage and value curiosity: A short-term performance-led culture can limit creativity, encourage individuals to learn and value their attempts to learn (and fail). Encourage leaders to foster an environment where people can accept the limits of their own expertise to foster a culture of curiosity and allow people to challenge the status quo.

  2. Teach people to make time for curiosity. It’s not enough to just encourage curiosity, we also need to support busy people to make time to be curious and build back their ability to be curious. We must get them laying down effective weekly plans and managing their energy using advice from people like Laura Vanderkam, author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast: How to Achieve More at Work and Home. We must encourage people to find the time of day that best suits them to learn and be curious and block it out. For me it’s the mornings – with a fresh head I can re-look at a problem and question it. Once this space is created and the foundations built, it will set people up for the next stage of encouraging it in others.

  3. Weaponise curiosity. Orme and Leslie both advocate weaponising curiosity by teaching people to ask great questions. Greg suggests leaders should ask open, intriguing questions followed by silence. Focus on teaching people to stop and think, ask what if? And how might we? Leslie also suggests getting people to recognise their own ignorance and to imagine different possibilities to further weaponise curiosity. 

Now I can’t finish this piece without a nod to the darker side of curiosity. It is important to recognise that curiosity without a plan is just chaos, so always be sure to support people to point their curiosity towards their goals. Second, curiosity is helpful as it lets us focus on other people’s perspectives, but, let’s be clear, this should not be indulged to focus on what other people think of us.

Aren’t you now just a little bit curious to see what fostering curiosity could do to help your leaders and organisations prosper?

Dr Nicki Morley is a behavioural scientist and business leader