How To Solve A Work Dilemma With Curiosity

Staying curious is crucial to staying innovative. Here’s how to keep the spark alive.

How To Solve A Work Dilemma With Curiosity
[Photo: Flickr user Cubmundo]

Most of us approach business problems as if they were solvable puzzles, when they are often actually mysteries with less obvious solutions.


While there are plenty of problems with definite answers, the most pertinent business dilemmas are murkier than that.

The worry, according to Ian Leslie, author of Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, is that we live in a culture that prefers easier-to-solve puzzles than mysteries. “A society or an organization that thinks only in terms of puzzles is one that is too focused on the goals it has set, rather than on the possibilities it can’t yet see,” Leslie writes.

To solve mysteries, and not just puzzles, we need to expand our thinking, and that starts with cultivating curiosity. Here are seven tips Leslie offers to stay curious:

1. Stay Foolish

This piece of wisdom was Steve Jobs’s last remark in his legendary 2005 Stanford commencement address. Leslie compares Jobs to Walt Disney, two California-based pioneers who revolutionize their industries. Disney is famous for creating cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, not to mention animated movies likes Snow White, Fantasia, and Dumbo. When TV threatened to undermine the movie industry in the 1950s, Disney adapted. He built a theme park in Anaheim, California, Disneyland, and is behind several breakthroughs in animation technology.

Disney’s creative spirit was most apparent after he died in 1966. The Walt Disney Company continued to make money, but it never “recaptured the creative zest that made it a global colossus in the first place,” Leslie writes.

2. Build The Database

Leslie received two books from his first employer, How to Become an Advertising Man and A Technique for Producing Better Ideas, both by the advertising guru James Webb Young. The first step in the creative process, according to Young, is to gather raw material:


Gathering raw material in a real way is not as simple as it sounds. It is such a terrible chore that we are constantly trying to dodge it. The time that ought to be spent in material gathering is spent in wool gathering. Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us. When we do that we are trying to get the mind to take the fourth step in the idea-producing process while we dodge the preceding steps.

3. Forage Like A “Foxhog”

Are you a hedgehog or a fox? According to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, “the fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing.” They key, writes Leslie, is to think of these two thinking styles as complementary and not contrasting.

4. Ask The Big Why

Leslie mentions an interview with Stanley McChrystal, one of America’s top generals during the Iraq War, who spoke about how the U.S. military changed its strategy following the invasion in Baghdad.

When the war began, McChrystal says the question was “Where is the enemy?” As the war progressed, however, the military began to ask, “Who is the enemy?” McChrystal says they thought they were pretty clever, until they realized that this, too, was the wrong question. Next they asked, “What’s the enemy doing or trying to do?” It wasn’t until the war got further along that the military finally asked, “Why are they the enemy?”

5. Be A “Thinkerer”

A portmanteau Leslie acquired is the combination of “Think” and “Tinker.” He acquired the term from Paola Antonelli, the senior curator of the department of architecture and design at MoMA, who in turn credits John Seely Brown, a Silicon Valley legend who used the word in a 2007 presentation.

Brown and Antonelli use the term to describe a social, collaborative way of working. . . I’m using it to name a style of cognitive investigation that mixes the concrete and the abstract, toggling between the details and the big picture, zooming out to see the wood and back in again to examine the bark on the tree.

6. Question Your Teaspoons

Have you heard of the Boring conference? Every year, James Ward sells hundreds of tickets to a conference where people seek information about “the history of supermarket self-checkout machines” and “IBM cash registers.” By day, Ward is a marketing manager of the Stationary Club, whose members talk about pens, paper, and paper clips.

“Our utensils, our habitual turns of phrase, are things so obvious and commonplace that we forget to see their inherent fascination,” he says.


7. Turn Puzzles Into Mysteries

Leslie briefly profiles William Friedman, one of the founders of the modern study of cryptography. Friedman’s research in the first half of the 20th century played an important role for the U.S. government in World War I and World War II. He went on to become the chief cryptologist for the NSA. Friedman, Leslie writes, was good at solving puzzles, but it was his interest in the mystery of cryptography that lured him into the field in the first place.

A puzzle ignites curiosity; the mystery keeps it burning. Leslie writes, “When we come across a puzzle of any kind, we should always be alert to the mystery that lies behind it, because it might be a mystery that will occupy and entertain us long after the puzzle is solved.”

This article originally appeared on 250 words and is reprinted here with permission.

Sam McNerney is a writer with a focus on cognitive science, philosophy, and business. He is currently the executive editor of 250 Words, dedicated to intelligent business thinking with an emphasis on wisdom and practical advice inspired by business books.