You may not think of your curiosity as a job skill, but it is. There’s evidence, for starters, linking curiosity to employability, and as a predictor of your ability to gain and maintain a desired job over time. Second, curiosity is crucial for building relationships. Curious people are more willing and able to connect with others, which equips them to collaborate, whether in person or virtually. Third, curiosity may even be an antidote to job automation: If you don’t want your skills to get outdated or outsourced to a robot, you’d better keep learning!
What’s more, how curious we are can often hinge on our circumstances. While it’s a personality trait, curiosity can also be influenced by experience. Genetic studies suggest that curiosity is around 40% heritable, which means that environmental influences play a big role in determining individual differences in curiosity.
But sadly, even when organizations say they value curiosity, many managers tend to inhibit it since they’d rather have employees focus on short-term performance than on long-term learning. So if your boss or job is quashing your curiosity, the good news is that you still have some options at your disposal for giving it a boost. Here are six of them, backed by psychological research.
By definition, curiosity arises when you experience a gap between what you know and what you want to know. So it’s no surprise that being aware of your knowledge gaps should incentivize you to learn. Many of us tend to double down on what we’re already good at and shy away from the unfamiliar, so it can take an effort of will to find a new topic that interests you and spend some time exploring it–through books, blogs, or documentaries, podcasts, or what have you.
Sure, this is less of a curiosity hack than the old-fashioned approach to pursuing your ideas and interests, but it’s worth remembering how easy this is to do when your job is getting you down. Even after a short investment, it should help you understand how far you have to go in order to become an expert in a field. It also helps to get feedback from someone who can be brutally honest about your breadth of knowledge or expertise.
It’s easier and more enjoyable to play to your strengths, but it’s ultimately lazier. Think of somebody who just goes to the gym and always exercises the same muscles–they’ll wind end up with an imbalanced physique. Likewise, you won’t be able to develop your curiosity if you only keep doing what you’re good at.
Besides, overused strengths often become weaknesses, and there’s no scientific evidence for the idea that ignoring your weaknesses helps you develop your strengths. If anything, your curiosity will just plummet further and you may even wind up compounding your existing biases in the process.
Philosophers from David Hume to William James have long argued that curiosity has two different sides, a “bright” side and a “dark” side. The bright side is all about acquiring new knowledge and developing expertise; the dark side concerns killing boredom, snooping around for superficial or trivial information, and finding quick answers to simple problems.
There’s something to this theory, psychologists have found. And what’s more, these two aspects of curiosity are typically in conflict: The more energy you devote to one, the less you devote to the other. In an age of information overload, it’s especially easy to kill time by consuming trivial content–that is, with simple distraction. In a way, it’s junk food for your curiosity. The better way to feed your hungry mind is to read a book or dive deep into a subject. Your friends’ Facebook updates won’t make you smarter or help you advance your career.
The best way to adopt new thinking patterns–in any context, work or play–is to change your experiences. Consider that even prejudiced people tend to overcome their biases when they interact with the people they dislike. Most of us tend to hang out with the same people most of the time, and the more time we spend with them, the more alike we all become. This gradually makes us narrow-minded, so our curiosity shrinks.
Be prepared to challenge your own convictions by going against your own rules now and then. After all, most of the rules you follow are made up to stop you from thinking–your brain prefers to minimize the conscious decisions it needs to make moment by moment, and a curiosity-killing job will exacerbate that tendency. So shake it up a little. Fewer rules = more thinking.
One of the easiest ways to tank your curiosity is simply to avoid doing new things, and it’s absolutely normal to do this. Indeed, inhibition is a fundamental element of human motivation. The problem is that it undermines learning.
In fact, it will generally make us unlearn things. Just like a person with social phobia will become more phobic by avoiding contact with others, opting out of the things you don’t do well will only increase your incompetence. On the other hand, putting yourself out there and going outside your comfort zone can help you develop more skills and knowledge you couldn’t gain access to otherwise.
Most people think of diversity in terms of demographic characteristics. But the essence of diversity is actually psychological: People differ most substantially in their thinking styles, and these differences are the product of culture as well as personality. Goethe, the German polymath, once noted that “what we don’t understand, we don’t possess.” A good way to develop your curiosity is to spend time observing and interacting with people who are least like you.
Try to work out how they think, why they do what they do, and what makes them tick. It will make you more open-minded, and openness is one of the key ingredients of curiosity. Best of all? Just spending time with those who think differently is something you can do on the job or off of it–no matter how curiosity-crushing your boss or daily work duties might be.
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in psychological profiling, people analytics, and talent management. He is the CEO of Hogan Assessments and Professor of Business Psychology at University College London and Columbia University.
Mara Swan is ManpowerGroup’s executive vice president, Global Strategy and Talent. A recognized expert in human resources, she is vice chair of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Gender Parity and a Fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources.