“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” —Albert Einstein
A child learns to point around age 1. He is already finding ways to ask questions before he has the words. As he grows and develops, he asks an average of three questions every two minutes. His curiosity is rewarded with proud smiles, patient answers and, if he’s lucky, the exchange of loving conversation and more questions. He learns that all understanding begins with not knowing and he derives joy from experimenting, trying and failing in order to succeed.
As he gets older, he realizes that he will be rewarded not for trying, but for having the right answers. Preferably all of them and especially the ones that are on the test. His future depends on it. He learns that it’s rude to point, and that being curious could land him in hot water—it killed the cat, after all. He is taught to mind his own business and to avoid sticking his nose in where it’s not wanted. He’s encouraged to stop asking questions, to look it up, not think it through. He gains the approval of his peers not for his passionate interest, but by being fashionably interesting. He learns to say the right things at the right time. To find correct answers which are already known. To shut out the seemingly impractical or irrelevant. After all, the right answer is a quick Google search away. He has never had a better opportunity to discover more, and yet he seeks to understand less and less.
Curiosity stems from caring to know what you don’t know. There are three types of curiosity.
- Diversive curiosity is our hunger for novelty; this is what makes us click on cat videos and keeps us scrolling through Facebook feeds.
- Empathetic curiosity is the drive to understand another person by trying to see the world as they do.
- Epistemic curiosity is our deeper, more directed quest for understanding that prompts us to explore, ask questions and make connections.
Curiosity inspires us to solve problems and think creatively. It’s ignited in what Professor George Loewenstein describes as the information gap: the gap between what we know and what we would like to know. It’s that feeling we experience when we don’t know something that inspires us to set out on the path to discovery.
The internet and digital technologies have reduced the friction between our desires and the gratification of them and closed the gap between our questions and answers. The next wave of voice-activated devices, such as Amazon’s Echo, are designed to do that with stealth. We have never had the opportunity to look for more answers and yet we have forgotten the importance of stopping to question. From Galileo to Einstein, Picasso to Jobs, Joyce to Gladwell, our world has always been shaped by the most curious people to inhabit it. As Academy Award-winning filmmaker James Cameron once said, “Curiosity is the most powerful thing you own.”
We should do everything in our power to own it.
It’s amazing what you can discern by looking at things that people don’t usually pay attention to. Noticing what others don’t see can yield some fascinating results. Use the exercises below to help you develop your curiosity.
1. Observe with intention.
- Spend 15 minutes in a place where people are waiting or queuing. This might be your local café, station, park or an airport departure lounge. Describe who, what, where or when.
- Make a list of the things people do when they think no one is watching. You could be observing an interaction between a parent and child at the park, or someone scrolling through a social media feed on their smartphone at Starbucks.
- Answer the following questions:
- What behaviors did you observe (not just actions, but also emotions)?
- What patterns do you notice?
- How do the circumstances or environment change their behavior?
- Write one sentence about your biggest insight.
2. Notice frustrations.
- Use a fresh page in your notebook or create a new note in your favorite note-taking app and label it “frustrations.” You’re going to use this same page every time you observe a frustration in action.
- Make a list of the things you notice people struggling to do. This could be things like carrying shopping bags, opening a jar, untangling earbuds or trying to navigate the signage in a hospital or department store.
- Ask yourself:
- What frustrations did you observe?
- If you could fix one of these problems, which would it be and why?
- Create a minimum doable product plan to solve this problem by writing down:
- The frustration
- The problem
- The solution
3. Ask, How would I fix it?
Describe the change that occurs in people’s lives after they have adopted your solution. What’s wrong and how could it be fixed? This is your chance to solve a bigger community problem that’s itching for a creative solution.
- Make a note of the one big problem you’d like to solve.
- Now describe how other people have tried to solve it.
- Next, detail your more creative solution.
Describe your solution as if you were pitching it to someone who could help you to implement it.
- What’s the problem?
- What is the solution?
- How is it different from or better than what’s been done before?
- Why will it succeed? What’s the biggest stumbling block to its success?
4. Ask, What if?
The Post-It, Dyson Vacuum, Kindle, iPhone, and on and on were born from asking “what if?” questions. What if we got rid of the keyboard? Take a look at a product or service you use daily and prepare to give it the “what if?” treatment.
- Ask and answer questions that come to mind. What if we made it bigger, smaller, faster, stronger, sustainable, disposable, recyclable, sticky, indelible, and on and on?
- Record your best ideas.
- Ask yourself:
- What problems did you solve by making a change?
- How could those changes create value for the product, service or company?
5. Take it apart.
If you’re a tinkerer, you might like to (safely, not MythBusters style) take a piece of equipment apart. I like to do this with experiences. Consider an experience that you have on a regular basis and get ready to break it down into its parts. Take a visit to the dentist as an example.
- Draw a box for each step in the experience:
- Arrival. Waiting. Communication. Treatment. Payment. Aftercare. Rebooking.
- Consider where the experience went well and where it didn’t live up to expectations.
- Make a list of the instances where it fell short.
- Ask yourself:
- What aspects of the product or experience were disappointing?
- What’s the most important change you could make to improve it?
- Why did you choose that one thing?
- What lessons could you learn or take from this into your work?
6. Ask, Why is it this way?
Make time to visit a successful business (either online or offline). Behave like a new visitor or customer to this app, website or store. The aim is to see it with new eyes. (As I write this, I’m picturing IKEA.)
- Take notes of what you notice that’s particular to this user experience. Ask questions that align with your chosen experience.
- Ask yourself:
- Why is the store situated here?
- Why is there a play area and restaurant?
- What are the room layouts designed to do?
- Why is the market hall at the end?
- Some of the answers will be obvious, but some might surprise you. What were the surprises?
7. Ask, Why will it fly?
- List the reasons you believe this idea will be a success.
- Look at your list. What was your rationale for drawing these conclusions?
- What lessons could you learn from this and apply to your innovations?
8. Ask, Why did it fly?
Consider a recent breakthrough idea, one that was an unexpected runaway success. For example, two for the publishing industry come to mind. Both of the following books were massive international best-sellers: Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Johanna Basford’s adult coloring book The Secret Garden.
- Choose a successful idea to explore and consider. Look at online product reviews or news articles about the story behind the idea and its creator.
- Ask yourself:
- What, in your opinion, drove the success of the idea?
- What wave of underlying cultural trends of the moment did the idea ride the crest of?
- What deep-seated human need was this product or service fulfilling?
- Why wasn’t someone doing this already?
- What were your key takeaways?
- How could you use trends and current cultural sentiment to predict the future?
- Has this sparked any insights about ideas you could bring to life?
Excerpted from Hunch: Turn Your Everyday Insights into the Next Big Thing by Bernadette Jiwa with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Bernadette Jiwa, 2017.