Curiosity vs Conformity

“Curiosity… is insubordination in it’s purest form.” – Vladamir Nabakov


It’s becoming increasingly common for leadership coaches and innovation experts to espouse the benefits, and even necessity, of curiosity. And yet we also know, as I explained in a previous post, that education systems and workplaces typically discourage curiosity.

Why is this? What is it about curiosity that is so repellent?

Curiosity, actually, has a very long history of being seen as dangerous; we all know the aphorism, “Curiosity killed the cat”. The Greek myth of Pandora is the classic tale of curiosity gone awry. Zeus commissions Haephaestus to design ‘Pandora’, the first woman, as a trap for Prometheus in revenge for his stealing fire. Zeus then gives Pandora a gift on her wedding day, a beautiful jar, but forbids her from opening it to see the contents. As we all know, Pandora’s curiosity gets the better of her, releasing all the evils known to humanity. Another even more familiar creation myth is also a tale of the danger of curiosity: the story of Paradise. Eve cannot resist the temptation to eat of the apple of the tree of knowledge, the result of which is humanity being expelled from Paradise by the angry God, to live and work ever after in toil and suffering.

The stories of Pandora and Paradise have quite a few things in common. In both cases curiosity is represented by the feminine, in both cases curiosity is related to contravening a masculine authority, in both cases there is a punishment for stealing a transformational power that only the gods can have (fire and knowledge), and in both cases the punishment is permanent and catastrophic.

Evidently, according to the myths, there can be a very high price to pay for curiosity.

What is the authority that would punish curiosity?

Mario Livio states it plainly in his TedTalk ‘The Case for Curiosity’: “Who is it that doesn’t want you to be curious? Totalitarian regimes. People who have something to hide.” Trump - Media the enemy of the peopleA powerful indictment against those who reject questions! What is that totalitarian regimes do the world over: claim that the Free Press – the questioning corps – is the enemy of the people.

Curiosity – the virtuous cycle of questions – is revelatory: it wants to know… its got to know. And so, where there is much to hide, it is most unwelcome, and so it is that this essay opened with Nabakov’s exclamation that “Curiosity… is insubordination in it’s purest form.” So curiosity, in the context of political oppression, can be a cognitive Molotov cocktail.

Curiosity is typically challenging to an insecure status quo. In classrooms and also boardrooms ‘the way things are done’ can prove to be immutably resistant to change. Curiosity may question ‘the way things are done’, and make those who benefit from the way things are done feel vulnerable. This feeling of vulnerability is rarely welcome. Furthermore we live in a culture in which teachers and managers are expected to have answers. Any really good question is hard to answer… but rather than provoking a thoughtful reflection, or discussion, or avenue of exploration, in an insecure culture it will provoke a fiercely defensive rebuke.

There are, however, much more subtle, and possibly more powerful, ways in which curiosity is suffocated. If – as we learned in a previous essay – anomalies, misfits and deviations heighten curiosity, we can also say that habit and conformity suppress it. And we are indeed creatures of conformity. The renowned and somewhat disturbing series of experiments done by Solomon Asch in 1951 demonstrated with great clarity the fact that a majority of people will literally deny the evidence of what they clearly see with their very own eyes if it risks social alienation, even amongst a group of strangers. Put in a room with a small group of actors who were instructed to all agree on a patently false statement about a chart they were shown test subjects would – despite evident discomfort – almost always agree with ‘the group’. Conformity can be a great silencer of questions than threats of imprisonment.

In Susan Engels’ book ‘The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood’ she discusses a complex and subtle array of cues by which adults – parents and teachers – encourage or discourage curiosity in children. She describes how “different avenues of influence converge and blend to create an overall environment that may be more or less conducive to children’s curiosity”. “Although curiosity leads to knowledge”, Engel writes, “it can stir up trouble, and schools too often have an incentive to squelch it in favor of compliance and discipline.” (1)

Cultures of conformity – whether in homes, classrooms, tribes or workplaces – are just such ‘overall environments’. Culture is made up of webs of significance, nests of commitments, cycles of behaviour and paths of influence which mesh and blend together to create an overall environment. Cultures also have, like any organism, an immune system which a poignant curiosity may provoke, releasing the antibodies of defensiveness, shunning, demotion, degrading, expulsion, aggression, etc.


(1) Excerpt from Susan Engels, ‘The Hungry Mind’ @ Salon.com

‘Disruption’ is Asking the Question, “Who Are You?”

Last month I attended and gave a workshop at ‘Berlin Change Days’ – a conference full of an extraordinary diversity of bright, creative and highly progressive ‘Change Agents’ – whose theme this year was ‘Disruption’.  The conference opened with a mock trial of ‘disruption’, debating whether the word still has credence and traction, or whether it has become a washed-out meaningless buzzword from its overuse in contemporary ‘innovation’ and ‘entrepreneurial’ parlance.  In a deft and creative move the organizers had an artist-provocateur disrupt the trial itself, demonstrating the word in action.

What really is ‘disruption’?
What has to happen for ‘disruption’ to occur?

disruption1The word itself opens with the intrinsically negative connotations of the prefix ‘dis’. In Roman mythology ‘Dis’ is the ruler of the underworld, and Dante carried that forward in the Divine Comedy in which the ‘City of Dis’ encompasses the sixth through the ninth circles of Hell. Today, when you ‘dis’ someone, you’re insulting them. ‘Dis’ is followed by the word ‘rupture’ which indicates a ‘break’, ‘burst’ or ‘breach’.  A ruptured spleen is a medical emergency, a ruptured pipe is one that is broken.  ‘Rupture’ is not so much a change word as a word connoting severe damage requiring emergency action.

So, ‘disruption’ is no ordinary change.  Nor is it the change necessarily resulting from an innovation, which is where we see it used so often today in entrepreneurial circles. While a new and innovative idea may have a significant impact, does it actually ‘rupture’ something? If an organisation can adapt to the innovation – by changing tactics, by buying it up, by hiring expertise – it’s not ‘disruptive’.

To break it down, disruption requires two core elements. Firstly there needs to be a functional identity: a clearly defined organism or organisation, an operating system or a set of rules, a score or a choreography of some kind.  Secondly we need an intrusion that challenges the functional identity with sufficient force that it ruptures some aspect of its core process such that it cannot continue functioning without ‘radical’ (emergency) procedures.

Real disruption is a wound to the integrity of an identity.

Band-aids don’t work on ruptures. Recovery from real disruption requires more than ‘repair’ or ‘replacement’. In fact disruption isn’t asking for ‘recovery’, a return to a previous mode of operation, at all.  Response to real disruption requires radical adaptation, structural transformation, a change in identity.

Disruption is asking a question.
The question that disruption is asking is ‘Who are you?’
How you navigate that question determines the path of your evolution.
Will you react or respond?

Will you deflect, dismiss, resist, deny or hide?
Or will you recognise it, meet it, acknowledge it, bear it?
Will you be willing to wrestle with it and, more importantly, with yourself?
Will you seek to understand it and, more importantly, seek to understand yourself?

From a theological perspective ‘disruption’(1) has a strong correlation to the ancient Greek word ‘apocalypse’.  ‘Apo’ translates as ‘out from’, and ‘kaluptein’ is ‘cover’. The word uniquely combines a sense of catastrophic termination with revelation and disclosure. Really answering disruption’s challenging call requires diving into a deeper level (the sixth through ninth level?) to ‘discover’ and ‘uncover’ deeper more intrinsic core strains and veins of meaning from which can emerge (emergent-cy) new vigorous forms and paths forward.


(1) Interestingly, Japanese contemporary artist Moriko Mori defines ‘Rupture’, in her Rebirth exhibition, as “the state between death and rebirth”.

In Tibetan Buddhism the ‘state’ between death and rebirth is called ‘Bardo’ and is the subject matter of ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’. Tibetan Buddhist scholar and teacher Chogyam Trungpa reinterpreted Bardo as simply “that which exists between situations” asserting that the spiritual and psychological processes that we go through in periods of extreme disruption are very much akin to those that we go through at death.

The Tale of Sitting Duck

Sitting Duck,
frozen with fear,
couldn’t paddle, couldn’t fly,
frozen knowing,
that below the Beast was coming,
from below.

And so it did.
Rapacious gaping maw,
black gorger,
wide open,
all teeth,
snapping and gulping and swallowing,
’till all there was left
in the universe of the duck
hemmed in by teeth closing
was the rooting slathering tongue,
of the Beast.

Sitting Duck,
it’s mouth gaping in fear
as it fell into the cavernous jaws
of the maw,
suddenly,
inexplicably,
lunged at the great beast’s tongue,
and beaked it,
then…
realizing…
beaked it harder and still harder,
beaked with all it’s might,
and held on for it’s dear Sitting Duck life.

The great Beast gasped,
then gabbered,
then stuttered, then coughed,
but still Sitting Duck wouldn’t let off.
It wheezed, and sneezed,
it buzzed, it teethed,
it spat and ululated,
and raced to and fro,
but still Sitting Duck wouldn’t let go.
The Beast flabbered and gasted,
couldn’t swallow, chew or catch,
on it’s tongue, Sitting Duck,
unrelenting in his latch.

For hours, then days, then weeks
the duck wouldn’t release,
and the Beast,
swimming in circles,
writhered and railed,
then paled,
and fell weak.

Then Sitting Duck –
now mighty from feeding on the great Beast’s tongue –
flexed it’s wings,
and heaved with it’s mighty beak,
and beat and beat
as hard as it could,
and harder and harder,
and lifted the limp beast by the tongue into the air,
higher and still higher.

Then with a great gasp,
Sitting Duck spat the Beast from Below,
and it fell and it fell
tumbling down
far and still farther,
and then kerashed and kersplattered,
in a terrible horrible glabble,
of guts, and teeth and bones.

Sitting Duck –
Mighty Sitting Duck –
now descended to the splattage carnage,
winging back down to the ground.
There it fluttered and flapped,
and bippity-bopped,
and picked all the very best bones of the lot.
It stacked them in order,
tight, interlocked,
and built,
bone by bone,
a beautiful home,
from the bones of the Beast from Below.

0-The Beast from Below 1-Sitting Duck, Frozen with Fear 2-The Maw 3-The Beast Buzzed Teethed Spat and Ululated 4-The Beast Flabbered and Gasted 5-It Fell and It Fell 6-The Beautiful Home

PopUp Solo Set

I now have a pop-up solo set which I can perform most anywhere.
Folk, blues , funk punk, ambient, sound art and just plain noise,
there’s even a couple-a a-cappella, and a long poem runs through it.
Visitations from Dorothy, Abe Lincoln & Jiminy Cricket,
Improvisations, train wrecks, I can’t quite predict
how it will go,
every piece has a life of its own,

and away it goes…

Curiosity & Vulnerability Pt.2: When is it safe to be vulnerable?

We held our first Curiosity Lab on ‘Curiosity & Vulnerability’, viewing Brene Brown’s ‘The Power of Vulnerability’, and then launching into a fascinating discussion, with some marvelous attendees.

Brene Brown’s talk, which is truly worth a watch is, at heart, about the life affirming and revivifying benefits of living vulnerably.  She clarifies that this takes courage, and reminds us that the roots of the word ‘courage’ come from the French ‘couer’, meaning ‘heart’.  For her the definition of courage is “to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.”  Which is also what it is to live vulnerably.

What keeps us from living this way is, according to Brown, uncertainty with regard to our own self-worth.  People who have intrinsic self-worth believe that what makes them vulnerable makes them beautiful.  People who lack this sense of self-worth find vulnerability excruciating.  For them vulnerability risks exposure to criticism, bullying, ridicule, loss of status, ostracisation … simply stated, fear and pain. They don’t experience vulnerability as liberation, but as a potential avenue to disconnection and isolation which, as Brown drives home, are the foundations of shame.  Shame is the gatekeeper of our personal prison cells and bunkers. It chokes out our vulnerabilty.  Brene Brown is a bold advocate of vulnerability.

Miriam, one of our bold participants in the Lab, persisted in posing the question,
“When is it safe to be vulnerable?”.
I’ve been following this question for a few months, and don’t anticipate this particular expedition to end anytime soon.  You could say easily enough that ‘it’s never safe to be vulnerable’ because the very nature of vulnerability is uncertainty and risk.  But the results of someone telling the story of who they are will be very different depending on what their story is, and who they’re telling it to.

[Read more…]

Dare Drive

Normal-Rockwell-Boy-on-High-DiveBless the drive
that compels you over
the great divide.
The faith
by which you take
the great leap.

You don’t need to know how to fly.
You never dive into wide open sky.
You can’t see,
yet,
the unexpected
astonishing
weaving
that will emerge beneath and before you,
a net
work
of new openings
and surprising ways forward.

 

Practising Joy (through the festive season of long nights)

Shortly before we entered into ‘the festive season’ I put out a couple of questions to the members of the Centre for Social Innovation: “What is Joy? And how do you ‘Practise Joy’?”. What followed was a generous flood of insight and wisdom, both on-list and off-list. I continued to reflect on ‘Joy’[1] through the holiday and it only seems right that I share/reflect back that collective wisdom.

[Read more…]

Cultivating Competence in Curiosity – 2 Day Workshop

REGISTER NOW FOR OUR FEB 11 – 12 WORKSHOP
Curiosity is the key to innovation, productivity, agility, well-being and fulfillment but curiosity is commonly suppressed in the workplace.

Curiosity Culture offers an integrated program, underpinned by a competency framework, to cultivate curiosity. From discovery talks and labs, to intensive workshops, change coaching and community development, we facilitate a journey which awakens the inquisitive spirit, brings it to life, and embeds it in the DNA of a thriving organisational culture.

Curiosity & Vulnerability

Curiosity is a dynamic of ongoing inquiry requiring that you reveal that you don’t know something.  Your seeking to know something reveals the limits of what you know: that’s what real questioning is.

openheartopenmindCuriosity may also require that you reveal that others don’t know something, and we all know folks who are pretty attached to having all the answers.  They may not like the feeling they get when they don’t have the answers; they may feel challenged, and they may react in an unpleasant way.

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Marvels & Miracles

The odds of my birth.

That single sperm cell, out of the initial millions of genetically diverse cells, is the one and the only that makes it into the egg.

SupermanChristAnd that this conceptional unlikelihood – the odds already so rare and outrageously far-fetched that even a gambler in despair would shun them – has been repeated in every generation of my lineage for thousands and thousands of years, each new generation multiplying the unlikelihood.

And then the impossibly complex myriad of circumstances, strokes of luck, synchronicities, close calls – unbroken from the beginning of time – that witnesses my father meeting my mother, my grandfathers meeting my grandmothers, great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers, generations and generations of arrangements, accidents, illicit trysts, seductions, violations, – back and back and back through time in a stupefyingly magnificent and improbable sequential river…

The odds of my birth seems so outrageously absurdly unlikely as to border on the miraculous.

But there’s nothing miraculous there.
There’s nothing in it that is unnatural, or beyond the scope of possibility.
It is truly a marvel… but it’s not a miracle.

I’ve never seen a miracle.
I’ve seen, and participated in, things and events that seem astonishingly unlikely but, nonetheless, possible.
But a miracle? No… no miracles.

Miracles are for the weak and the meek.
Unable to bear the cross of chaos they’ll line up to get a fix of ‘deus ex machina’, robbing the truly awe-inspiring courage and improbability of marvels and replacing them with the symmetrically sculpted supernatural action figure of miracles.

According to the story, Satan tempted Jesus with miracles but he refused.
But the authors of the story wrote them in nonetheless, burying the courageous bloody and enmired flesh of Jesus under the sleek, shiny and squeaky clean miracle of Christ, perpetuating a most awe-inspiring lie, an opiate for the pain of existential angst, for the cross of uncertainty, that generations and empires have been hooked on ever since.