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

Why Curiosity?

I have no special talents.  I am only passionately curious.
– Albert Einstein

The World Economic Forum – backed by an outpouring of mildly panic stricken white papers from big name organisational consultancies (1) – hails our era as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We are already riding the rising wave of an increasingly complex fusion of technologies – digital, biological, material, social – which will disrupt, revolutionize and transform almost all spheres of human culture and conduct.  Artificial intelligence, blockchain encryption, genomics, 3D printing, driverless vehicles, ‘the internet of things’, nanotechnology, biotechnology, quantum computing, renewable energy systems; any one of these innovations will have a profound impact on technical, social and organisational structures as we currently know them. The combination of all of them emerging simultaneously is, lightly stated, mind-boggling (2).

alice_in_wonderland_curiouser_2We’re entering an era of hyper-complex rapid change which will be experienced by most as serial disruption.
How to cope?
How to manage?
How to navigate intelligent pathways through tumult?

Social researchers and organisational experts from the Harvard Business Review (3) to Brene Brown (4) are proclaiming the value of curiosity to successfully navigate the turbulent cultural vicissitudes of the early 21st century.

But, what is curiosity?

Curiosity is the human trait that has enabled a physically feeble species with an exceedingly lengthy and vulnerable infancy to become completely dominant.  It’s the drive that has led to every important invention and exploration that humans have engaged in, from pre-digesting food by cooking it over a fire, to sending a vehicle (called ‘Curiosity’) to Mars. Curiosity is a dynamic of ongoing inquiry, a virtuous cycle of recurring, adaptive questioning. It’s a proactive journey of questioning, rather than a reactive defensive entrenchment.  Curiosity is a call towards something, rather than a flight from something.  Curiosity is not driven by crisis, but by wonder and awe, and it’s a drive that’s inspired people to take extraordinary risks and endure extraordinary hardships. As James Stephens wrote, “Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will, indeed, it has led many people into dangers which mere physical courage would shudder away from…”

I would like to pose that curiosity is the characteristic best adapted to resiliently navigate the kind of emergent complexity and serial disruption that we face as a species existing on an astonishingly unlikely finite living system.  Curiosity is the most useful response to what is known in strategic leadership as VUCA; Volatility/Vulnerability, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.  It’s a key to innovation, productivity, agility, continuous renewal, well-being and fulfillment.  It responds mindfully to crises, it discovers opportunities in obstacles, it enables the release of outmoded habits and patterns and is a core element of basic resilience. But, oddly enough, curiosity is not taught in schools or places of employment, and, in many cases, it’s actively discouraged.

Why would we discourage curiosity, when it’s many benefits are so very obvious?
Is curiosity dangerous?
What, really, is curiosity?
And, if it’s of value, how do we cultivate curiosity?

This post is the first in a series in which I’ll explore these questions.

We’ll go on a journey exploring wonder and respect, conceptual bubbles and perception blinders, disruption and hard transitions, habit creation and dissembly, resistance and innovation, and vulnerability and creativity.  We’ll look at the nature of ‘questioning’, the neurology of curiosity, the relationship of curiosity to ‘mindfulness’, and how habits and preconceptions can suffocate curiosity.  We’ll look at curiosity and learning, and curiosity as a disruptor and a rebel.  We’ll explore vulnerability, experimentation and failure, and curiosity as a navigator.  Finally, we’ll dip our toes into the real question….how do we ourselves, and our organisations, become more curious?

I hope you’ll join me in this curious ongoing investigation and become, in the words of Lewis Carrol’s Alice, “Curiouser and curiouser”.

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(1) Age of Disruption. Are Canadian Firms Prepared. Deloitte.

(2) Above and beyond the exponentially increasing speed of technological innovation we are already dealing with the increasing effects of climate change, resultant mass migrations, increasing inequality, and increasing ethnic division demonstrated by the rise of terrorism, nationalism and authoritarianism.

(3) Tomas Chumorro-Premuzic, Curiosity Is as Important as Intelligence. Harvard Business Review.

Warren Berger. Why Curious People are Destined for the C-Suite. Harvard Business Review.

Todd B. Kashdan, Companies Value Curiosity but Stfle It Anyway. Harvard business Review.

(4) “The rumble begins with turning up our curiosity level and becoming aware of the story we’re telling ourselves about our hurt, anger, frustration, or pain.” – Brene Brown

“Failure can become nourishment if we are willing to get curious, show up vulnerable and human, and put rising strong into practice.” – Brene Brown

‘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.