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Why you shouldn’t always just ‘Google it’

Alistair Cox Chief Executive, Hays

“What is Area 51?”, “How to eat pineapple”, “How to floss dance”. These are just three of the most searched for questions and phrases of 2019. In fact, every second of every day, we ask Google over 40,000 of these factual, monotonous, fun, interesting, and, quite frankly, bizarre questions, making it the most visited site on the planet by far.
It’ll be no surprise either that another of the world’s most popular sites is Wikipedia. I’m willing to bet that over the past week or two you’ve found yourself deep inside one of those Wikipedia ‘rabbit holes’, unearthing information you didn’t realise you had the slightest interest in; mindlessly jumping from one fact to the next.
The Internet is buzzing with questions from humans. Surely, this automatic reliance on our devices to help us find quick, instantaneous answers might suggest that we humans are a naturally curious bunch, but are we really?

We are all born curious, but do we stay curious?

Children ask a staggering 73 questions a day, compared to just 20 that adults ask. If you have young children yourself, you will have undoubtedly experienced the unrelenting, unfiltered, yet wonderful bombardment of their constant “who…?”, “what…?”, “why…?” and “when…?” questions. The minds of children are primed to find out more about everything and everyone around them.
Children are the epitome of curiosity, which is defined as “an eagerness to know or learn about something.” But research indicates that this level of curiosity tends to decline at an early age; between the ages of four to five years old, around the time they start going to school in fact. Why so young? If you think back to your school days, being curious probably wasn’t a trait that was reinforced to you as ‘valuable’ or one that was needed to be successful in life. Instead, children were often encouraged to focus and learn, rather than question and learn. I like to think the situation is different now.
As we entered the world of work, our curiosity was tempered even further. Even today, rather than encouraging curiosity within their organisations, leaders often shut it down, mostly subconsciously, because they wrongly believe it to be inefficient and unproductive. Not only that, but as explained in this Harvard Business Review article, “As people climb the organisational ladder, they think they have less to learn. Leaders also tend to believe they’re expected to talk and provide answers, not ask questions.”
In my mind, this has to change. We must all realise that valuing curiosity - challenging and questioning the status quo and learning all there is to learn in the process - is the only way we will really explore the world we live in and transform it for the better.

Why becoming more curious will help us to become better at our jobs

Research shows that becoming more comfortable with asking “Why?” more often, and proactively unleashing our natural inquisitiveness in the process, will make us more successful. In a study of 120 employees, researchers found that natural curiosity was associated with better job performance. That’s no surprise to me, after all, some of the biggest and brightest minds in the world are or were also the most curious, including Albert Einstein who was famously quoted as saying, “I have no special talent, I’m only passionately curious.”
In fact, becoming more curious can help us improve in many areas of our work. A curious mindset can help us become:
  • Less susceptible to confirmation bias, making it unlikely that we’ll seek out opinions similar to our own and therefore let go of our long-held assumptions and preconceptions
  • More creative and innovative in both our thinking and output
  • Increasingly adaptable and able to make difficult decisions more easily, especially during times of crisis
  • Increasingly adept at remembering new information, even if that information isn’t relevant to what we were initially curious about
  • Better at developing stronger relationships with others – in fact, during social encounters, curious people are seen as more interesting and engaging
  • More mentally active – your mind is a muscle and the mental exercise caused by curiosity makes it stronger and stronger
  • Better at dealing with negative situations or rejection
  • And, interestingly, more future-proofed against the machines, as Spencer Harrison, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD explains in his TedX Talk, “Curiosity gives us the edge over machines – machines will never ask why”.

The link between curiosity and learning

Research also indicates that opening our minds and allowing ourselves to question, to ponder, to be more curious, will in turn help us to become better learners. Whether we realise it or not, as explained by McKinsey & Company, learning in itself is a skill, and it’s entirely possible to learn more, and more frequently when we’re more curious.
Developing a curious mindset will help us to get one step closer to becoming intentional learners – a skill which McKinsey believe to be fundamental to success in the coming decades - whereby we treat every moment as a learning opportunity and find joy in the exploration and discovery of answers. After all, curiosity is often what gets our learning started, it sparks inspiration and it’s the catalyst to growing our knowledge and expertise.
Many people have simply not been taught how to learn effectively, yet learning well, with curiosity being a big part of that, is so key to long-term success, particularly right now. After all, back in January this year - which now feels like a lifetime ago - The World Economic Forum declared that the world was facing a ‘reskilling emergency’. Now, only a few months later, as the planet faces the most disruption any of us are likely to experience ever again in our lifetimes, that skills emergency has become even more stark.
So, in my mind, it has never been more important that we all try to be far more actively curious about the world we all live in; to ask questions and debate, instead of simply accepting things for how they always are.

“Why?” should become your favourite question

So, how can we stimulate our natural curiosity and prime ourselves for the learnings and lessons ahead of us in this new era of work? The first step is simple – ask. more. questions.
When was the last time you sat through a meeting, with what you thought was probably just a ‘stupid question’ at the tip of your tongue? It happens to all of us. We don’t ask those questions because we worry about how others might perceive us, because we don’t want to be seen as vulnerable, because we don’t want to dent our egos. We don’t ask those questions because upholding a glossy, ‘all-knowing’ exterior of ourselves to the world is far more important to us than having our questions - questions that we tell ourselves were probably just ‘silly’ any way - answered.
To reignite the curiosity we were all born with, we must get more comfortable with asking more questions, more often, even at the risk of looking or feeling stupid in front of our peers. Only by asking questions will we see the full picture and really challenge how things have always been done. Only by asking questions will we start to see and do things differently. Only by asking questions will we ever learn anything new
As Bob Borchers, VP of Product Marketing at Apple, puts it in his TedX Talk, curious people who ask curious questions live a life of discovery, not a life on autopilot. Wouldn’t you rather live your life like that? It’s time we all recognised the value in asking questions. No matter how mundane those questions might appear on the surface, the answers they will uncover and the discoveries they will lead to will likely be anything but. And remember, when you find answers, you find understanding and you learn something new.
A great place to start is to begin asking questions of all aspects of your life, of things you’re interested in, of the world around you. Don’t passively accept things around you as being just how they are, ask “why” they are, and realise that the limits of what you can be interested in are limitless. And, when asking questions of others, try asking open-ended questions, as explained in this Berkeley piece, “Asking open-ended questions - those where the answer is truly unknown to the inquirer - and showing interest and asking follow-up questions are likely to make a responder go deeper, which will likely produce more curiosity in you.”
In a work context, why not switch your frame of mind to be more curious about any specific feedback your manager may have about your performance. Probe for this feedback by asking the right questions of them, instead of avoiding the conversation all together. Lastly, becoming more curious around your own behaviours and motivations via self-reflection may also be enlightening.
As Borchers puts it, your career should be about questioning “why?”.

It’s OK to not have all the answers or to fail sometimes

So, we understand that in order to become more curious we need to ask more questions. But what about answering questions posed by ourselves and others? The society we live in tends to tell us that it values only those answers that are right, not those that, granted, might not be entirely correct, but could generate equally useful exploration. So, to become more curious, we must see the value in the latter. What I’m saying here is that it doesn’t matter if the answers we give aren’t always right, or if we fail from time to time, just so long as we learn from that. Scientists are maybe the best at doing this. They sit at the edge of the unknown by definition. They hypothesise about what might be and then seek to discover or invent. Oppenheimer spoke about how science and scientific approaches can influence how society thinks about itself so well back in 1953 in the Reith Lectures, and it’s as true today as it was then.
As I’ve written about in the past, similar to those people with a growth mindset, curious people see life as an endless opportunity to learn. They understand that failure is part and parcel of the learning process. Curious people understand that curiosity naturally leads to failures, but that doesn’t stop them from exploring and discovering new things, as the reward of doing so – learning and expanding their minds - is far greater.
This blog was originally published as a LinkedIn Influencer article.

About this author

Alistair has been the CEO of Hays, plc since Sept. 2007. An aeronautical engineer by training (University of Salford, UK, 1982), Alistair commenced his career at British Aerospace in the military aircraft division. From 1983-1988, he worked Schlumberger filling a number of field and research roles in the Oil & Gas Industry in both Europe and North America.

In 2002, he returned to the UK as CEO of Xansa, a UK based IT services and back-office processing organisation. During his 5 year tenure at Xansa, he re-focused the organisation to create a UK leading provider of back-office services across both the Public and Private sector and built one of the strongest offshore operations in the sector ith over 6,000 people based in India.



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