Last week, I had the privilege of giving a luncheon address at a Women of Influence event. This amazing 20 year old institution gives women the chance to share the personal stories behind their professional success. Although I give speeches all the time, until now, they had never been about me. It forced me to figure out what experiences shaped who I am and to translate them into advice for the audience.
As I reflected on my path thus far, I realized that one of the things that is central to whom I am is my curiosity. I’m interested in almost everything. One of the perks of my job is I get to be around people who are way more interesting than me. Although I’m seldom the most interesting person in the room, I’m almost always the most interested! Before I tell you what I think curiosity could do for you, let me tell you where mine came from.
I was a child in the Seventies. In that era (at least in my neighborhood), nuclear families sat down together at the dinner table. Our home was designed accordingly, with both an eat-in kitchen and a formal dining room. But surprisingly, the only time we ate at the table was when the meal involved a turkey (usually about twice a year).
Instead, we ate dinner together in our family room while watching television. While other families were discussing their day, we were watching ninety minutes of news: the local news, the national news, and then the McNeil Lehrer news hour on PBS.
Although it sounds like a very passive endeavor, it was anything but. We engaged with each other about the news. And the expectation was clear: if there was a topic you didn’t understand, you got up and went over to our Encyclopedia Britannica and you looked it up. If there was a place mentioned that you couldn’t pinpoint on a map, you consulted the big red atlas. If there was a word you didn’t understand, you found it in the dictionary and recited the definition.
Granted, my understanding of and interest in world issues made me a bit of a freak when (in grade 5) I was mourning the assassination of Anwar Sadat. But today, curiosity fuels my success. It allows me to get up to speed on my clients’ industries. It gives me fodder to contribute to strategic discussions. It provides stories, metaphors, and ideas I use when facilitating. It’s also great at cocktail parties.
I’m not sure whether you can turn on curiosity at this stage of your life or whether it takes a combination of early nature and nurture to bring it out. But for what you can control, here’s my advice to you.
- Be interested and aware of the world around you. Expose yourself to the news in one form or another. Newspapers are too time consuming for me but I wake up with public radio and go to sleep with podcasts. My iPad is loaded with digital copies of magazines like Fortune and Fast Company for the downtime on a plane before I can use my computer.
Today, find one new source of information about the world around you.
- Don’t ignore things you don’t understand. I had to heave the Encyclopedia around but you have access to Google at your fingertips. These days, I’m constantly using free online dictionaries (and now that I have a teenage daughter, the urban dictionary comes in handy) and Google maps to get up to speed. When you hear something you don’t understand, stop and learn more.
Today, look up one thing to understand it better.
- Go one step further to learn something new. Don’t stop at the first thing you learn; follow a link and learn something a little more in-depth. If your company just opened up operations in a new country, don’t just find it on the map, find out the 5 biggest companies in that country, or learn what type of government they have.
Today, learn one extra thing that you don’t need to know to get a fuller appreciation for something.
- Make a link. Use your new-found knowledge to benefit your team by making a link to something in your business. “I heard on the news that they are about to pass new environmental legislation in the Senate. How will that affect our customers in the oil and gas industry?”
Today, share one thing you’ve learned and make a link to how it might affect your business.
I’ve learned that you don’t need to be the smartest person in the room if you’re the most interested. Most people on your team are probably ignoring issues because they are too focused to pick up anything in their peripheral vision. As you start to pick up on these things and connect the dots between them, you’ll see opportunities, risks, and routes that others don’t even know are there. That will make you very valuable to your team.
[Fun fact: At the end of the speech, someone asked whether my family eats at the dinner table. Funny but we do. But I haven’t changed my habits. One day last week, my 9 year old was asking about the movie San Andreas because a family friend composed the score. We watch the trailer on the iPad at the table. The scenes of skyscrapers in Los Angeles crumbling frightened her so we searched to learn about how they make buildings resilient to earthquakes. This is what we found… very cool! I guess I’m passing on my curiosity to the third generation.]