Curiosity: The Key to Creativity and Innovation

Albert Einstein generally did not like school, but this all changed when he was 16 at Aarau High School, Switzerland where teachers nurtured his curiosity and encouraged him to ask a lot of questions and even express criticisms.

He not only became popular among his classmates but imagined what it would be like to ride a light beam, paving the way for his later theory of relativity.

Innovators’ curious attitude is characterized by thinking in childlike terms while insatiably seeking out information. People often discourage curiosity and asking questions using phrases like curiosity killed the cat.

But world’s greatest innovators are passionately curious and even nosy or annoying.

They approach situations and problems from an open, childlike, mind unconfined by rigidity or preconceived notions.

Fueled by curiosity, they ask crazy questions.

Their expertise grows as they actualize their curiosity by developing a love of learning. Their curiosity impulse and prior knowledge alert them to invisible gaps or details others miss, fueling even more questioning. Their curiosity drives them to become persistent. Their wide interests and curiosity enable them to apply ideas across divergent fields, improving upon the ideas of others,

Their wide interests and curiosity enable them to apply ideas across divergent fields, improving upon the ideas of others, synthesizing ideas, and discovering patterns from disparate fields to generate new ideas. Curiosity reveals new options even at dead ends and inspires a sense of purpose and meaning. Continuously rewarded and renewed curiosity becomes a lifelong passion.

Even as adults, innovators are still in close communication with their inner child. They are able to ignore social taboos and conventions, and their childlike curiosity fends off stagnant thinking, opening them to more possibilities while promoting mental flexibility.

Most people, however, are incurious. They stifle curiosity because they:

  • Assume what they believe or know is right (e.g., their assessment of a situation or knowledge about a topic is above average)
  • Prefer passivity rather than the active mental state required by curiosity
  • Create boundaries to manage and limit, rather than explore and expand by curiosity
  • Resist change and stay fixed in one place (but curious people readily adapt to changes and grow themselves across the board)

Today’s technology makes people even less curious because they:

  • Rely on instantly gratifying one-mouse-click answers, instead of exploring a bookstore or a library and being exposed to a diversity of information
  • Have quick, easy access to shallow, superficial information (allowing them to avoid dealing the overwhelming amount and diversity of information available on-line), forcing social conformity

Conformity, however, is curiosity’s enemy, so you must defy it or even be rebellious:

  • To not conform to social pressure or others’ expectations
  • To test the underlying assumptions and convictions undergirding the status quo, and explore out of the box solutions and pursue the art of the impossible
  • To dedicate active energy to this possibility by:
    • Focusing your curiosity toward your goal without distractions
    • Aiming at becoming the best in the world in one thing (while being open to new and variety of experiences)
    • Immersing yourself in a particular effort for hours everyday to explore it deeply
    • Investing in training and tools to keep your curiosity alive
    • Regularly seeking brutally honest feedback.

How to nurture the curious attitude?

First, find and remove what gets in the way of your curious mind by:

  • Being humble enough to continuously learn from others and the world, and putting humility and learning before your ego
  • Being confident enough to be vulnerable, to be wrong, and to admit your ignorance or where your skills aren’t good enough
  • Examining your own assumptions, opinions, beliefs, or convictions
  • Recognizing what you don’t know and what you could do better
  • Considering what you do know about the topic is not nearlyenough, and drawing on the knowledge and insights of others to close the information gap
  • Choosing an inquisitiveness compelling asking over insecurity pretending knowing
  • Choosing novelty and new horizons over certainty, and the hope and excitement of exploration over fear of unknown, failure, or looking silly
  • Choosing nonconformity and defiance over conformity and compliance
  • Putting collaboration before competition, and autonomous motivation before rewards
  • Writing down three new things you’ve learned before going to bed every night
  • Being aware of your thoughts and emotions by reflecting and journaling on your experiences for five minutes daily
  • Controlling your response to the life events by being aware where your attention is focused (e.g., in thoughts, beliefs, emotions, the senses, or the body).

Second, never be too shy to ask questions, and ask questions even when you think you know everything you need to know. Carefully and intentionally frame questions that:

  • Solicit rich information, instead of simple answers
  • Lead to more unanswered questions, instead of definitive answers
  • Expand the constructive conversation, instead of placing blame or spawning defensiveness (e.g., Why did you do this? or Didn’t you consider that?)
  • Display your true desire to be open to other views
  • Mine resources (e.g., books, articles, documentaries, etc.) for simple, straightforward factual answers (i.e., low-level inbox-thinking answers); ask experts for the details and depth; and ask the others for their perspectives
  • Ask out-of-the-box-thinking answers (i.e., outbox-thinking answers) to:
    • Stimulate imaginative or inventive thoughts, soliciting a wide range of alternative answers (e.g., How else can we do this?) rather than:
      • Questions eliciting yes-or-no or simple answers
      • Why questions squelching others’ opinions or question others’ motives
      • Leading questions intended to manipulate others
    • Ask critical thinking answers (i.e., high-level inbox-thinking answers) to:
      • Stimulate analyses of levels or processes and of cause and effect relationships for cognitive or emotional judgment answers
    • Ask newbox-thinking answers (i.e., combining both inbox and outbox thinking answers) to:
      • Stimulate combinations or connections for synthesis answers

Be a good listener while asking questions by:

  • Taking the time to listen and pay attention to the speaker
  • Asking about the speaker more than talking about yourself or your own ideas, stories, or advice
  • Listening to the speaker’s point of view even in a dispute, instead of being defensive

For your own questions, turn off everything but your brain and:

  • Read constantly to expand and deepen your expertise
  • Read deeply, ditch distractions, and increase your concentration and mental health, instead of perusing magazines, blogs, or tweets
  • Read widely, and consume content outside your comfort zone; expose yourself to:
    • Concepts, ideas, information, stories, instructions, and inspiration
    • Different times (e.g., past, present, and future) and places interpreted by the author and filtered through your imagination
    • The life of another person
    • The world of your imagination where anything is possible.

Third, become more a interesting person and live a more interesting life by reconnecting with your inner child, sense of wonder, and mindset such as:

  • Think about and explain things from a child’s perspective
  • Eschew a bored, humdrum, or jaded adults’ mindset (e.g., been there, done that
  • or seen it all, done it all)
  • Sit on the floor and physically shift your perspective from adult to child
  • Allow yourself to play, and re-learn how to play from children
  • See the world afresh and anew everyday, and get excited by the simplest wonders
  • Look at each day as a gift and every person you meet as fascinating
  • Consider the world is a wonderful mystery full of things you don’t yet know about
  • Approach all the places, events, things, people, and ideas with a sense of discovery, and look at them with tourists’ eyes
  • Appreciate the magical, unexplained phenomena in the world
  • Consider everything is an incomplete, unsolved puzzle
  • Take nothing for granted, and challenge everything you know
  • Create a stimulating natural environment with flowers, trees, butterflies, stones, water, and living things
  • Avoid categorizing something into boring or interesting; search for the positive (e.g., what’s interesting?) in all situations
  • Be enthusiastic by associating fun and joy with the tasks you have to perform or making them challenging
  • Make things fun and interesting (e.g., listen to an audio book rather than complain in a traffic jam)
  • Don’t get caught up in the here and now, and step back and pose to yourself and others questions such as:
    • What else?
    • What’s missing?
    • Why?
    • Why not?
    • What now?
    • What if?
    • What might we?
    • Where’s the gap?
    • What is not yet happening?
  • Then explore further and deeper, and then find connections between people or ideas.

Fourth, turn away from the familiar, and open your mind to new ideas, interests, experiences, and adventures by:

  • Getting out of your routine and adding variety to your life
  • Exploring, saying yes to new opportunities, stretching yourself, and expanding your experience, even when feeling uncomfortable
  • Having many hobbies, joining debate groups, or spending time in a library researching
  • Daydreaming, visualizing, or doodling with your non-dominant hand
  • Changing your environment, and exposing yourself to new things
  • Avoiding fixed ideas of things and situations surrounding you
  • Actively being aware and attentive to changes, new events, and anything unusual or unfamiliar
  • Welcoming the unexpected and the unpredictable, and looking for mysteries
  • Becoming a newcomer or outsider by seeking information from outside of your disciplines, not staying in one discipline for too long
  • Reaching beyond a narrow topic through experimentation, books, arts, and the outdoors
  • Becoming a keen observer and learner; emailing or meeting the lecturer after a lecture or a seminar
  • Learning from geeks, nerds, entrepreneurs, business leaders, celebrities, athletes, and world changers.

Fifth, dig deeper and understand the context, origin, and history of things by:

  • Putting everything into new perspectives, and playing with ideas
  • Exploring and experimenting with analogies
  • Learning to see ahead, beyond, behind, beneath, from above, sideways, from within, and through (e.g., best-case, realistic-case, and worst-case scenarios)
  • Renaming agendas for a meeting as questions and problems as puzzles to change your mindset for exploration
  • Keeping a dictionary around for researching words, and using the words in conversation embedding them in your vocabulary and memory
  • Seeing and doing differently by playing around with questions like Sherlock Holmes or Spiderman
  • Imagining more possibilities by copycatting or piggybacking on others’ ideas
  • Identifying underlying questions behind apparent questions, and learning to manage complex situations by:
    • Exploring problems from multiple angles to view all possibilities
    • Looking closer to examine details by placing the problems under a microscope
    • Stepping back to see the big picture by zooming out on, and placing the parts all together
    • Keeping your view of the world as unbiased as possible by looking through an unfiltered lens

Sixth, forge deep and quality relationships by showing your sincere and genuine interests in people around you, across all levels, such as:

  • Build multicultural rapport, empathy, compassion, and tolerance level exploring many different life insights and perspectives
  • Be open to other points of view, valuing differences of opinion and listening even when you disagree
  • Resist the adult tendency of labeling to put things in a box; avoid pre-conceptions, biases, stereotypes, and judgments
  • Challenge yourself to real conversations with acquaintances and strangers you see daily to connect with them on a deeper level
  • Observe others’ behaviors and expressions in different situations, and imagine what it might be like to be them
  • Understand others through their background story and circumstances and asking them questions
  • Keep the focus on others (not yourself) to better understand their perspectives, and find:
    • What their world looks like
    • What’s important to them
    • What drives them.

Seventh, build your own lab with full of experimental tools as your sandbox to tinker or try out new things; enjoy mistakes and failures while:

  • Fooling around, pulling pranks, experimenting, and conducting your own research
  • Drawing, painting, or sketching out random ideas
  • Making your own music, videos, photos, or inventions
  • Taking things apart to figure out how they work, and putting them back together even if they might not work.

Finally, work with inquisitive minds, rather than just qualified and experienced people by:

  • Asking them something that only they can know about when you meet new people, and asking yourself
    • How and why are we different or alike?
    • What can I learn from them?
    • How can we efficiently work together, knowing our differences and similarities?
  • Looking beyond their qualifications and credentials for a curious mind
  • Empowering others by giving them the space, time, and tools needed to satisfy their insatiable curiosity to seek answers, share ideas, and solve problems
  • Not falling into groupthink; bringing different teams and outsiders together to gain fresh perspectives and different strengths
  • Asking questions of other entrepreneurs for ideas, and reaching out to them when you go through difficult times in business.

Find more research findings about how to innovate in The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation (Kim, 2016), and follow Dr. Kim @Kreativity_Kim.

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Dr. KH Kim is Professor of Creativity & Innovation at the College of William & Mary. After being an English teacher in Korea for ten years and upon getting her PhD from the University of Georgia, she taught there and then at Eastern Michigan University. She has dedicated her career to researching creativity and innovators. Her research study titled "The Creativity Crisis" was the subject of a 2010 Newsweek cover story that captured the world’s attention. Frequently sought after by the media, she has shared her expertise with numerous outlets including New York Times, Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, and others. She is the author of The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation and has won the Early Scholar Award and the Hollingworth Award from the National Association for Gifted Children, the Berlyne Award from the American Psychology Association, as well as the Torrance Award from the American Creativity Association.
By | 2017-06-01T16:56:06+00:00 June 1st, 2017|Creativity|1 Comment