The Promise of Curiosity: A 21st Century Superhero

Long gone are the days when curiosity killed the cat. Meant for a time when asking questions – being curious – was considered undesirable, since you were only supposed to “receive” information being meted out to you in classrooms mostly, today it is curiosity that’ll take the learner a long way. We could revise that proverb to say well, ‘Be curious and you’ll be one cool cat!’

If you think of a 21st century superhero – someone who’s bound to shine in this age – you’ll find curiosity as an essential super power. Mastery over using intelligent machines, empathetic collaboration, ability to thrive in diversity, original thinking, innovative problem solving, judicious decision making and the ability to inspire and lead would be some other traits of the 21st century superhero, but curiosity would be the lynchpin superpower.

Because that’s where it all starts.

Curiosity is the intense desire to know. An innate impulse to fill in that knowledge gap that itches your brain. We’re all born curious. As babies we are diligent investigators examining and making sense of our world using all four limbs and all five senses – sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. As toddlers we are ever exploring and never bored!

Ian Leslie author of Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, differentiates between ‘diversive’ and ‘epistemic’ curiosity. Diversive curiosity is attraction to novelty. It is an impulsive drive to find quick answers. Think of it as scanning Google search results and skimming the first couple of links to satiate that mental itch. ‘Epistemic’ curiosity on the other hand is a focused, effortful, self-disciplined and conscious exploration for building knowledge and making connections to deepen understanding. Think of it as that initial itch that urges you to find, question, explore, and, if you’re a true seeker, to turn that into a desire that digs deeper.

The 21st century superhero will need both types of curiosity because she has to be a ‘jack of many and master of one’. At IBM they describe this as ‘T’ – the ideal shape of an information age worker. The horizontal line of the ‘T’ depicts the ‘breadth’ of knowledge and the vertical line depicts the ‘depth’ of expertise.

This ‘T’ shape is essential because lucrative future jobs will involve solving non-routine, non-rule-based, complex problems (since routine, rule-based problems that can be reduced to an algorithm will be solved more efficiently by intelligent machines in the near future – for more on this read our earlier article ‘AI Versus Me’ – Solving such “wicked problems” – problems that are difficult to solve because of complex interdependencies – will require profound expertise in a domain, which in turn will require a deliberate approach to fulfilling the desire to know – the vertical line in the ‘T’. But creativity and innovation happen at the cusp of different domains, usually achieved by bringing together a multidisciplinary team of experts. To be an effective contributor in such teams our superhero will need sufficient knowledge of these other domains to meaningfully engage with experts in different fields. This is the horizontal line in the ‘T’.

Super news for our superhero is that today there is plethora of easily accessible knowledge resources, many available for free, to satiate all types of curiosities. Open Educational Resources (OERs) like MOOCs, talks by experts, Google Scholar, podcasts, websites, blogs, ebooks, apps, serious games and plenty of other resources are available at the tap of a button. Our superhero needs to work on becoming a master curator of these! It’s like curating your own curiosity!

She can also take inspiration from Academy Award winning Hollywood producer and author of the book A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life, Brian Grazer, and plan deliberate ‘curiosity conversations’. Grazer, because he was dyslexic and couldn’t read in his early years of elementary school, formed the habit of asking questions to learn. For the last three decades, on average once every two weeks, he has made sure he has hour-long conversations with experts in domains outside movies and television business so that he can broaden his horizon.

Curiosity is not a genetic trait. It is a learned skill that can be cultivated. From a young age, to become a future superhero, our protagonist will need to become an intrepid explorer who boldly goes where no one has gone before! As a student, her curiosity will fuel her learning and, to paraphrase British researcher Sophie von Stumm, her educational success will depend on her hungry mind.

The first step our superhero will need to take in any curiosity adventure will be formulating probing questions answers to which will give her a fresh insight, a new way to connect the dots. Story goes Isidore Rabi, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, when asked how he became a scientist, replied, “My mother made me a scientist without ever knowing it. Every other child would come back from school and be asked, ‘What did you learn in school today?’ But my mother used to say, ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’ That made the difference.”

In formulating insightful questions our superhero could take a cue from Rudyard Kipling who wrote – “I keep six honest serving-men, (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When, And How and Where and Who.”

Being curious, hence, holds a big promise – curiosity is essential for employability and entrepreneurship in the 21st century, curiosity eventually leads to sense making and fulfilling your curiosity is an innately satisfying experience.