Curiosity: The Gateway Competency
As I've been preparing to publish my book, and experiencing the endless twists and turns which accompany the process, I have been trying to get a tighter grip on why people might want to purchase it. I know, I know, again - kind of late to be having these moments of marketing awareness isn't it? One would think that a marketing educator and advisor would have figured out what need he was satisfying before coming up with the solution to that need - literally the definition of marketing.
To be fair, I had long ago identified the need, it was the reason I committed to the podcast, which led to the book. As humans we have a short circuit in our connection to the behaviours (competencies) I discuss in both mediums. And that short circuit comes from a slow but steady reduction in use of these behaviours. Like muscle tissue, they atrophy.
Let me explain...
"Being Better at Being Human", the subtitle of my book, is not a suggestion that we have lost touch with our softer side. That we have lost compassion, empathy or willingness to feel feelings. Those matter a lot, and they are embedded in two of the Pillar Competencies in my book (Character and Citizenship). But we have an obligation to level up our game in the other six competency areas: Critical Thinking; Communication; Problem Solving; Collaboration; Creativity and Curiosity. Over the next few posts I'm going to try to make a case for the intrinsic and extrinsic value of each of these 8 Pillar Competencies, and why rekindling them is vital. And I'll begin with that last one - curiosity - my personal favorite.
My youngest daughter, Gabby, turned 11 last week. It would not surprise anyone to know that she is now in the throws of that rapid transition from childhood to teen-hood - a slope so slippery, parents are almost expected to give up the fight, and turn over control to a universe of cell phones, social media and streaming. Anyone who has been in my shoes can probably recall the feeling of gravity's brutish pull, knowing that the days of childhood's innocence is fleeting. The desire to play, rapidly replaced by FOMO, and the most important source of pure joy coming from a tiny screen rather than an open field.
Still, kids can surprise us. Days after her birthday, Gabby asked to go for a walk with friends down to a creek bed near our house. It's a lovely little reprieve from the noise and monotony of a typical suburban neighborhood, and it's literally minutes from our front door. Delighted with this request, my wife and I, along with the parents of the other two children, were only too willing to permit the all too unique request. She was given one of the cell phones in the house and told to stay in touch, and call with updates if their location or timing changed. My wife was out, and both my older daughter, Eva, and I, were busy with our respective virtual routines. Eva with her school teachers, and me online with colleagues and students.
At one particular instance, I was on a Zoom call with friend and mentor, Gary Schoeniger, founder and CEO of Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative (ELI), and we were discussing the mismatch between today's education model and today's education needs. Gary was on one of his spectacularly compelling rants. I felt I was getting a one-on-one keynote. Regrettably I had to douse his fire to answer a call from Gabby, now deep in the woods with her pals experiencing play, exploration and curiosity in their purest form. She was asking permission to stay longer. "Is it ok if we stay here until 2:30? We're trying to pull out an old tree to add to our fort."
When I informed Gary of the rationale behind the interruption, he just paused. "Beautiful", he murmured, with just a glint of emotion peaking through his chiseled features. "I was doing a podcast recently and the host opened the interview by asking to identify one thing about my childhood that most contributed to who I am today", he ventured. I went for the bait. "I told him my mom never let us watch TV after school". I picked up my phone and held it up to the webcam toward Gary, and said, "That's exactly why we don't want her to have one of these! Fort-building is a far greater developmental pursuit than sitting in someone's bedroom watching Netflix."
Later that day I was mentoring a student as she prepped for a meeting with a potential employer. I was being very honest and forthright when I told her that the very things I talked about in my podcast, "The Daily Undoing" throughout 2020, were the very things she needs to be demonstrating to ALL future employers. Making this connection with anyone unfamiliar with the podcast would have been difficult, but this student was way ahead of me. "I have screen shots saved of episodes that I wanted to remember", she revealed (much to the satisfaction of my ego!). I knew this student had been a listener, because I had made my podcasts available on Instagram (a hack to discuss another time) and could see she was liking them quite regularly. But I did not know she was digesting the content to this extent. It was re-affirming of my movement, humbling that my message was carrying that kind of weight, but most significantly, it was another signal that curiosity still had a pulse - even in young adulthood.
I call curiosity the gateway drug to competency based learning - the framework for both the book and podcast named, "The Daily Undoing". Much smarter people than me, who have devoted more time to the research and development of competency based education, would likely disagree with my assertion. Not to belittle the importance of curiosity, but to argue that it is more of an attitude than a competency.
However, in my book I assert, and again I borrow shamelessly from pioneers in the space, that a "competency" is a three-part framework consisting of Attitude, Knowledge and Skill. I then go on to identify the aforementioned 8 Pillar Competencies. When viewed this way, ALL competencies are one-third attitude. It's baked in to them. Attaining competency in being curious is no different than attaining it in critical thinking, communication or any other pillar. It begins with an attitude toward wanting personal growth.
But curiosity is the "gateway" to each competency because it IS inherently attitudinal. It is both a passive state of mind - "diversive" curiosity, as author Ian Leslie would frame it, referring to its naturally occurring but somewhat "light" application. But it is also very intentional. Leslie would refer to the deliberate, scholarly form of curiosity as "epistemic". In both cases, however, curiosity is a tap that is opened to allow new knowledge to enter. It is thus a pre-cursor to being competent in creativity, collaboration, problem-solving, and each of the Pillars.
I regularly check the consistency of my claims, with my own behaviour when I speak of competencies, and more broadly, "being better at being human". When I rail against the thieves of competencies like curiosity (ie: cell phones, Instagram and Netflix), and criticize a culture which has opened the door for their intrusion, I must remind myself of my own vulnerability to their lure. As I am very willing to admit, I am forever on a being better at being human journey myself. My curiosity has atrophied too. And so I must not view the positive examples of those younger than me with a sense of condescending superiority. I must take what they're doing...and do more myself.
I would argue that boomers like me have the least curiosity remaining in our tanks, but might be the generation that needs curiosity the most. We are by far the most glued to old ways and standards. It's time we go fort-building in creeks and screen-shotting things that make us want to think and no more. This is the essence of learning to learn. And why I wish to seek more curiosity in my life, and encourage you do so in yours.