Insights

Curiosity: A Super Power That Gets Us Unstuck

We get stuck. Somebody won’t listen – they just won’t. We’ve tried explaining what we want, why we think they’re wrong, what they should be doing better, and nothing happens, nothing changes. The decisions keep being delayed, the advice ignored, the obvious (to us) reality avoided.

Or there’s a problem, a big one: we’re about to be out of money, we’re definitely going to miss the deadline, our very best, world-class, go-to engineering lead is quitting. We’re going over a cliff. Tomorrow. And it feels inevitable, immovable – we can’t see another path.

Struggle, or Give Up

When we get stuck, we struggle. Of course we do. We pull together our strength and we push harder, speak louder, move faster. We work massive numbers of hours, we write emails at 3 in the morning, unable to sleep. We make huge, risky bets: maybe if we made that engineering lead a VP, gave her a monster stock grant, she’d stay, and we’ll deal with the consequences (the budget, the pay parity issues, the guilt) later!

Or we go limp. We find somebody to complain to: “I’ve said everything I can about this and nothing’s going to change, so…”. We take refuge in apparent inevitability. “Yeah, we’ll miss this deadline, and we’ll have to slip everything, miss the quarter… just the way it goes”.

By assuming we know what’s going to happen, by believing we can see everything about the reality of the situation, we give up our agency, let go of our responsibility, our power.

An Analogy

My son goes fishing, a lot. I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time dealing with fishhooks stuck in my clothes. The damn things get jammed right in there, and there’s no easy way to move them. Sometimes I get irritated, struggle, try and yank the things out, usually leading to a hole in my finger and a torn shirt. Sometimes I just can’t deal with it: another fishhook, ach, really? So I snip off the pieces that I can, and leave the rest in. And then spend days with the remaining piece catching on other clothes in the washing machine, making the inevitable hole in the shirt worse.

What does work here is slowing way down, and being intensely curious: how is this particular hook, in this particular shirt, different? What material is the shirt made of? Will it tear easily if I pull, or give? How many barbs does the hook have? What tools do I have that I can use? Do I flatten the barb (probably)?

Can I just clip the barb off? Maybe.

If I pay attention to the specifics, the details, the reality of the situation, it starts to appear in higher resolution – there’s more here than I first saw. More detail, more options, more to work with.

When we pull back and allow ourselves to be curious, we start to disengage the parts of us that are unhelpful – anxiety, stress, even panic – and start to work with our creativity, our receptiveness to people and the world. Crucially, we reclaim ownership of ourselves – we begin to build an understanding of the situation that is our own, we create options, paths, choices.

Back At the Office 1

So the engineering lead is leaving. It’s painful, devastating maybe. All kinds of fears are coming up: am I a good boss? Are we a good company? What will the organization do without her brilliance and experience?

Let’s slow down, and be curious. First: is she really, really leaving? We’re not asking the question to pressure her, we’re interested in the firmness of her position – we want her authentic response, not the one based in anger or momentary frustration or a sudden grasping at a shiny offer.

Yes, she is. OK. What’s causing her to leave? Really, really listen – you will want to “listen to argue”, be making your case as she’s speaking ready to contradict her, but don’t. Listen to hear – maybe you know why she’s leaving already, maybe you don’t. Be open. Maybe you’ll discover something you can fundamentally change. Or maybe you won’t, but you certainly won’t if you don’t listen, carefully, so she is heard.

What will the effect on the organization be? Don’t jump to conclusions. Organizations are very flexible, adaptable, organic. If you genuinely ask the question, of yourself, of your team, what are the many answers, what’s the reality? What does your creativity and the creativity of your team tell you? (And by the way, “reality” is often used as a label for “brutal worst case”, as in, “you’re not facing reality here, we’re completely fked”. Reality is always more nuanced, more flexible, more surprising than we can predict. Be gentle. Be curious).

Back at the Office 2

So your boss won’t make a decision. You slide into moaning about it to friends, your partner at home, co-workers. “There’s nothing I can do or say”, you whimper. “This completely sucks”, you complain.

So try wondering what is really going on. Your boss is a person. What do you really know about him? What is the value to him of not making a decision? What does he get out of it? What is he hearing when you tell him that you need a decision? Ask him! Just ask. Genuinely – not to move him along, but to really discover something new about what the situation. Something that adds nuance and depth. Something you can work with.

Curiosity Takes Us Back to Our Best Selves

It’s much easier to give up on problems and people than it is to remain steadfastly interested in them. It’s easier to be our “small selves” – scared, reactive – to give up our agency and our power, and be scared, anxious or frozen and passive.

Curiosity takes us back to our best selves. Curiosity allows us to wonder, to investigate the world, to pay attention to the people around us – what do they want? what is compelling them right now? Curiosity compels us to ask a crucial question: what do I know, really?

By being curious, paying full attention to what is in front of us, we bring our full, creative, energetic selves to bear. We bring what is powerful and human in us to the world and to the people we share it with, and in doing so, help both the world, and the people we share it with change, for the better.

When you’re stuck, you’re not paying attention. Be curious.

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