Someone once called curiosity “the spark behind the spark of every great idea.” Though it is said to have killed the cat, curiosity’s effects on humans and human achievement are altogether different. It inspires, informs and is ultimately the one thing that brings transformation — if we embrace it. Unfortunately, often the amazing is camouflaged by the familiar and the ordinary.
Milton Wright, the young nephew of the famous brothers Wilber and Orville, once said, “History was being made in their home and in their bicycle shop, but it was so obscured by the commonplace that we didn’t see it until years later.”
Apparently, Milton was not alone. Though we all remember the famous flight on the deserted beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, it was upon the Wrights’ return to their native Dayton, Ohio, that they perfected their flying machine. Unbelievably, few made the journey out to Huffman Prairie, where they made countless flights and refined both their craft and the skills necessary to fly it.
In fact, detractors in the U.S. and abroad were skeptical about the Wrights’ claims because no members of the press had reported on their aeronautical breakthroughs. The reason was simple: They had not bothered to take the short ride, by trolley, to actually see if it was true. James M. Cox, publisher at that time of the Dayton Daily News, later governor of Ohio and Democratic presidential nominee, explained years later, “Frankly, none of us believed it.”
We are firm believers in the power of “What if ?” or “Why not?” That is what the legend of the Holy Grail is really about — searching and finding something wonderful that for others is just the stuff of fertile imaginations. Francesca Gino, in an article in the Harvard Business Review, reported polling 3,000 employees from a wide range of firms and industries. Only about 24 percent reported feeling curious in their jobs on a regular basis, and about 70 percent said they face barriers to asking more questions at work.
Gino cites Henry Ford as a primary example of the perils of putting efficiency over innovation and exploration. Ford’s vision of mass production was to reduce the cost of an automobile to make it affordable for the average American. By 1908 he had realized his vision, and by 1921 had a 56 percent market share. But when market demand pointed to variety, the more innovative General Motors overtook them in the 1930s.
Keys to Curiosity
Show up. Often, just showing up is the first step in opening doors of surprising possibilities. The reason is you acted on your curiosity, rather than dismissing it or defaulting to the equally fatal response of postponing it until you have more time. Guess what — you never will.
See limits as opportunities. Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar, said, “Imposing limits can encourage a creative response. Excellent work can emerge from uncomfortable or seemingly untenable circumstances.” Every creative endeavor must work with certain limits, whether that is creating digital animation or designing a pass play in the NFL. Like the wind resistance that enables flight, you learn to work with it, instead of against it.
Reward learning and experimentation, not just results. Everyone lauded the Wright brothers’ success creating the first airplane, but that outcome came after years of research, bitter trial and error and hundreds, if not thousands of iterations. The truly great teams celebrate great practices, not just successful games.
Years after their initial flights, word began to spread about the Wrights’ success and a growing throng of journalists finally made their way to the isolated beaches of Kitty Hawk, where the brothers were doing final tests before their public trials. One would write, “This barren part of the world had, in fact, become the center of the world. Because it became the tangible embodiment of an idea, which is to make the world different than it was before. It was curiosity that drove us there.”