Our curiosity quotient sometimes needs a little help; try our curiosity experiments to give yourself a head start.
As children, we’re naturally curious, asking endless questions to help us make sense of the world and indulging in imaginative play. But, as we grow up, we tend to lose this playfulness, this innate curiosity, becoming self-conscious, even feeling vulnerable about asking questions when we feel we should already know the answers or experimenting with things that might be embarrassing or tricky if things don’t quite work out as planned.
We also know that, to truly connect with our inner Leonardo da Vinci, we need to get comfortable with that vulnerability and to get over ourselves. It might take some practice after all these years, which is why we’ve devised our curiosity experiments to help you along the way.
Some of the experiments might feel awkward, silly or even a bit embarrassing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; vulnerability and playfulness often go hand in hand. If you can’t bring yourself to do some experiments because they feel too awkward to try, that in itself might tell you something interesting about either yourself or your team dynamic.
Go on, give at least some of them a try. You never know, you might end up with a unique solution to a thorny problem; you might learn something about yourself; you might just give team members permission to be a bit more playful, to have some fun. Remember that reflecting on your experiences, maybe making some notes about them, will really help to reinforce what you learn. We’ve included some questions and prompts to help you do that along the way.
Experiment 1 Just Google It
The artist and writer Austin Kleon advises: “Google everything. I mean everything. Google your dreams. Google your problems. Don’t ask a question before you Google it. You’ll either find the answer or you’ll come up with a better question.”
Spend at least 15 minutes each day this week Googling everything that has popped into your brain. Note at least three things you Googled and reflect on what you learnt from doing this.
Experiment 2 Random Object
Before your next meeting where you’ll be discussing a particular problem, discussing a strategic challenge or brainstorming for ideas, place a random object on the desk in front of you. This could be a saucepan, a toy dinosaur, a coat hanger, a bar of soap or even a shoe. Wait until someone in the team asks you about it. This might be an embarrassing wait depending on how curious your colleagues are.
When or if they finally ask you about it, explain that it’s there to help solve the problem. Ask whoever brought it up to list five characteristics of the object (for example, if it was a toy dinosaur they might say ‘scary’, ‘claws’, ‘asteroid’, ‘extinct’, ‘green’).
Take each of these words in turn and brainstorm how you could solve the problem/come up with new ideas using that word as inspiration (for example, how could you create a ‘greener’ policy around this? How could you make an awkward process suddenly ‘extinct’? What would happen if you made the campaign ‘scary’?)
Experiment 3 Little Chef
The next time you’re shopping for groceries, find a food you’ve never had before. Buy it and try it (you may want to look up how to prep it). The more unusual the better.
What did you learn about yourself, the process and the outcome?
Experiment 4 15-Second Warhol
There are certain contexts where we are ‘allowed’ to just look: during football matches or in art galleries, for example. At other times, there is a bit of a cultural taboo about just ‘looking’ at everyday stuff for no reason. But Andy Warhol made a career out of finding what was interesting in the seemingly banal, whether that was painting soup cans or just filming himself eating a hamburger.
When you next venture out, look out carefully for one small thing that interests you that normally you’d pay little attention to – it could be a sad glove on a railing, a dog in a jumper that makes you smile or a sign with an interesting colour combination. Take a photo of the object (or sketch it if you have time).
Then study the photo (or sketch) and really ask yourself why it caught your eye.
Experiment 5 Radiators and Drains
Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. On the left, write ‘radiators’. Under this column, list the people in your personal and professional life who inspire you and help you to learn new things. On the right, write ‘drains’. These are the time vampires who draw energy without giving anything back.
- Which of your colleagues, friends and family are radiators?
- Who inspires you to think differently or to keep learning?
- Who could you arrange to see or call right now to learn something new?
- How can you interact more with those who bring curiosity into your life?
Did the results surprise you? What might you change as a result?
Experiment 6 An Inspector Calls
Ask to have a social call with someone you’re curious about. Use these conversation questions to deepen the experience; you’ll be amazed where they take you.
- What are they learning now?
- What have they read that you should read?
- Who do they know who you should know?
- What have they done that you should do?
- What is the greatest lesson they have learnt?
- What have they learnt from their failures?
- What did you learn? How might that help you to develop your own skills?
Experiment 7 Attention Bingo
In your next three team meetings, create a little four-by-four bingo sheet with the terms below (or create your own). Observe carefully and tick each option every time you observe it happening. If you get four in a row, shout “Bingo” loudly (only joking, please don’t do this):
- Asks an open question (double tick for “why” questions)
- Asks a closed question
- Interrupts someone
- Makes supportive comments
- Asks for clarification
- Disagrees with someone constructively / diplomatically
- Disagrees with someone unconstructively / awkwardly
- Agrees with someone
- Confirms understanding of a point
- Doesn’t answer / ignores a question
- Goes off on a tangent
- Monologues without checking in / pausing
- Shows active listening through body language or small expressions “uh huh” / “go on”
- Shows a lack of active listening / inattention through body language
- Allows / asks for silence or space for thinking
- Actively seeks other positions / perspectives on a topic
What were the main patterns? What surprised you? What could be better?
Experiment 8 Walk It Off
For your next 1-2-1 or small group meeting, suggest doing it as a walking meeting.
Were you more or less present? Did the changing scenery and physical movement help or hinder the conversation? Was not being able to take notes an issue?
Experiment 9 Back to the Future
What fascinates you? What do you think about the future? Make a list of at least 20 things you’ve always wanted to know more about. The breadth of your list will make your mind more fertile for innovative new ideas.
Start exploring some items on your list and see where they take you.
Experiment 10 Pot Plant Historian
Steve Jobs credited some random calligraphy classes he took in college as a part of what made Apple so successful and different. The classes made him think deeply about the power and beauty of fonts and how, until then, many computer companies had effectively ignored them.
Pick a random item on your desk and read the Wikipedia entry about it. Maybe this is your chance to learn how pencils are made, or the story of Bill Hewlett and David Packard.
Repeat the exercise as you go about your working day, taking a couple of minutes here and there to learn about the items that normally go overlooked.
Experiment 11 The Big Sleep
Use your sleep. Just before you go to bed, remind yourself of a problem you want to solve. A 1993 Harvard study found that when people ask themselves a question before bed, half of the participants dreamed about the issue and a quarter found a solution in their dreams.
To assist your unconscious, read something inspiring at night. Non-fiction or fiction is fine… anything that inspires your mind and suggests new information to prime the sleep connections. John Steinbeck described it as the “committee of sleep” who work on our problems while we rest.
Did your ‘committee’ help you?
Experiment 12 Down the Rabbit Hole
Use the Wikipedia:Random search for at least five random pages. Write down the headlines on five Post-its and keep these on your desk.
Over the course of this week, try to find a way to work an aspect of at least one of them into a meeting, a project or a process.
Experiment 13 Morning Pages
The writer Julia Cameron uses a simple technique called “Morning Pages”. It’s a simple idea: as soon as you wake up, take five minutes and some paper and write down on two or three sheets every thought and idea that come into your head, however random or unconnected. These notes aren’t to share with others; they are just a way to clear out the intellectual and emotional debris and leave space for creative thought.
Your pages will make little sense and might read something like ‘I don’t know what to write for this exercise; I’m still feeling a bit annoyed at John; I might have a grapefruit for breakfast; I’m feeling a bit tired today; I really do need to change my mobile phone contract soon; that’s a nice noise; what’s that actor called with that weird moustache…?’; etc.
Try it over the next five days. What difference has it made to each day?
Experiment 14 Watch Some Paint Dry
The writer Thomas Friedman wrote a booked called Thank You for Being Late because he noticed how grateful he felt when colleagues or friends turned up late to meetings. It gave him the much-needed time he hadn’t otherwise scheduled to just let his mind wander. If we’re always busy, there is no room for curiosity. We often blame our boss for how busy we are, but more often than not, how busy we are is a function of our own sense of anxiety or ambition.
This week, try taking 10 minutes in the middle of each working day to literally do nothing. If you can’t manage 10 minutes in one go, try just five minutes, or even just one minute at a time. Good places to do nothing: in front of a window, in the shower, on a park bench, watching the kettle boil, lying on the floor.
How did it feel to just do nothing? What thoughts came into your head? Did you notice any patterns? Did you find yourself wondering about anything in particular?
Experiment 15 The Naked Lunch
The writer William Burroughs would often take a newspaper or book and cut out random words then try piecing them together like a jigsaw to find a combination that sounded interesting.
When you are next writing a report, composing an important email or preparing a presentation, take a page in a random book from your shelf, circle every 15th word and try starting each sentence using that word.
Did this process make the writing easier or harder; more or less interesting for the reader?
Experiment 16 The Listening Social Scientist
Be an x-ray listener. Get better at picking up on non-verbal cues in other people. Try really looking at people’s eyes, their small facial expressions and their body language. In your next meeting, focus on one individual and act like an anthropologist, noting down their physical behaviour and how they react to different aspects of the meeting.
Alternatively, you could try spending 10 minutes watching a Netflix drama with the volume down to identify how the characters are transmitting their emotions physically and what those emotions are.
Experiment 17 Friends Reunited
Reconnect with at least five old colleagues/work connections. You might want to scroll through your LinkedIn connections or phone contacts and send a message to someone you haven’t talked to in at least a year, saying you’re thinking of them, letting them know what’s new with you and that you’re curious about what they’re up to.
What happened as a result?
Experiment 18 Going Deeper
Pick a colleague who is close to you and who you feel will give you some honest and direct answers. Ask them questions from the following list. Let the conversation flow naturally and see where it ends up:
- What activity do you most enjoy doing with me?
- What’s your favourite memory from our relationship so far?
- What’s a bad habit I have that bothers you or others?
- If you were in trouble with the law, would you tell me?
- What is something that you admire about me?
- Have I ever done anything to inspire you?
- What is something that I can do right now to improve your working life?
- What three words would you use to describe me?
- What was your first impression of me?
- What are three things that we have in common?
What did you discover from this conversation? What surprised you and what might you change as a result?
Experiment 19 The Sound of Silence
Try silence. In an upcoming team meeting or 1-2-1, ask a big, open-ended (and potentially uncomfortable) question.
After you pose your question, stop. Leave a pause and don’t say another word until another person speaks. Stay quiet, even if it feels uncomfortable. The better your question, the longer it often takes people to process it and to respond. We live in a world where quiet gaps are often filled to avoid embarrassment.
How did it feel to wait? What happened as a result?
Experiment 20 Be Anti-Social
Select at least five individuals on social media who you would never normally choose to follow. These might be individuals who don’t share the same opinions as you, (relatively mainstream) groups whose views you disagree, with or simply people who post about things you would not normally be interested in. If you don’t use social media, buy a newspaper that you would never normally read instead.
Make an effort to withhold judgement and simply try to immerse yourself in their world and see what you can learn about their point of view, their worries and their concerns. If you need to, imagine you are a concerned parent, purely interested in finding out why they feel a certain way.
Reflect on what you learnt and whether the experiment has helped you understand better some different perspectives.
Experiment 21 Trading Places
Identify a colleague who tends to have a different point of view on things or who is at a very different stage of life from you and ask them this series of questions.
- What non-fiction books have you read that you’ve enjoyed?
- What magazines do you flick through on a regular basis?
- What do you use to learn online? Which podcasts, YouTube channels, blogs and websites do you subscribe to?
- What conferences and events do you attend each year?
What did you learn about them? Did you feel more empathy towards them after this experiment?
Experiment 22 Asking for a Friend
Delegate a piece of work that shouldn’t take longer than two weeks to complete. Explain to your colleague that you would like them to entirely own the outcome and do the work exactly as they want to. When they present you with the work back, note down:
- What did you learn about how you / they make assumptions?
- How anxious did you feel during the process?
- What did they do differently from how you would have approached it?
- How did they approach the task in an interesting way?
- What tips could you pick up from them?
Experiment 23 The Thinker
At least three times during one typical working day, stop and ask yourself:
- Why am I doing this task or activity?
- Is this the most important thing I could be doing right now? If not, why am I doing it? Could I automate it, delegate it or drop it?
- What’s important about the system, process or action I’m working on?
- What would happen if I didn’t do this?
- What about it do I enjoy?
- What could I change to make me enjoy it more?
Did this experiment lead to any changes in your working practice?
Experiment 24 Elephants in the Room
Is there an obvious question in your team or organisation that you feel everybody is avoiding because the answer might be a little scary? This is the elephant in the room. How might a skilful question make it visible? What happens if you ask the question?
What might that question be? If you managed to ask it, what happened as a result?
Experiment 25 Acting ‘as if’
A simple but powerful psychological or therapeutic technique is to briefly try out acting ‘as if’ you were someone else, or possessed someone else’s characteristics. Choose your own curiosity ‘hero’: this might be Sherlock Holmes, Leonardo da Vinci, Barbie or Mulan. In your next meeting, try acting ‘as if’ you had their particular brand of curiosity – ask yourself, what would they like to know? What might they question? (There’s no need to wear a hat or smoke a pipe for this activity.)
Were there any questions that came to mind that might not have done previously?
Experiment 26 Upside Down
When the artist Michael Atavar wants a different perspective he often simply lies on the floor and looks at the world from a different perspective (ideally looking upwards through a window or in a park). He argues that the process is relaxing and allows your mind to wander more easily. In your next team meeting, try turning off the camera (you can blame bad Wi-Fi) and join the meeting while lying on the floor.
Did this change of perspective lead to any new thoughts or ideas?
Experiment 27 Taking Off Your Armour
At the next appropriate opportunity (for example, in your next 1-2-1), share a story about your journey to where you are with your team. Share some of the ups and downs along the way. Reveal some mistakes you’ve made in the past and what you learnt from them. Invite your team/colleague to ask you any question they want. This will feel quite exposing and might make you feel uncomfortable, but fight through that.
How did it feel? What response did you get?
Experiment 28 Emotional Bingo
In your next three team meetings, create a little three-by-four bingo sheet with the terms below (or you may want to create your own). Every time you feel inclined to step in and ask a question/make a point, ask yourself how you felt just before you spoke (or didn’t speak up).
- I didn’t speak up because I felt no one would listen/take me seriously.
- I didn’t speak up because I was worried I might look a bit stupid/ignorant.
- I didn’t speak up because I couldn’t be bothered/it wouldn’t make any difference.
- I didn’t speak up because I thought I might show my frustration/anger.
- I didn’t speak up because the decision was being made by someone/others above my level, so it’s up to them what we do.
- I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t really paying attention and thought I might have missed the explanation already.
- I spoke up because I felt totally comfortable to speak my mind with this group and had a point to make.
- I spoke up because I felt the conversation was enjoyable and I wanted to contribute.
- I spoke up because I didn’t understand and was really keen to get to the heart of the issue.
- I spoke up because I felt we were going off track and needed to get us back on point.
- I spoke up because I needed to clarify a point that others were misunderstanding.
- I spoke up because I hadn’t said anything for a while and felt I probably should.
Were there any typical patterns? What surprised you? What could be better?
Experiment 29 Friend of a Friend
Talk to a colleague, tell them what you’re working on and what you’re finding particularly challenging or interesting at the moment. Ask them to introduce you to someone they know who they think it would be helpful for you to meet.
Did you get to meet someone interesting? What did you learn from reaching out?
Experiment 30 Bursting Bubbles
How can you pierce your own media bubble? Make a list of all your typical sources of information/news.
- How confident are you that each source is reliable?
- Like a journalist would, rank them in order of credibility or reliability.
How could you make your list more reliable or balanced?
Investing in curiosity
Trying some or all of these experiments requires us to set aside time for curiosity – an investment which will be repaid in full when we find ourselves thinking more creatively, questioning received wisdom, and identifying new avenues and possibilities. Enhancing our curiosity quotient helps to shift our minds from a passive mode into an active one, allowing us – like da Vinci – to learn relentlessly every day of our lives.
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