Monday, 19 November 2012

Is it good to be curious?

Look up at the stars
I’m curious about curiosity. I've noticed that when people talk about curiosity, I become curious. At the start of the London 2012 Paralympics, I was moved by Professor Stephen Hawking’s speech, when he urged us to be curious. “Look up at the stars, not down at your own feet. Try to make sense of what you see. Be curious.” Now I quote Stephen Hawking whenever I talk about leadership. Curiosity is an essential part of leadership

The ‘need to know’ rule
When I worked at the Ministry of Defence (MoD), there was a rule called ‘the need to know’. This meant you could only access information that you needed to do your job. There was a lot of secrecy. I took care not to ask too many questions about certain topics, in case someone should suspect I had an illegitimate interest. Confidentiality was so ingrained in the organisational culture that some people did not tell even their partners where they worked.
Incurious George
George Entwistle, the former Director General of the BBC, seems to have followed the ‘need to know’ rule. When told by a senior colleague that Newsnight were making a programme about Jimmy Savile that might affect the Christmas schedule, Entwistle did not ask what the programme was about. He assumed that if there were anything to worry about he would have been told. There is something admirable and trusting about Entwistle’s behaviour. No micro-managing for him. Entwistle told MPs that it would have been wrong for him to show "an undue interest".  It was not curiosity that killed his career, but lack of it.

‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’
The Americans had a rule that seemed like a curious twist on the British ‘need to know’. In 1993 President Clinton issued a defense directive that military applicants should not be asked about their sexual orientation. This became known as ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’. I don’t imagine for a minute that this stopped people showing an 'undue interest' in each others’ sexuality. President Obama abolished the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military in 2012.

Striking a balance between curiosity and trust
As with all things, however, there is a balance to be struck. Curiosity can turn into 'undue interest'. Trusting that people will tell you what you need to know, however, is a kind of recklessness. What might we have missed at the MoD because someone with an idea or a relevant piece of information was deemed to be outside the ‘need to know’ category? Being curious helps us to make sense of what is happening in the world. Curiosity is part of what makes us human. 

Curiouser and curiouser
I like very much the episode in ‘Alice in Wonderland’, where Alice meets the Cheshire cat at a fork in the road.  “Which road should I take?”, Alice asks the cat.  “Where do you want to go?” asks the cat. When Alice says she does not know, the cat says, “Then it doesn’t matter”. We need to know where we want to go. Noticing what is happening around us is the first step towards developing our personal view of the world: both how it is, and how we would like it to be. Curiosity can often lead to new ideas, and a desire to change things for the better.

“I am Curious Yellow”
Am I curious enough? I’m probably not as curious as the heroine of the 1960s film “I am Curious Yellow”, who asks questions about everything. But I completely agree with Stephen Hawking that we need to look up at the stars, not down at our own feet.

Click here to watch the original trailer for "I am Curious Yellow"