Psychology of Performance #58: Curiosity and Knowledge

I just finished a thought provoking and assumption challenging book, Curiosity, by Ian Leslie. I hope you get a copy and read it in its entirety. This blog addresses some, and  not all, of the important information presented in the book.

The tag line on the cover directly implies that performance is impacted by “the desire to know and why your future depends on it.”

Leslie describes three types of curiosity. “diversive curiosity” is the restless desire for the new and the next. Think scrolling through your cell phone apps such as facebook, twitter, emails, wordpress, and news feeds, while spending very little time on any one piece. The value of “diversive curiosity” is that it helps the exploring mind find the new and the undiscovered. Its ultimate value is helping us be curious enough to learn futher about a subject, to do a deeper investigationThe second type of curiosity is “epistemic curiosity.” It is a “quest for knowledge and understanding, it nourishes us. This deeper, more disciplined and effortful type of curiosity” is the focus of the book ( prologue, p.xx).

The third type of curiosity is “empathic curiosity.” This is “about the thoughts and feelings of other people. It is distinct from gossip or prurience, which we can think of as “diversive curiosity” about the superficial detail of others’ lives. You practice empathic curiosity when you genuinely try to put yourself in the shoes – and mind – of the person you are talking to, to see things from their perspective… (p.xxi).”

The relevance for psychology of performance in business is far reaching. Given the complexity of our business environments, advances in science and technology, and the exponential growth of knowledge. Organizations and individuals who are not curious will become obsolete or become further and further behind compared to those who embrace epistemic curiosity and life-long learning.

Leslie does us the same service Malcom Gladwell and other synthsis writers do by diving into the scientific literature behind the statements in the book. One area that is concerning is the role of core subject knowledge and the ability to be curious. Schools who teach process skills without content knowledge produce students who are less capable of the creative, cross-discipline insights and thinking required to solve the complex and diverse problems we are faced with. This body of research is counter to what has happened in many schools across the country. One has to have information in order to know whether one wants to be curious and learn more about it.  Leslie’s handrail was “knowledge loves knowledge.”

He adds an interesting case study related to Disney and Pixar concerning then-CEO of Disney Michael Eisner and co-founder of Pixar, Steve Jobs. Leslie looks at an interesting quote from Jobs stating that as Pixar was the creative organization producing one money making film after another while Disney was the distributor, Eisner only spent a little over two hours at Pixar rather than learning how Pixar was doing what it did and taking it back to Disney. Finally, after Eisner and Jobs left, Disney bought Pixar. If someone is out-performing you as an organization or individually, being curious as to how they are doing that could be a good process to go through rather than avoiding it, resting on the status quo, or other reasons for not learning more.

Leslie discussed breadth versus depth in knowledge and the need for both. He uses the concept of a “foxhog” (p.152). “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” (p.151). A foxhog is one who combines deep knowledge of a specialty with broad understanding of other disciplines. Leslie also pays tribute to one of my favorite business people and writers, Charlie Munger, who is exemplary in his pursuit of knowledge outside of his field and in learning useful mental models from other disciplines. From a psychology of performance point of view, Charlie Munger and Warren Buffet have performed at high levels in their field for decades.

In order to improve your performance over your lifetime, be epistemically and empathically curious, be a lifelong learner, apply what you know, and take action!

 

Please have a day filled with loving kindness and extend compassion and sympathetic joy to everyone you meet.

Robert A. Mines, Ph.D., CEO & Psychologist

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