I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.
I cannot take credit for the line above, which is attributed to Albert Einstein. But I do endorse the sentiment. Curiosity is the sign of a mind that wants to learn. That wants to change. That wants to grow.
Implicit in this is:
- an acknowledgement that there are things that one doesn’t know, and
- a desire to acquire or uncover additional knowledge.
In my corporate experience these two qualities are often in short supply. Individuals and organisations frequently assume more knowledge than they actually possess, whether in relation to the marketplace in which they operate, competitors’ strategies, or even employee motivation. The more they already ‘know’, the lower the perceived need to learn new facts. Being less curious they ask fewer questions and/or seek answers only from those who they feel will reinforce their own preconceived ideas.
From an historical perspective, there is arguably no individual that better embodies these ideals than Socrates (picture below).
Recall that Socrates was pronounced by the Oracle at Delhpi as the wisest of all the Greeks. When he learned of this pronouncement, Socrates responded not by boasting or celebrating, but by attempting to prove the Oracle wrong. To achieve this he set about trying to find out if anyone in Athens knew what was truly worthwhile in life. Anyone who knew that would surely be wiser than him.
After questioning everybody that he could find, Socrates was disappointed to discover that nobody in the city could provide a satisfactory answer. Rather, they were all pretending to know something that they did not. As a consequence he was forced to face the realisation that perhaps the Oracle was correct after all. Of all the men in Athens he was indeed the wisest, because he alone was prepared to admit his own ignorance. This meant that he knew one more thing than everyone else, as they preferred to pretend to know something that they clearly did not.
The message here is that self doubt is not a weakness. Rather, it is those individuals that presume to be without doubt (or who feel compelled to pretend, lest they reveal their ignorance) that are most dangerous. Corporately this attitude can lead to:
- failed strategy
- missed opportunities
- disaffected staff (where motivation is assumed)
Now, as you may be aware, Socrates’ approach of questioning others in the hope of uncovering truth – revealing their ignorance in the process – did not end well for him. He was sentenced to death for being “an evil-doer who busies himself with investigating things beneath the earth and in the sky, and who makes the worse appear the better reason, and who teaches others these same things” and forced to drink the hemlock which claimed his life.
Hopefully your company will not react in such extreme fashion.
So, ask questions of everyone, starting with yourself!