Curiosity: How Questions Lead to Insights & Learning
7 Minute Read
Tony Robbins has a famous quote that says: “The quality of your life is directly related to the quality of your questions.” The takeaway message? Better questions lead to a better life. How often have you witnessed someone or even found yourself prey of a pesky little question, whose best answer still wouldn’t move you forward and into being and doing your best? Questions like:
Why did this happen to me? What does this mean about me? Do I have what it takes to do what I want? What will others think of me?
Did you feel the weight of these questions pull you down?
The art of asking good questions is a creative and life-affirming craft. One that we can learn, improve and experiment with. If we’re to create the most expansive and brave life possible we need to be lifelong learners.
“Judge a man by his questions not his answers.”
The Thing About Learning
The days when people thought about a job or career for life are gone. Most people will have many different occupations throughout their productive years. Data from the Bureau of Labour Statistics that followed workers from eighteen to forty-eight years old, over a course of 34 years (1978 - 2012), found that, on average, workers held twelve different jobs.
Change happens faster than we can keep track of. Technologies evolve. The buzz about Artificial Intelligence and the likelihood that it will replace many of the jobs we’re familiar with continues. The only sure thing is that the present and the future are uncertain.
However, becoming a better learner is not only a matter of the times we’re living, it has always been the foundation of any endeavor, or individual set out to accomplish anything remarkable.
Learning to Learn
“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know.”
- Donald Rumsfeld
Microsoft's’ Ceo, Satya Nadella eloquently pointed out that “ultimately the learn-it-all will always do better than the “know-it-all”. Carol Dweck’s mindset research shed a light on how a growth-mindset (a belief in the ability that intelligence and skills can be developed through time and effort) drives motivation and achievement. Point taken. Learning is crucial and we know it. What most of us might not be so sure of is how good we’re at it.
If we’re unaware of how helpful and productive our learning strategies are, we might be wasting precious time.
In his book, Never Stop Learning, Bradley Staats, a behavioral scientist and operations expert, advocates for what he calls dynamic learning, that is, continuously learning and leveraging that learning to build even more knowledge. In his extensive research, he found the principles and practices that can make us exponentially better at learning. The main principles are:
- Valuing failure - Dynamic learners don’t shy away from failure, they expect it, embrace it and learn from it.
- Focusing on process, not outcome - Keeping the gaze on the process allows us to study carefully each part of the system and their interaction, giving us a much deeper understanding of what is really important and how to improve it.
- By focusing on the process we come to see how and what inputs affect the most relevant outputs - building a model for how things work. A narrow focus on outcomes blinds us to crucial details, giving us an incomplete model of the process.
- Focusing on questions, instead of answers. Dynamic learners are aware that as adults we have the tendency to rush to answers and seek to counteract it by focusing on asking more high-quality questions. They understand the power of asking why….what if... and how might...
- Reflection and relaxation. We must be at the height of our cognitive abilities to do our best thinking. Bill Gates is known to take a “think week” twice a year, retreating to his hideaway forest cottage to reflect on the future of technology, away from distractions and the everyday demands and tasks. The greater the challenge, the greater the need for deep thought, reflection and rest.
Linking Questions to Learning
So how exactly is it that asking questions facilitates learning? Thoughtful questions illuminate gaps in our knowledge and help us overcome our confirmation bias, the tendency to seek and assign greater credibility to information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs.
Before Greg Dyke was assigned General Director of the BBC, he spent five months visiting the locations and engaging with collaborators at each one of them. Each employee received two simple questions: “What is one thing I should do to make things better for you?” and “What is the one thing I should do to make things better for our viewers and listeners?”
The simple questions not only gained him respect from the staff who felt heard and acknowledged, but it also provided him with in-depth, hands-on perspectives from those whose opinions and views might otherwise be unknown. He then used that knowledge to decide on the changes that needed to be made and which problems needed to be tackled first.
One of the most effective ways to learn is to ask other people for their opinions and how they come to think the way they do, and then listen attentively to their answers. This willingness to admit that our perspective is limited, just like everyone else’s, opens up a field of different possibilities that we could hardly tap into otherwise. In that field is our power to broaden our thinking and yield the benefits of diversified perspectives.
Karena Strella, partner at the global executive search firm Egon Zehnder, exemplifies the power of questions. She spent years running executive searches for some of the world’s top companies. Even though she was successful at it, she felt that the predictive abilities of her company’s models fell short of what she wanted.
She engaged in a two-year project to design a better model, propelled by the question: How could the firm do better? She came to find that, in predicting future success, assessing potential was as, if not more important than assessing prior accomplishments. She designed a four element model: insight, the ability to take and use information from different sources; engagement, the ability to connect with people to share a vision; determination, the ability to overcome obstacles; and curiosity; the ability to seek new ideas by asking questions. Her experience showed that the factor that bridged the gap between potential and real action and improvement was curiosity. Without it potential would remain untapped and underdeveloped.
Much like training our bodies requires resistance and a certain level of stress to build the muscle fiber, training for curiosity requires us to consider novel ideas and perspectives, and instead of immediately fleeting to conclusions, entertain the questions that deepen our ability to think about that particular subject.
Studies show that curiosity is associated with less defensive reactions to stress and less aggressive reactions to provocation. We tend to perform better when we’re curious and we make fewer decision-making errors by seeking more knowledge and taking into account information from different sources.
Developing your Curiosity
Taking into account that top CEOs and organizations worldwide hire for curiosity and one’s ability to learn, how can we heighten our curiosity and make the most of it in our lives? Here are a few ideas to spark your interest and propel you forward into the field of magnified possibilities:
- A good question a day keeps the boredom away. Take five minutes every day to jot down a high-quality question. Assess the quality of the question by how it expands or limits your knowledge and possibilities.
- Take a why day. Take a day off to entertain deeply these 3 questions: Why…? What if…? How or what might …?
- Seek information that contradicts your beliefs. Hang out with people of different ages, who share different interests, who speak different languages, who challenge your beliefs. Ask good questions, ask follow-up questions and listen attentively throughout. You just might surprise yourself in how enlivening and enriching this can be.
- Dive deep. Take our 2-day workshop “From Curiosity to Insights”. Gain a deep understanding of the curiosity-insight-performance cycle and learn how to use it in your work and life. Train and develop the habits of a growth-mindset and become a lifelong learner.
How are you curious?
We’d love to know. Reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org or +351 215 892 109.
Gino, F. (2018). The Business Case for Curiosity. Harvard Business Review, September 2018 Issue.
Staats, B. (2018). Never Stop Learning. 3rd ed. Harvard Business Review Press.