Curiosity: the Hot “New” Skill for 2020
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Curiosity is the spark that lights the flame of learning and drives us to seek out new experiences and perspectives. It’s not a new concept, just like most if not all so-called soft skills. And really, I hate that term — soft skills. The lengthy list of associations which a person could attribute to that term can end up generally un-flattering. And also, let’s be real — the folks who kinda maybe most need to work on such things are perhaps some of the least likely people to read anything about “soft skills.” So, let’s forget that term and use “human skills” or if you want to be less whatever-sounding, then maybe “interpersonal skills”? I don’t know, and this isn’t the point of this little diatribe, so let’s move on. Or go back. Or something.
Curiosity. That’s where we were. The thing about curiosity is it’s not really something you can teach or train in any traditional sense and sadly, many of us have been put through 13 years or so of pretty rigid elementary and secondary education. The tools we were born with which tap into our inner curiosity have been systematically shunned, ridiculed, or otherwise been given the signal to STFU with increasing frequency as we progress through our teenage years. When we’re young and exploring our environments and their boundaries — physical and cultural and societal — we use our curiosity to help us learn about everything. But through the cultural and societal structures which we slog through as we move, trudging or gliding, on into adulthood, many of us are taught and otherwise trained to not be so curious, not to ask so many questions, and most importantly to not question the foundational structures upon which we have hung ourselves, as a species. But…why? Honestly, I think the “why” behind this is a whole separate piece of writing, but it’s this kind of questioning that we, as adults, need to hold on to or re-kindle, if need be.
As adults, we can tap back into this childlike curiosity and use it to drive forward humankind as a species, asking “why” until we’ve at the heart of the issue and can then work collectively to make it incrementally better. If you’ve ever made the same food item many times— a sandwich, an omelette, mom’s meatloaf, anything- you’ve likely employed your curiosity to try and improve on the flavor or texture or presentation over time. Initially, to learn how to make the thing — the sandwich or cake or what-have-you, it was curiosity that drove you to learn the recipe, and over time with each successive re-making, it was your curiosity that made you wonder and then try to add a little oregano this time or a little less cheese. And if you don’t have a favorite food that you’ve made yourself often, can I recommend a good cook book?
And this brings us back to the click-bait-y title of this whole schmegeggle — curiosity is what makes us learn and continuously so, if we keep interrogating and questioning what we perceive and what we have already learned. And it’s this continuous learning that is so valuable to employers, as the smart ones realize that the labor market and the very definition of “work” is changing rapidly. Smart employers have realized they must think long term and hire and retain people who are not just skilled in today’s skill-flavor-of-the-day but have the desire and propensity to learn to be skilled in what is needed next, and after that, and so on. These employers, including IBM, are not just hiring people and they’re not merely investing in those people by giving them access to new tools and educational materials. No, I’d say they are making investments in their employees, and that’s a powerful difference.
Whether you’re out there actively or even passively looking for a new job, or you’re in a position to hire, consider curiosity if it’s not already top of mind. This seems to be the key differentiating factor and one that just cannot be forced upon a person, and so it can’t technically be taught, in a traditional sense. However it is something we were all born with, so if you suspect you don’t ask “why” enough and have maybe lost some of that spark of curiosity you had as a child, try to find it again. Go for a mindful walk if you need a jump-start and don’t know where or how to begin. “Why?” you may ask, and if that’s what you’re thinking then pat yourself on the back — you’re doing it! But in all seriousness, mindful walks have a way of bringing one’s focus to the simplest details of environment being walked through, and helps to trigger some of that childlike wonder and curiosity we all once had plenty of. Your career and/or your shareholders will thank you.