Curiosity and The Unknown

When we’re involved in the creation of anything, whether it’s art or a new business idea, we have to contend with the unknown. When we are creating, we do not know what will come out of the process of creation.

If we did know the outcome of what we’re up to, there would be no discovery or innovation. Knowing what we’re doing is just doing, making, manufacturing. I’m wondering if a fair amount of the work we is do is just that — doing, even if it we could be creative or bold in our approach.

Take this small example. I worked for a company where I was asked to manage ad schedules for a product line in our major trade organizations. Problem was I didn’t know a thing about ad schedules. I was given some general guidelines, but I was also told that everyone usually just looks at what was done the year before and repeats it. And so that’s mostly what I did too, even though I didn’t even know who had set the original schedule or why they did it.

Was this the best decision? I don’t and didn’t believe it was the best work I could have done. Nope. So why did I make this choice? I was afraid of potentially wasting time on something that I didn’t have any guarantee that would yield better results if I did engage, learn, and risk different decisions. I didn’t want to look like a fool, so I played it safe. Small decision, and yet there was a lot of money on the line — ad costs and lost potential sales.

How much was lost because I played it safe? Of course, I could have lost money by trying and making bad decisions despite my effort. I could have failed. But I certainly didn’t give myself or the company the opportunity to succeed beyond our expectations. I was flying low to avoid criticism. I didn’t want to know what I didn’t know. I found the easy path to go forward and got the job done. But, done at what cost?

If we want to aim for the stars, we need a sense of curiosity about what we don’t know. If we allow ourselves to avoid uncomfortable questions, we’ve automatically put a ceiling on how well we can do. We’ve already set the trajectory to ho-hum.

I think all we know this, right? I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here. So, the real conversation here is what do we do with the fear that is hiding behind our decisions to play it safe and fly low. What are we afraid of? What are you afraid of?

Curiosity trumps fear.

There’s almost always more to learn about a situation, thought, or feeling. The more you know about anything, more possibilities become available for good decisions. Without curiosity, our possibilities are limited and constricted. We always make the decisions we can make given our understanding, but if we broaden our understanding, new possibilities appear from the ether. And so, when we become curious about our fear, we learn more about it and we see that there’s more than one decision, more than one path. Sometimes we learn that our fears are even unfounded and can quickly lose their power to control you. Becoming curious allows us to make more informed and powerful decisions.

So what does this look like? If we are in the process of creating something new and are afraid of outcomes (whether it’ll be good enough, whether it’ll work, whether customers will respond), begin by asking Why am I afraid. And when you get an answer, keep going in asking questions. Why am I afraid of that? What’s really happening there? Is there something I don’t know about my fear?

Keep going and asking as far as that train will take you. Keep asking until you get to the nugget that makes you say, Oh, I get it. Likely it will be awkward — one of those truths that you may think you might have been better off not knowing. One of those truths that makes you suddenly grateful that people can’t hear what’s in your head and you find yourself scanning the room, just in case someone somehow discovered your secret little uncomfortable fear anyway.

So, why exactly should we do this? Sounds kind of awful, I know. But, this secret fear, running around undetected and unknown in the dark parts of your mind is making a lot of decisions for you. If you don’t like feeling your fears and being curious about them, you will likely make the decision that will guide you away from feeling that fear — like me choosing not to try to improve our ad performance in my old company. Feel fear, turn away. That’s not the path of discovery and growth.

So, why did I make that choice? It certainly wasn’t well-reasoned. I was uncomfortable feeling like I didn’t know anything. I was afraid of being seen as a fool and discovered as someone who didn’t deserve to be there. Thankfully, I was given a great way to avoid that feeling and I took it. Phew!

What would I have learned had a been curious about my fear? Had I been asking about what I was really feeling, I would have likely discovered that I was frustrated and confused because I didn’t feel I had access to the information I really needed to do my job well. So, the next question would have been; How do I get that information? The answer, of course, was to ask for help. This was my stumbling block. I was afraid to ask. I would have had to expose my lack of understanding and risk being seen as incompetent. And I would have run smack dab into a powerful belief of mine that has been a force for good and evil; the belief that I need to do things by myself, that I need to act independently of others to be seen as good. I was too afraid of feeling exposed to ask for help, even when it was a reasonable request. I was afraid of not being able to act independently. I was so averse to feeling the fear that I didn’t know what my real fears were. I just reacted, made a decision, moved on. Job done…sort of OK done.

When we ask questions about our fears and get the answers, we can assess whether the fear are even reasonable and based in reality. It wasn’t actually reasonable at all for me to be afraid to ask for help. I’m sure people were waiting for me to ask for help. I just didn’t. And I didn’t do it, couldn’t do it, because I wasn’t curious about my discomfort and fear. I found the easy way out and I took it in order to dodge the feeling. If I stayed with the feeling, got curious and asked probing questions, and assessed the validity of the answers (with compassion!), I would have been able to see that I really could and should ask for expert help. I would have learned a great deal, likely would have fostered relationships and my company might have achieved much better performance for its ad budget.

This is a small example, but it applies to so many situations in our lives. The best thing we can do is to stay curious about what we’re really feeling and ask questions. You likely do not actually know the answers to what really happening in your emotional world without asking.

And when we do, we’ll find so many opportunities to soar hidden where we least want to look.

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