Letters to my sons

A collection of thoughts and lessons I've learned along the way for my little men,
and anyone else that's interested.

My sons,

One of the most beautiful things about the human race is that we have infinite potential. Throughout the ages we have faced seemingly insurmountable problems, only to have those problems solved and conquered. Time and again the next generation of our species is able to push the limits of what is currently believed to be possible and launch us into yet another age of hyper growth.

The reason we are able to accomplish so much as a species is because of the men and women who have an insatiable curiosity and propensity for learning, for experimenting, for getting a grasp on the current limitations of thought and then pushing beyond. These men and women change our world because they are curious, because they refuse to accept the status quo, and because they deeply believe that there is more.

Arguably the most important of DaVinci’s 7 principles, curiosità is defined as

an insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for learning.

It is the foundation of progress and advancement, and is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of what it means to be human. It is a trait found in every meaningfully influential person in human history, and is at the core of being able to empower people.

What does it mean to be insatiably curious?

One of the worst sayings in our recent history is this: curiosity killed the cat. It didn’t. Stagnation did. Laziness did. Stubbornness did. An inability to adapt to the changing environment did. Curiosity is the life blood that sustains us, that pushes us to be better, to learn, to discover the boundaries, and to push through.

Being curious means to wonder, to go about one’s day and have questions pop into consciousness. Most of us do this without thinking about it. “Why did that rude driver cut me off?” “How do they make this tea taste so good?” “I wonder what my manager thinks of my performance right now?” These are harmless (and unimportant) questions that often don’t lead to anything other than a brief pause of consideration.

Being insatiably curious means one continues down the rabbit hole to ask question after question until clarity finally dawns. It means one asks bigger and broader questions until the underlying themes emerge. It means one is unwilling to accept unsatisfying answers and instead puts in the hard work to discover the truth.

And that, is the definition of learning.

What does it mean to learn?

At Amazon, one of our most important leadership principles is the principle to learn and be curious. It is one of the most important because without learning we cannot make progress. It is also one of the hardest to measure, as learning often begins with an internal shift in mindset, in approach, in perspective.

When we are unwilling to accept unsatisfying answers and are unhappy with our limited cursory understanding of a given topic, we begin to dig. We pull on threads. We follow trails. We ask questions. We seek experts.

We do all this so that we can update our mental models. Our brains create models that we apply to every action and interaction that we have. These models are used to frame the way we understand the world, the way we interpret information. As we learn, we refine these models and sharpen our focus to see our surroundings more clearly.

How to instill curiosity and inspire learning

To be quite honest, I don’t know the answer to this one. I suspect there is no one size that fits all, as what inspires each of us is different. So in an attempt to start the conversation here, I will share a few things that have inspired me over the years and attempt to draw some conclusions from them.

As Luke Burgis describes in his best selling book Wanting, much of what we desire is actually a mimetic (aka copied) desire and not a self-initiated one. We are not as original as we believe ourselves to be, and instead inherit many of our desires from the models that we have in our lives.

Something I have been very blessed to have in my life is a number of great models who have modeled curiosity, learning, and deep thinking to me. My father instilled this in me at an early age, and I often remember him at his desk reading, studying, learning. My older brother continued this model for me into my teenage rebellious years, and as an adult I have had the distinct pleasure of being mentored by several lifelong learners.

I have also had the great advantage of resources. Never in our world’s history has access to information and knowledge been so easy! Public libraries, 2-day shipping on practically every book still in print (and many not), access to podcasts, docents, and other experts are all things that are widely available to many.

While it is true that there is an overwhelming abundance of noise in our environment, with a little effort one can distinguish the signals of learning amidst the noise and can discover the voices of the truly curious. Fostering curiosity and learning therefore must consist of providing both motive and opportunity. It is our job to lead by example, to demonstrate curiosity and learning in all that we do, and to create an environment in which those we lead can have that curiosity encouraged and explored.

A cursory study into the great minds of our era will uncover their insatiable curiosity applied to a variety of topics. Einstein. DaVinci. Edison. Gates. All of these intellectual giants applied their significant mental prowess across a vast array of topics and subjects and as a result were able to draw across a wide range of learnings as they slowly but surely changed our world.

Let us follow in their footsteps and inspire (and be inspired by) others to be curious, to learn, and to slowly but surely change our world.



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