Posts tagged with #Curiosity
We live in a world filled with noise. Everywhere we go we are bombarded by the constant steady stream of noise that never really seems to shut itself off. So much so that many people feel the need to take retreats to get away from it all.
Each time I’ve done this the first thing I notice, always, is how quiet it is. When I finally force myself to turn off my devices, to disconnect, and to be fully present in my surroundings, the first thing I experience is a quiet that has become all too foreign in our lives. The quiet that allows you to hear your own thoughts, that allows you to really see what’s going on around you, and that allows you to direct your musings and contemplations.
This is unfortunately an uncomfortable exercise for many of us. We have grown so accustomed to the constant pace and buzz of our world, to the little gadget in our pockets that keeps us constantly connected, and to the distractions, direction, and influence that our strongly connected world has on us that quiet contemplation about topics of our own choosing is foreign at best and can be uncomfortable and down right scary.
We are so uncomfortable with this quiet that we in fact default to generating our own noise to combat this. We post, tweet, text, and perform a myriad other noise-generating activities to help fill the silence. We identify the like-worthy and retweetable sound bytes of our lives and spew them out. We comment on others’ sound bytes and create a world filled with much conversation but little communication.
There are many unfortunate realities of this situation, but the one I want to focus on today is this: with all the talking we’re doing to fill our own silences, we’re unable to truly listen to others.
We listen in order to speak
Maybe you can relate to this: you’re in a group conversation with two or more people, and one person is speaking. And honestly, they’re speaking a little more than you’d like, and you feel that they’re somewhat long winded. You know that they’ll eventually take a breath, and you need to make sure you capitalize on that, so you’re running through what you want to say, making sure you’ve got the right counterpoints to what they’re proposing.
You’re listening, but are you internalizing what they’re saying? Are you giving what they’re saying its due regard? Or are you trying to formulate your response, your rebuttal, or your clever anecdote in retort?
Let’s face it, we’ve all done that. We’ve all laid out logically our counter argument, and have even had the pleasure of everyone else in the group nodding their heads as we counter the original argument point by point. Feels great right?
Sure. But in those conversations, while we may be speaking, and while we may even be speaking eloquently, we’re not communicating. And chances are, the person(s) we’re conversing with are doing the same, which means that none of us are really listening to one another.
While you may develop a reputation for being a wonderful orator, you won’t be receiving any accolades for being effective.
Are you actually interested?
Perhaps the first and foremost problem is that most of the time we’re not actually interested in the other person’s views or opinions.
Now don’t get me wrong - I’m not talking about the blatant, flagrant, and offensive “dude I don’t care about what you think” type of thing that usually comes along with a “and in fact I don’t really care about you” approach to the relationship. No, this is a much more refined, polite, and often unexpressed and only faintly detected lack of care and concern about what the other is saying despite genuinely having care for the relationship and for the other person.
If we’re truly honest with ourselves, we’ll discover that for most of us, we converse with others more because we want to be heard rather than because we want to hear.
The benefits of listening
There are a lot of really great reasons we ought to listen to others. And since we live in a capitalist, self-centered world, I’ll only focus on the benefits to ourselves that we get from truly listening to others.
- We become more empathetic. In a world full of strongly held opinions that are weakly founded and strongly adversarial, empathy is a quality that is increasingly rare but also increasingly coveted. When we truly are able to listen to others and care more about what they’re saying than what we want to say in return, we begin to tune into their needs, their wants, their desires; a process which makes us more empathetic.
- We move in to a posture of humility and learning. By listening to others and focusing our attention simply on what they’re saying, we more readily move ourselves into a position where we can learn something. This humility, this curiosity, this willingness to accept that we in fact don’t know it all is perhaps one of the most important realizations one can make in one’s lifetime,.
- We may learn something new. Remember that learning doesn’t always mean new knowledge. In fact, it’s probably arguable that the majority of learning we need has to do more with perspective and mindset than it does new information we were unaware of.
- We can build deeper connection. When we take the time to really listen to people, we may in fact discover that we have more in common than we might have originally thought. These commonalities light a path towards greater connection, greater understanding, and greater shared experience.
Practice paying attention
Attention is the beginning of connection and devotion. We can’t love something, be devoted to it, desire it, and move it forward if we can’t focus your attention on it. We can’t have a deep connection with something, be it a person, cause, idea, or effort if we are constantly distracted, constantly thinking about ourselves and our situation. As such we need to have mastery over our focus and our distractability - if we are too easily distracted, we will discover presently that the things we profess to love, we love in name only.
So how do we do this? How do we move our focus from self to other? How do we get better both at the desire to understand others as well as the practice of conversing in a way that allows for that understanding?
A great friend of mine has a wonderful technique that I’ve stolen and am starting to implement in my own life. It’s a simple phrase, and when asked with the right motivation yields great results.
That’s interesting… tell me more!
Simple right? Such a simple phrase, such a simple concept. Asking someone for more. But I assure you, it’s a magical concept. A few reasons:
- It shows a genuine interest in the other person(s). This simple phrase expresses to the other that you are interested in them, that you find something in them and in their story desirable, and who doesn’t want that? Who among us doesn’t take joy in the feeling of someone else desiring to know more about us?
- It allows others to shine. By expressing our desire for the other person to expand on their thoughts, we allow them to have their moment, to feel like they are expressing mastery over something. We are all built with an innate desire for mastery, for attaining mastery and for being recognized for it. What a great gift it is when someone allows us the opportunity to demonstrate that!
- It breaks barriers to connection. When we show interest in someone else, it allows them to let down their defenses and show interest in us, thereby creating a much deeper connection than we would have had otherwise! We walk around this earth constantly on the defensive. We are constantly bombarded with messages about how unsafe the world is, how much we need to protect ourselves. What a breath of fresh air it is to be able to break down those barriers by showing genuine interest in someone else! These broken down barriers eventually lead to a reciprocal interest, which as we know is the basis for connection!
And so my sons, my hope for you is that you too can incorporate this simple technique into your relationships, that you too can ask someone to tell you more about themselves, about their journey, and about their story. Ultimately life is about connection, about relationships, about fulfillment in the time, endeavors, and relations that we have, and above all things I want you both to have a rich and full life. I love you boys!
I wanted to talk a bit today about our Amazon Leadership Principle Learn and Be Curious. The description of this LP is as follows: “Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.”
But what does that mean? How does that actually apply in our regular lives?
First, a few thoughts about learning itself. Specifically about our relationship to learning, how we approach it, and our mindset around it.
Learning ought to be a lifelong activity and endeavor. It is something that we expect of our children. It is something that we allocate the first quarter of our lives to. It is something that successful people do all their lives because it separates us from the rest. It is the thing that allows humanity to progress, to advance, and to have made leaps and bounds from our much more primitive ancestors.
And yet once we graduate from college, the majority of us have a sharp decline in the rate of learning, the topics which we learn, and the time we spent dedicated towards bettering ourselves. We leave our climate and environment of learning and are thrown into a fast paced delivery-driven culture that more often burns out our college grads more than it teaches them.
That in turn begs the question of environment. Do we have an environment where people can learn? One that encourages the trial and error required for new neural pathways to be created? One that rewards failure as much as it rewards successes, knowing that failure is but a step on the path to progress and victory?
In a candid fireside chat in San Diego earlier this year Bill Gates suggested that there are certain conditions that which, if not met, make it incredibly difficult - even impossible - for an individual to learn: confidence, curiosity, and constant feedback. Let’s talk about each of those.
People need confidence to learn. They need confidence to know that they can get this, that they are able to progress. They need to believe in themselves, that they are capable of change, of improvement.
Confidence is built by successes, by cheerleaders, by supporters, coaches, and mentors. The more we craft an environment where these things naturally happen and are praiseworthy the more confidence we will see among those living in it.
When we were young, we were curious about everything. The quintessential example is the kid that asks “why” one too many times that it sends their parents over the edge. We each have a natural curiosity about the world, a spark of joy at discovering something new, something novel, something wonderful.
And yet that curiosity gets beat out of us. It begins in adolescence when the desire to fit in (and the awkwardness of not fitting in) begins to pick up steam. And then responsibility kicks into full gear, whether from owning a home, being married, having children, having family responsibilities thrust on you, or a myriad of other things.
Slowly but surely our natural curiosity shrinks until we become caught in the rat race of the mundane.
We must craft an environment where curiosity flourishes, where people are able to explore, to try new things, to fail at things, and to share those learnings with others. We must give people the time, the physical space, and the mental headspace to venture out, to ask questions, and to stick their finger into the proverbial socket to see what happens.
As leaders one of the most important things entrusted to us is the care for our people. As General Stanley McChystal puts it in his book Team of Teams, leaders must take on the role of the gardener. The gardener has no direct ability to make plants grow. However, they do have the ability to cultivate the plants, to prune as needed, to till the soil, to water and provide nutrients, and to provide an environment that is ideal for growth.
So too is it with leaders.
We need to create the right environment for our people to grow in, and need to trim and prune where necessary as well. This means providing consistent and constant feedback as people learn and grow. Without a tight feedback loop, people will be left wandering and reinforcing bad habits that should have been pruned early on.
Learning to learn
So how do we create this environment where people can flourish in their learning, and how do we create that desire for learning, that mindset for growth, that joy that comes from making progress?
A few practical things we can do.
- Reward learning. When I was a new parent I was told that we should praise our children for the learning process, not for the accomplishment. In her book Mindset Carol Dweck argues that praising results creates a fixed mindset in our children who are hyper focused on results and not on the growth or the learning. We obtain what we measure and reward.
- Lead by example. When I was at Microsoft, Bill Gates used to take what he called Think Week. It was a week where he would go off the grid and allow himself to learn. He would read. He would think. He would ponder. He would ruminate. And in doing so he set the example for his company that reading and learning were highly valued activities.
- Play the long game. Learning takes time to come into fruition. As teams and leaders, valuing learning from our people means that we need to have the patience for that growth to pay off. We have to invest in our people and have the mindset of long term benefits. When we are short sighted, when we become too caught up in tactics and immediate results, we stifle our people’s ability to participate in and to value learning.
One of my lifelong mentors taught me that we don’t build teams for a reason or season, but for life. That is long game thinking. That is the type of thinking that encourages growth, fosters curiosity, and values learning. And that’s what I desire to do - to build teams for life; teams of lifelong learners who are excited to learn together and to apply our learnings to the problems of the day.
In our culture today empowerment has become a buzzword. Whether we’re talking about empowering women to learn and raise their communities out of poverty, empowering young children and students to reach for a better life, or empowering young employees to speak their mind for change, empowerment it seems is everywhere. And rightly so! Empowering others is a great thing. But what does it actually look like? What does it consist of?
In its formative years, empowerment tended to look like someone in a position of power - a manager, a parent, a mentor - simply expressing that they want the individual to feel empowered. I’ve heard many times in my career phrases like “I want to empower you to make this decision”, or “you should feel empowered to make changes here”.
Sounds great, but utterly ineffectual.
At Amazon, Jeff Bezos baked into the company culture the belief that good intentions, while noble and good, are alone insufficient. The intention needs to be there, yes, but that can’t be where it stops. There needs to be more - a follow up, a plan of action, a concrete mechanism that we can turn to that ensures the good intention happens.
What does feeling empowered look like?
For any individual to feel empowered, there are a few key conditions which need to be met. The individual must be in an environment or culture that is conducive to them taking action, making mistakes, and adjusting accordingly. They must have an internal confidence that allows them to strike out and act. They must have a curiosity and a desire to learn so that they can internalize the feedback that comes from their actions in order to change, evolve, and grow.
When people feel empowered, their eyes light up. They hold their heads higher. They stand up straighter. They maneuver within their environment without fear. They are focused on the future because they know that they can impact that future. They have hope because tomorrow is not determined for them; rather, it is dependent on them.
Let’s look a bit deeper at these conditions.
An empowered environment and culture
Whether we’re looking at a workplace culture, a family environment, or a group of close friends, an environment of empowerment is a life giving place that allows us to flourish and grow. Cultures that support empowerment do not place arbitrary restrictions and requirements on classes or groups of people dwelling in that environment.
This means that there are no criteria that exist that don’t provably impact the decision making process. For example, ethnicity, gender, and tenure at a company have no direct correlation to the strength of one’s ideas for a new product launch. Age, birth order, or position in a family tree have no correlation to the validity of one’s understanding of education. Religion, belief systems, or cultural background have no correlation to one’s ability to drive. A culture of empowerment does not have restrictions like these.
While these traits may appear to be correlated, empowering cultures dive one level deeper to determine what’s actually impactful. It used to be the case that tenure was a strict requirement for many things. However many empowering environments have recognized that tenure itself is not a key requirement. Tenure typically is correlated with experience, with wisdom, with knowledge, and with understanding, but it is not a strong correlation such that in many environments tenure has been removed as a criteria.
Environments that foster empowerment are ones where requirements are strongly correlated to the thing the requirements are applied to. It is our job as leaders and managers to regularly reevaluate our requirements to ensure the environment we build fosters the culture we want to have.
A few quick thoughts on how we can do that (more on this next time!):
- Have believable people that you regularly get feedback from. Make sure that these people know that their feedback should be honest, is valued, and will not cause retribution. And make sure they have the context from which to provide that feedback.
- Be transparent about the evaluation process. Share what people are being evaluated on. Provide them the details. Be honest. Stack ranks happen - let’s stop pretending they don’t. Treat people like adults and accept responsibility for when things aren’t fair.
- Give credit where it’s due. A good rule of thumb is for each piece of recognition you receive make sure you’re giving at least 5 times as much credit to others. None of us are self-made, so if you believe you deserve that credit and no one else does, you’re wrong.
People need confidence to learn. They need confidence to know that they can get this, that they are able to progress. They need to believe in themselves, that they are capable of change, of improvement.
It is not enough to put someone in an environment that is an empowering one. It is not enough to give them resources, to encourage them to speak out, and to create a safe space for them to do so. They have to believe that they can, and that they have something meaningful to offer. And we have to enable them to have belief.
The moment a person stops believing that things happen to them and starts believing that things can happen because of them, they begin to see the world in a different light. They begin to believe that they can shape their stars, that they can chart their own course, and that they can make the world better. It is that moment that Melinda Gates calls the moment of lift.
In her book with the same title, Melinda describes the moment of lift as
“a moment that captures grace. Something happens to relieve us, to release us from pain, from burden. It is extrinsic. We cannot lift ourselves. We must be lifted.”
It is that powerful grace that has the ability to set us on a different course and to truly lift us out of our current circumstances. To truly empower people we must lift them up. We must move them into a place where they begin to believe in themselves. We must help them to see that when the tides of circumstance loom overhead that they can stand against them.
A few thoughts on how we can help build confidence in others (again, more on this in a future post!):
- Be specific about praise. Saying “great job!” is absolutely useless. Tell them why. What was great? What did they do that was great? Why was it “great” and not “good”?
- Hold people accountable. When someone makes a mistake, let them know you hold them responsible. When we are honest in our accountability, people will know that we are also honest in our praise.
- Be generous with your time. Chances are people who you give feedback to don’t fully understand it. Take the time to explain it to them thoroughly. Remember that just because you’ve been thinking about it from many angles for a long time doesn’t mean that they have the same context. Be patient and walk them through it. Make sure they really get it before you move on.
Curiosity and learning
An unfortunate reality of our world is that our education systems are broken. They incentivize the wrong things. They promote memorization, short term recall, and specific application of a concept to a specialized problem space. This in turn creates a culture where we dread learning, mostly because we have an inaccurate understanding of it.
Learning ought to be a lifelong activity and endeavor. It is something that we expect of our children. It is something that we allocate the first quarter of our lives to. It is something that successful people do all their lives.
As children, we are born with an innate sense of curiosity. From a young age we are curious about everything and anything under the sun. We stick things in our mouths, we put our chubby little fingers into wall sockets, and we’re mesmerized by anything new. We want to be like our older siblings, our parents, our role models. We want to progress forward. We are curios and want to learn.
And yet as we have gotten older, we’ve lost touch with that curiosity and have lost the sense of wonderment and joy at learning new things. Instead we prefer to fill our time with meaningless trifles such as celebrity gossip and the vast amounts of time-wasting things all around us. We’ve lost the ability to be in awe of things, to marvel at things, to be amazed by things, and to be infinitely curious about them.
So how do we spark curiosity in ourselves and in others? A few thoughts (and again, more next time!):
- Build in time to slow down. Whether it’s meditation, going for a walk, or just simply dedicating time to sit and enjoy your morning cup of coffee, slowing down allows our minds to wander and wonder.
- Don’t answer a question, even if you know the answer. Whether we’re talking about employees, children, or students, sometimes the best thing we can do for someone is to not give them the answer even if we’ve got it. Let them stew on it. Let them consider what they know. Let them surprise themselves (and maybe even you!) with their thoughts.
- Put yourself in awe-inspiring places. Whether you’re taking the time to travel and see things or you’re surrounding yourself with some awesome people, know that your environment and your surroundings slowly but surely impact not just how you think, but what you think about.
By instilling a curiosity in people, lifting them so that they have the confidence to act on that curiosity, and putting them in an environment that values, supports, and encourages those bold and brave behaviors, we can create the necessary conditions for creating more empowered people. And this is a great thing, because empowered people are the ones that can change the world.