My 9 to 5 is on a college campus. It’s a unique experience and one I love. I have yet to find another place that provides me with exposure to such a wide range of ideas and people converged into its own little township. This environment yields the opportunity to engage in dialogue, challenge assumptions, biases and explore individual identities. This collision of ideas sparks curiosity. From this curiosity, the campus community thrives.

Students have no trouble embracing curiosity. I see it every day. Students delight in the opportunity to take electives and join campus clubs. Business majors take an introduction to ceramics course. Fine Art majors register for a public health course. Nursing students take a theatre set design course. You get the point. There is a method to the madness. Educational exploration promotes creative problem solving, critical analysis, and a better understanding of intersectionality. Learning becomes fun. Visibility leads to action. Action leads to impact and impact leads to change. It’s simplistic and it all begins with curiosity. 

In our fast-paced world, the idea of curiosity can feel like a luxury. Or worse, it’s viewed as silly, overly optimistic, or plainly rejected. There doesn’t need to be such resistance in applying a methodology that creates engage students in the business world?

On the surface curiosity and sound business strategy are juxtaposed or limited to creative industries. Yet, it’s not difficult to find business leaders who reject this notion.

Take, for example, Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube. She earned an undergraduate degree in history and literature. Yet, she credits her success to her parents who both encouraged and modeled curiosity for her. She says, “Their goal wasn’t to become famous or make money… They found something interesting, and they cared about it. I mean, it could be ants, or it could be math, or it could be earthquakes or classical Latin literature,” said Wojcicki. Wojcicki harnessed a habit of curiosity into successful business skills. She is detail orientated and thinks outside the box. She is known for her ability to engage YouTube creators and understand their needs.

Curiosity is what makes us feel alive, inspired, and it also is a catalyst of innovative thought, products, and teams. It’s simple, free and creates a positive work environment. In the words of Albert Einstein, “the important thing is to not stop questions. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

Yet if it’s so good, then why is it so difficult to incorporate into your daily business practices? Let’s explore tips to embracing curiosity at your workplace and how to overcome the barriers that may stop you. 

Rethink Your Fears 

New ideas are scary and involve risk. With risk, comes reward. Your team will be stronger if you give an idea a chance and support. As a woman in business, I have a fear that I won’t be taken seriously. Numerous experiences have reinforced this fear. I worry that my ideas will be overlooked as silly or off point. Even though I pride myself on being innovative, I find myself terrified bringing up an idea that is different. When I bring my curiosity to the conference room, I worry it will be mistaken for lack of professionalism. There are many times that I let this fear hush my curiosity and my input. And there are times that I don’t. Nonetheless, allowing space for innovation and fun improves productivity. So speak up. Ask a question and reap the rewards. 

If it is fear that is holding you back. Consider this, when Paul O’Neill became CEO for Alcoa in the late ’80s he had a radical idea. He took a departure from the strategies of his predecessors. His top priority was safety, plain and simple. The way he implemented this strategy created a culture that embraced ideas. A culture where curiosity was not only encouraged, but required. Every single accident report filed the required input for improvement. It required managers to be prepared, to critically analyze the processes well before an accident. The ideas were shared company-wide and often implemented. The shift in company culture steeped in asking questions, critically analyzing, and engaging your curiosity. Alcoa increased market value from $3 billion in 1986 to $27.53 billion in 2000. And he did this with the mantra, “Not sharing an opportunity to learn is a cardinal sin.” Employees leave jobs because they don’t feel utilized. They have ideas… just ask. When we are eager to listen and learn, we create a space that allows for diversity, education, and inspiration. It’s beneficial in all industries. 

Challenge the “This is how we’ve always done it” mentality 

If there was fear involved with new ideas. Fear might also be lurking when you create institutional waves.  Yet, we know this is where innovation thrives. Asking ideas is the first step. Any question will do, but if you need a nudge to consider the following:  

  • What are the habits of me, my team, and my institution?
  • What patterns are evident in successful projects?
  • What input was gathered before the institution a policy?  
  • What is my company history, goals and vision?  
  • What training has been most beneficial to my team?  

Have you stopped to think about the why behind your business practices? It doesn’t need to be a serious endeavor. Make it fun. Approach the task with a student mentality? You can imagine you have an assignment to find three things every week that make you more informed.  

In the book, “Essentialism,” author Greg McKeown recommends reworking the idea of zero budget planning into professional priorities. Zero budget planning is the method of justifying every line item for a budget rather than basing budget projections on expenditures from the previous year. If this model is taken for business practices, policies and priorities; it gives space for new projects, ideas and priorities. It’s easy to keep on keeping on. It requires intentional actions to allow for curiosity to thrive. Attempt this with your current projects. Is there a better way that hasn’t been given the opportunity to blossom? Unless we have the conversation about paving a new path, we fall into the routine. 

Take an interest in interests

I work some amazing people. And so do you. I’m continually surprised at the interests of my colleagues. I know rock hounds, musicians, bird watchers, mountain climbers, fitness freaks, cooking enthusiasts, cyclist, comic book collectors, and a seamstress. You don’t know someone’s story until you ask.   Be curious about the people around you. In doing so, you’ll know how to better build unique strategies that incorporate the strengths and passions of your dynamic team members.

A Conference Board found that 53% of all Americans are unhappy at work. It’s a dialogue that prompts a sense of belonging among employees. Taking an interest in the people around you begins with curiosity and ends with compassion. Ask your co-workers about their interests, projects, priorities and why they work at your institution. What are the favorite parts of their job and their life outside of work? The more you know about each other, the better collaborations, creative problem-solving ability, and the collective strength become. 

Start small and build on your momentum. It takes simple changes to embrace curiosity at work.  Who better to inspire change than Mae Jemison. She is quoted as saying, “Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It’s your place in the world; it’s your life. Go on and do all you can with it, and make it the life you want to live.”  

About Sylvia O’Hara

Sylvia O’Hara is the director of the Center for Veteran and Military Services at Westminster College.  She is passionate about education, access, and pedagogy; believing education is key to living a meaningful life. Her last 7 years have been spent connecting student veterans with resources, community, and advocacy. She initiates and oversees student support for more than 150 students, which includes dynamic programming, academic advising, co-curricular assistance and outreach efforts from the admissions process to graduation. As an Army veteran herself, Sylvia is personally invested in coaching student veterans as they navigate higher education and embark on their own journey of redefining success. Sylvia holds a Bachelor of Communication with an emphasis in Electronic Journalism from the University of Utah.