Radical Curiosity: Questioning Commonly Held Beliefs to Imagine Flourishing Futures
325 pages, Crown, 2022
We often associate awe with an experience of vastness, like standing at the Grand Canyon. Or the introduction of a new idea in such conflict with our previous understanding that it catalyzes awe. In recent years, science is helping us understand the implications of awe. Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt have codified how awe violates our normalized understanding of the world, provoking us to shift our mental models to accommodate, assimilate, and adjust to a new experience. Awe can catalyze the re-booting of the thinking structures we use to understand the world. As we seek new tools for leading cultural change, creating social impact, and bringing fresh currency to the improvement of social systems, awe might just be a secret weapon.
If the innovation we seek is social in nature, it may not be a product, a service, or a digital tool that we need to design. We may need to design cultures that seek, embrace, and point toward awe as core operating systems of our organizations and communities. Innovation as a practice of awe aspires to exceed our current conception of the world. As I demonstrate in this chapter from Radical Curiosity, this type of sublime simplicity requires us to re-examine the very assumptions behind our current definition of innovation.—Seth Goldenberg
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Innovation—as practiced today—is overrated, misunderstood, and in service to the wrong outcomes. In contemporary business, too frequently innovation has been redefined as a vehicle for economic gain. Why is innovation so closely associated with economic growth, when there are many types of growth—personal, intellectual, ecological—worthy of innovation? Innovation has become the language of financial accounting rather than the language of cultural progress. Imagine if the CEO of a corporation announced, “This year we will achieve double-digit growth”—and the metric referred to the increase in knowledge, happiness, or meaning that employees experienced in a calendar year. Imagine if the president of the United States was elected on a promise of “an era of growth like America has never seen”—and that growth referred to the increase in equity, culture, and collective care of all its citizens, rather than GDP.
Innovation has historically meant the creation of new ideas—but in modern times it often seems as though the only idea that matters is money. We’ve inverted the equation. Money should be a byproduct of profoundly valuable ideas, not the idea itself. When ideas are culturally relevant, they are valued by the market. Profit, then, is an outcome of ideas that are culturally valued by society. This inversion—treating money instead of ideas as the primary objective—is making us idea impotent.
The irony is that our financialization of ideas is preventing the very thing we need for valuable new ideas to emerge. Ideas with resilient, transformative, purposeful value come from changes in the way people think. If we want big, bold ideas, we need to re-engineer our minds, not engineer new products. The work ahead is not mechanical, technological, or production-based. True innovation requires us to ask the Radically Curious questions that lead to deeper insights, not greater profits. To change not the tools that we wield, but what we wield them for.
Such a task is not easy. And it requires something unexpected. It requires awe.
Experiences of awe shift or expand our conception of the world. To describe the experience of awe, we often say, “That was mind-blowing.” We have blown our minds, in that an awe-inspiring experience blows up a previous worldview. Then our minds can accommodate a new, reorganized view of the world.
Awe catalyzes an operating system upgrade. But not merely at a surface level. Awe can play with our minds in ways that challenge what we think we know to be certain. Causing our “truths” to feel uncertain and our core beliefs to feel unstable. Is the Earth the center of the universe, or is the Sun? Is there one God, many gods, or no God? What is the relationship between humans and the natural world? Awe tends to make us question the big stuff.
We need to become more comfortable with this sort of questioning. To be content viewing knowledge as not a static object but an activity, a sustained inquiry in which the blowing of minds is a constant. The most valuable explorations are always elusive. They yield not answers but new questions, better questions, until we go deep enough to see that the process of inquiry is itself awe-inspiring. This is where the magic lies. In the space between what is known and what is unknown. That is where awe yields tremendous possibility.
Helen De Cruz wrote about the bridge between what is known and unknown in her essay “The Necessity of Awe.” In it she describes the difficult human experience of innovation in terms of dismissing one narrative and harvesting a new one:
When a scientific paradigm breaks down, scientists need to make a leap into the unknown. These are moments of revolution, as identified by Thomas Kuhn in the 1960s, when the scientists’ worldview becomes untenable and the agreed-upon and accepted truths of a particular discipline are radically called into question. Beloved theories are revealed to have been built upon sand. Explanations that held up for hundreds of years are now dismissed. A particular and productive way of looking at the world turns out to be erroneous in its essentials. The great scientific revolutions—such as those instigated by Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Lavoisier, Einstein and Wegener—are times of great uncertainty, when cool, disinterested reason alone doesn’t help scientists move forward because so many of their usual assumptions about how their scientific discipline is done turn out to be flawed. So, they need to make a leap, not knowing where they will land. … To change the field or accept radical changes in it, you need to alter your outlook on the world. Awe can do this. It focuses attention away from yourself and makes you think outside of your usual thought patterns.
This is a useful articulation of the difficulty in breaking out of legacy narratives. De Cruz challenges us to look at what we ask of ourselves when we innovate: to accept the possibility that beloved theories have been built upon sand, that centuries-old views of the world must be dismissed. There are profound and frightening implications when innovation means the breaking and rebuilding of mental models.
Margaret J. Wheatley, in her book Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, asks us to consider our willingness to be challenged, to risk revealing that our personal truths have been built upon sand. She proposes:
As we work together to restore hope to the future, we need to include a new and strange ally—our willingness to be disturbed. Our willingness to have our beliefs and ideas challenged by what others think. No one person or perspective can give us the answers we need to the problems of today. Paradoxically, we can only find those answers by admitting we don’t know. We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and expect ourselves to be confused for a time.
We live in perplexing times. Times in which innovation has come to mean something less profound. Our resistance to spending more time not knowing—at a time when there is so much we don’t know—has left us with a kind of innovation we might not recognize.
Somewhere along the way we substituted the awe of radically new ideas with a desire for anything new. The production economy loves a shiny new object. Which perhaps explains why the buzzword “innovation,” the most overused, misunderstood, and meaningless term in recent years, has become synonymous with the notion of any new transaction.
If we look back in history, there are some important clues to why the term “innovation” has evolved in the way it has. The Canadian historian Benoît Godin has researched the foundational origins of “innovation” as a practical, theoretical, legal, and business concept. One of his most significant books, Innovation Contested: The Idea of Innovation over the Centuries, offers a studious historical examination:
In the particularly entrenched religious atmosphere of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, doctrinal innovation was anathema. Some saw this kind of newness as an affiliation with Puritanism, or worse popery … in an extreme case from 1636, when an English Puritan and former royal official, Henry Burton, began publishing pamphlets advocating against church officials as innovators, levying Proverbs 24:21 as his weapon: “My Sonne, feare thou the Lord, and the King, and meddle not with them that are given to change.” In turn, the pot-stirring Puritan was accused of being the true “innovator” and sentenced to a life in prison and worse—a life without ears.
Henry Burton’s invocation of Proverbs 24:21 is particularly meaningful. The final phrase, “meddle not with them that are given to change,” has been reinterpreted to mean “don’t associate with the rebels” or “don’t get involved with the revolutionaries,” suggesting that being an innovator was synonymous with being a heretic. Likely because innovators destroy beliefs that had gone unquestioned for centuries.
The fear of newness is innate. Instinctually, when we take our first steps as babies, we feel our way forward with trepidation, as though the floor may fall out from under us. As adults, newness and uncertainty produce a similar sensation: as though we are standing at the edge of a cliff. We have such charged emotional associations with the dichotomy of certainty and uncertainty. Certainty makes us feel safe. Uncertainty makes us feel like our stomach is leaping out of our body. Still, given that uncertainty is part of the human condition, you’d think we’d be better at navigating newness.
Awe can help us navigate. It builds a humility and curiosity suited for traversing the unknown. In “The Science of Awe,” Summer Allen writes:
Studies have found that awe can create a diminished sense of self, give people the sense that they have more available time, increase feelings of connectedness, increase critical thinking and skepticism, increase positive mood, and decrease materialism. … Research suggests that awe diminishes a person’s sense of self, shifting their focus away from their own concerns. Accordingly, perhaps the most studied psychological effect associated with awe is the “small self”—the feeling of being small relative to one’s surroundings.
It seems a life filled with awe is quite healthy. When we seek out experiences of awe, we welcome wonder into our lives. So, it’s not surprising that true innovators often have reputations as fantastical, as frivolous, as dreamers. Awe and wonder are the currencies of innovation labs, start-up incubators, design studios, and other places where creative work happens. Such places exist to grow ideas. Big, bold ideas don’t easily fit into Excel spreadsheets. As Fast Company magazine described, “If Willy Wonka had microchips, his factory would have been the MIT Media Lab … known for creating some of the most wondrous marvels of our era—from computers you control with levitating orbs to architecture woven by silkworms.”
Those big, bold ideas require patience and imagination because they are at the rare intersection of awe and extraordinary possibility. Organizations have aspired to harness this power within centers of innovation, writing the American story along the way. Think Bell Labs (born from within AT&T in 1925), Xerox PARC (founded in 1970), the MIT Media Lab (founded by Nicholas Negroponte in 1985), and Y Combinator (founded in 2005, it has launched more than 2,000 companies with a combined valuation of more than $300 billion).
A book by Jon Gertner titled The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation chronicled this history. In his review of the book for the New York Times, Walter Isaacson wrote:
“The Idea Factory” explores one of the most critical issues of our time: What causes innovation? Why does it happen, and how might we nurture it? The lesson of Bell Labs is that most feats of sustained innovation cannot and do not occur in an iconic garage or the workshop of an ingenious inventor. They occur when people of diverse talents and mindsets and expertise are brought together, preferably in close physical proximity where they can have frequent meetings and serendipitous encounters.
Today, nearly a century after Bell Labs was founded, everything has changed, and nothing has changed. We can live, learn, and work anywhere through virtual interactions. We’ve become dangerously accustomed to social distancing. But what Walter Isaacson distilled from The Idea Factory is that places themselves—places where diverse, talented people convene around a purpose—can be theaters for awe. More than anything, these incubators of ideas are social phenomena.
Innovation can no longer mean more shiny new gadgets nobody needs. We can no longer afford to dedicate the greatest minds of a generation to convincing people to hit the “like” button. We need to hit reset and redefine innovation to embrace an awe that inspires us to upend our mental models to take on the world’s most pressing problems.
I’m all in. You?