Life is a long time. Yes, I am only 45, but after 25+ years in corporate America, I can tell you that A LOT of people are “checked out” while still at their jobs. Middle-management and mortgages. That’s not the way it should be. That’s not the way they first envisioned their careers. My assertion is that they did not stay intellectually curious.
What keeps successful people going? Ambition? Greed? Insecurity? For me, I think the right answer is curiosity. I said to several people this week:
If you are not intellectually curious – you won’t get far.
That is pretty big talk for me. As an optimist by nature, I am not one to tell people they are headed for doom / gloom. However, on this point, I am sure. If you don’t bring your curious, playful, fun part of your brain/heart to your work, you won’t get far. There are too many obstacles, competitors, excuses, weirdos, and messy things in life – to keep you settled, satisfied, and static.
Curiosity is fuel. Certainly, education pedigree, and hard work, and ambition have their place. Those are minimum requirements – but what keeps you going after things get difficult? What keeps you interested in the industry, in the client work, in the team dynamics after your 10th project, 30th project, after 15 years? When you start treating it like a game, like a puzzle, like a challenge, like a joy – you are on to something.
Curiosity drives you to excel. I am a big believer in Cal Newport’s work – Be so good they cannot ignore you (affiliate link). He argues that excellence precedes passion. BOOM. He argues that you cannot even articulate what “passion” is, until you are actually good enough to have an opinion about it. BOOM. Well, what keeps you going until you get the necessary skills? For me, curiosity.
Curiosity = questions. Peter Drucker made it clear that his superpower was asking questions. Smart questions. Logically structured. The right people at the right time. Using answers to spur new and better questions. Digging further. It’s so much fun to ask the question WHY. So great to geek out with friends on ideas and get beyond the obvious answers.
Information is cheap. In a world where all superficial knowledge (height of Mt. Everest, BAC earnings per share, # of words in Hamlet) is immediately available, many people fancy themselves intelligent, witty, or worse – wise. No. no. no. Finding things on the internet is the cooking equivalent to finding a grocery store – yes, you parked the car and can walk into the store. You do not deserve a trophy.
Valuable things are buried. Scarcity drives value. Economics 101. If it’s on the front page of Google, it’s banal. Everyone has it. If it is an easy problem – it’s already been solved. As Seth Godin says [paraphrasing] . . . if your job is easy, you should be worried. Things of true value are buried or have not been created. Either way, curiosity can be your shovel or your flashlight. Curiosity keeps you digging and searching even when it’s boring, difficult, or seems redundant.
How I built this podcast. If you have not listened to this podcast yet, you should here. Sara Blakely (SPANX), Mark Cuban (Dallas Mavericks), Herb Keller (Southwest) all followed their curiosity to amazing places.
Strong beliefs, weakly held. I first heard this when listening to a Tim Ferriss interview of Marc Andreesen (Netscape founder) here, but then I see that Bob Sutton (Stanford professor) was saying this in 2006 here. Love this idea. Yes, have strong ideas and opinions – but be receptive and flexible to new (perhaps better) ideas.
Strong beliefs. . . love it. Have an point of view. Do enough research and due-diligence that you stand for something. Stop hedging. Channel your experience, network, structured thinking, and sweat equity and put together some hypotheses and test them. Don’t be wishy-washy.
Weakly held. . . love it. Defend your ideas (after all you did the homework), but know when you have been defeated by a better argument, changing environment, or greater opportunity cost. Don’t be dogmatic. Do you want to be “right”or “happy”?
Idea fight club. The great thing about being surrounded by smart, motivated, and diverse consulting-types is that there is no shortage of ideas. Bring your toughest and best idea to the club. Idea fight club. Let the best idea win. This is how Ray Dalio runs Bridgewater and it works.
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. – F. Scott Fitzgerald