The Workplace Curiosity Manifesto
The Concept of Curiosity Throughout the Ages
“For most of western history, curiosity has been regarded as, at best, a distraction, at worst a poison, corrosive to the soul and to society.“
Curiosity is the engine that has shaped history for humankind. It made us move out of the savannah thousands of years ago to roam the earth. It created the technology to explore the universe. Curiosity invented the use of fire, the computer and it eradicated illnesses like smallpox. We even sent up a vehicle to Mars to see what it might be like to live there. It is also the underlying power driving relationships and the driver for success for adults and children alike.
What we recognize less is the appreciation of curious minds throughout the ages has not been overly positive. Ian Leslie’s quote in the beginning of this chapter indicates the concept of curiosity and society’s acceptance of individual curiosity experienced can be described as a turbulent roller-coaster.
We have discussed in the book that curiosity’s opposite power is conformity. The juxtaposition of conformity against curiosity is a modern concept where curiosity has the positive upper hand. Throughout the ages, curiosity was conceptualised in a myriad of ways. In most cases, curiosity had the underhand and was seen as disruptive and undesirable. Understanding this historical backdrop will allow us to understand better the love-hate relationship we have with curiosity in the present.
Let’s take a journey of curiosity throughout the ages in the western world. Learn how science wrapped its mind around demystifying the multifaceted aspects of curiosity. We’ll cover the early biblical times as described in the Old Testament, the philosophers of Ancient Greece, the middle ages, the period of the enlightenment in the eighteenth century and the present era.
Early Biblical Times
From the earliest times, societies and religions have been trying to steer people toward compliance to the general rule and create the moral gel for people to peacefully live together. The more oppressive the ruling class or the more orthodox the religion, the more myths, traditions and even deliberately labelling curiosity as perilous are used to suppress curiosity of its citizens. This is true not only in the western world. In China, the first emperor Qin Shihuangdi ordered all books to be burnt when he founded the Han Dynasty in 202 BC. He feared that these books would contain deviant knowledge that went against his own thoughts.
A similar belief is described in the first and probably most well-known story of the Old Testament, where we learn that being conformist is better than being curious. When welcoming Adam and Eve in paradise, God forbids them to eat from one tree: the tree of knowledge and morality.
“And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Genesis 2:16–17). (King James Bible)
What one mustn't do often wields a greater attraction over what you can do freely. With a little incitement by the serpent, Eve disregards God's law and eats the forbidden fruit. As a result, Adam and Eve get eviction from Paradise. Eve wanted to know more than she should; for this, she was willing to question God's law and risk dying in the process.
Henry Alexander Mavor, known as the Scottish playwright, James Bridie, and collaborator of Alfred Hitchcock gave the prize to the first curious person to Eve. He described her actions as 'the first step in experimental science."
While, in modern times, Eve is celebrated often as the first curious scientist who wanted to explore even the forbidden, for most of history, this was explained as the beginning of the downfall of humanity. From the cosy existence in carefree paradise, humanity was left to its own devices without the pampering of God. It was all to blame on our primal mother and the first woman who ever existed. What is clear in this story is the bible teaches us it is better to be conformist than curious. Being curious and wanting to know more than one should lead to trouble and eviction from Paradise.
There are two interesting dimensions to this story. It is indeed the first archetypal story highlighting the negative connotation of curiosity. For example, curiosity leads to bad and undesirable things. It goes against the norms as set by the rulers. It also shows God - at least in the old testament - considers curiosity unruly and prefers people to follow his lead without asking too many questions, to have faith and devotion without intellectual justifications.
The other dimension of the story is that this religious text is being used to justify the “supremacy” of men as rulers over women. The underlying narrative of the story is that women tend to be more curious than men in exploring forbidden things and need to be managed. Additionally, women in this context are more easily seduced (by others like the serpent) to go against the prevailing rules. In this story, Adam was clearly more happy to follow the rules than Eve.
What if Adam had eaten the apple? I wonder sometimes. What would have happened to the story and to the history of western civilization?
The bible carries more such stories. Further in the book of Genesis, when God decided to destroy the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, he nevertheless decided to spare the lives of Lot, his wife and their two daughters. The two angels sent by God urged Lot to immediately leave the city with his family and not look back under any circumstance. Lot's wife, however, succumbed to her curiosity and glanced back, only to be instantly punished for her curiosity. She was turned into a pillar of salt.
The opposite in the old testament of curiosity is conformity with the caveat that following the role of God and that curiosity is penalised. Men are depicted as being more conformist, women more on the other side of the spectrum.
Thales is regarded as the first of a long line of Greek philosophers. Living in the lush and profitable Greek seaside trade town of Milete, which now lies in Turkey. He introduces a new approach to thinking. He disregards myth and gods as an explanation of how the world works and he introduces a first version of our present day scientific method. He propagates for men to step back and ponder things rather than taking them for granted as a creation by the gods.
Thales tries to explain the world by relying on nothing but his own brain and independent thinking. Against commonly held beliefs at the time, he believed cosmic law could be grasped and understood by man. In short, he challenged the status quo. In a society open to such new thinking, Thales was followed by many other philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, driven by the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and exploration of intellectual curiosity.
'Know thyself is the beginning of wisdom', said Socrates in the 5th century BC in Athens. Socrates is the philosopher par excellence who started a tradition of the curious dialogue. The socratic method even carries his name: socratic dialogue. It is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking, to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions and to explore the deeper meaning of things.
What characterises the philosophy of ancient Greece is that curiosity has a positive connotation and the search for knowledge for its own sake is seen as a supreme good.
In Roman times, Cicero would continue this line of thought. He defined curiosity as: “an innate love of learning and of knowledge.. without the lure of any profit.” Being a philosopher - translated literally as the friend of wisdom - was considered a noble past-time. Before him, Plato had higher ambitions for Philosophers and proposed it should be curious philosophers, not politicians or aristocracy who should rule a country.
In short: Curiosity was linked to the positive pursuit of intellectual knowledge. An important remark is that it was only reserved for the happy few. Ditto with Philosophy. Philosophy was practised by free old men. Slaves, women and children were not easily welcomed in the circle of philosophers.
Even young adults were seen as representatives of unproductive curiosity. You might remember the story of Daidalus and Icarus who tried to flee their capturers by building their own wings with wax and bird feathers. The wise and older Daidalus had pressed his son Icarus to stay in the comfortable and safe middle between sun and water. If he would venture too close to the water, his wings would get wet and he would perish in the sea. If he flew too close to the sun, the wax would melt and he would fall from the skies. We all know what happened: the young Icarus could not help himself and explored the limits. According to the story, he died and left a mournful father behind.
Women were also excluded from the world of intellectual curiosity. Socrates’ wife Xantippe is depicted as the philosopher’s opposite: ill-tempered, emotional, scolding and quarrelsome woman.
Pandora is another example. Zeus had taken a grudge on humankind as they had stopped respecting him and his fellow gods. He wanted to teach them a lesson in the hope they would understand to respect and obey their gods again. He chose Pandora as the carrier of his message and presented her a special closed jar she was not allowed to open ever. Pandora was trying to keep her curiosity in check; in the end, she could not control herself anymore. She opened the box and all the evils the gods had hidden in the box started coming out. Like our earlier story of Eve, one of the main purposes of this myth is to explain why evil came into the world and who were the actors in lending a helping hand.
In the subsequent Christian era, curiosity takes a different turn. With the onslaught of Christianity, curiosity gradually is regarded as a sinful, perverted and arrogant diversion from the only object worthy of contemplation: God. One of the most important church fathers, St. Augustine in the fifth century proclaimed, “God fashioned hell for the inquisitive.” He also referred to curiosity as “lust for the eyes,” whereas for him, the devout mind was a much better guide to follow. Later thinkers elevated curiosity to the status of a deadly sin, situated between sloth and pride.
This was broadly the leading thinking in the middle ages till the fifteenth Century, though not the only one. The theologian Annette Mercks shared with me there were quite some disagreements among theologists about St. Augustine’s stance on curiosity (and virtually all aspects of theology during this time). An undercurrent of a more positive stance on curiosity seems plausible. By and large, however, the negative connotation of curiosity prevailed. Curiosity in those times was seen as a negative force, one which only distracted people.
Starting from roughly the fifteenth century, the Church's single monopoly on society was challenged with the revival of lost knowledge of the past, the discovery of the new world, the development of cities and trade, and - probably the biggest contributor - the invention of the printing press.
Gutenberg's innovation in 1453 was indeed nothing more than a wonderful new curiosity machine. It cleared the way for a rapid distribution of old and new ideas. It permitted old certainties to be questioned and new ideas to be brought forward. In any case, all these developments contributed to curiosity becoming respectable again in the renaissance.
We often refer to Leonardo da Vinci as the ultimate example of the curious intellectual, artist and overall seeker of knowledge of the unknown, the unexamined and prohibited. Indeed, the church's grip on society came into conflict with the secular impetus to investigate, explore, understand and ultimately gain dominion over the natural world.
This tension came clearly to a climax in the trial of Galileo Galilei, who went against the Church's belief that the sun was turning around the earth. Curiosity during the renaissance was erring on the positive side of the scale, albeit, it was reserved for the elite few. Even the open minded Humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam insisted that curiosity represents a greed to know unnecessary things. Therefore, he thought, it must only be the playground of the few.
During these days, a particular piece of furniture came into being: the cabinet of curiosities. These are cabinets in which the aristocracy collected curious artefacts acquired through long journeys to faraway lands. Every object excelled in its uniqueness and exotic nature, and offered an opportunity to tell a story about an epic adventure or, more often, to fabricate one. The more glamorous and mysterious the object and its associated story, the more open minded, intelligent, learned and rich its owner could claim to be.
During the following era of the Enlightenment, the increase in the number of world travellers and people interested in nature made that intellectual curiosity got adopted by broader sections of society. As literacy rates rose, the demand for books, pamphlets and newspapers skyrocketed and the world embarked on a massive cognitive adventure.
While intellectual curiosity was clearly fuelled by the discoveries in sciences, the rise of large cities gave a positive impetus to another dimension of curiosity, namely empathic curiosity i.e. the curiosity about the ideas, thoughts and feelings of others.
Large cities are full of strangers, and this strangeness invites investigation or, at least, speculation. The major conduit for the sudden attention in empathic curiosity was literature. One of the key actors who started this movement was William Shakespeare, who incidentally was born in the same year as Galileo Galilei (1564). Shakespeare created such literary art in his plays that men and women could participate in the lives, minds and hearts of kings.
However, the meaning of curiosity also had a dark side. In those days, for humans to be curious also meant they were prying into affairs that were none of their business. During this time, the word curiosity also came to characterise not just the human thirst for information, it also kept its negative meaning. The Grimm brothers included an ambiguous message about curiosity and the drive for exploration in their tales. For example, Sleeping Beauty was punished for her curiosity when she touched the hidden spinning wheel. The underlying hidden message of this tale (and other stories like Hansel and Gretel nibbling at the witch's house) is curiosity is dangerous and hazardous: don't be too curious unless you want trouble. Don't inspect a spinning wheel or trust old ladies offering apples.
One can also observe a gender dimension to this distinction of the use of the words curiosity versus science in those days. The eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume divided curiosity into two types: a positive “love of knowledge” and a more negative one “the insatiable desire for knowing the actions and circumstances of neighbours.” According to him, the positive connotation i.e. the love of knowledge was the realm of modern science and the territory of men. The other definition was the realm of women, or so he claimed.
According to Tonya Howe, associate professor at Merimat University, the term 'curiosity' in those days was considered an undisciplined form of knowing. It was regarded as the frivolous, non-scientific pursuit of knowledge considered to be the territory of women. According to professor Howe, Curiosity was thought of to be emotional, erratic, fluid, gossip-like and linked to concepts like prying, and the useless interest in fleeting and futile things (like being curious about one’s own good looks). Curiosity was the opposite of the more manly rational, principle driven and objective science based exact and universal knowledge.
The fact that women were more associated with the negative dimensions of curiosity is quite telling for a society that tried to subdue women for a number of reasons. The stories where the protagonists are curious are more often women than men. We have already mentioned the stories of Eve and Lot's wife.
The novel Madame de Bovary by Flaubert highlights a similar theme. The author describes the tale of a romantic young married woman not being satisfied with her mundane life and her uninteresting husband. Though her curious explorations lead to a more interesting and adventurous life, sadly her curiosity is directly leading to her dimise. The deeper message in the book is this: it is better to conform. Curiosity kills.
For the main part of global society, the last two hundred years saw a gradual and continued expansion of curiosity toward a more positive, collective and egalitarian status. I say “gradual,” as in spite of the positive reception of curiosity in the light of progress of society and the sciences, many people - especially people in power - remain wary of it.
In the 19th century, people in power, such as industrialists, preferred to leave the thinking to be done by the leaders and preferred the workers to do as little thinking as possible. According to them, workers in their care were supposed to implement orders and not be creative, inquisitive or curious while they went about doing their jobs. One of the key objectives of the establishment of primary schools was to provide basic civic skills to children so they could grow up as obedient and docile citizens. They were taught writing and reading and basic arithmetic.
Anecdotally, Henri Ford was said to have complained: 'Why is it that every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?' He seemed to have a preference to work with people who blindly followed his ideas instead of adding their own in the mix.
Nowadays, curiosity has predominantly positive connotations, so hot NASA named its first Mars Rover “Curiosity”. This name was suggested by Clara Ma, the winner of the Mars Science Laboratory naming contest. Clara was twelve years old and in sixth grade then.
The contents of her letter were so touching and beautiful, I would be remiss if I didn't share this perfect example of a curious young mind. Here is what she wrote:
“Curiosity is an everlasting flame that burns in everyone's mind. It makes me get out of bed in the morning and wonder what surprises life will throw at me that day. Curiosity is such a powerful source. Without it, we wouldn't be who we are today. When I was younger, I wondered, 'Why is the sky blue? 'Why do the stars twinkle?, 'Why am I me?' and I still do. I had so many questions, and America is the place where I want to find my answers.
Curiosity is the passion that drives us through our everyday lives. We have become explorers and scientists with our need to ask questions and to wonder. Sure, there are many risks and dangers, but despite that, we still continue to wonder and dream and create and hope. We have discovered so much about the world, but still so little. We will never know everything there is to know, but with our burning curiosity, we have learned so much.”
We are not where we should be. We are still witnessing conformist seeking companies, overbearing political systems and restrictive religious movements who value order above all else and will endeavour to suppress curiosity. Curiosity can only be cultivated on a wide scale if the underlying system encourages progress, innovation and creativity. Curiosity conducive systems are characterised by the belief that the inquiring minds of all the individuals are at the service of creating the future.
One modern day example that curiosity is not fully celebrated yet is the case of Malala Yousafzai. She was shot by the Taliban in Pakistan in 2012 for simply advocating the right for girls to explore their intellectual curiosity in school. Luckily, she survived and became an activist and role model advocating female education.
A completely new development and expansion of the application of curiosity is something we have not seen before, at least in the western world. While the province of curiosity was external to the individual until about fifty years ago and focused on exploration of the world and of others, it has started to also turn inwardly. Over these last decades, an openness to explore the inner workings of our conscious and unconscious minds has become more and more accepted. Exploration into our inner underlying drivers of why we say the things we say, why we do the things we do and why we think the things we think are becoming gradually mainstream. In the western world, the exploration of our internal worlds through mindfulness, meditation and yoga practices are increasingly accepted as healthy and uplifting pursuits.
Also in the professional sphere, one can notice a gradual acceptance for inner wellbeing and self-reflective curiosity. More and more employers are supporting employees in the articulation of their individual values and purpose and actively encourage their staff to become more self-aware. As we will see later in the book, a number of early adopter companies have put new training programs on the agenda focusing on a deeper exploration of the employees own habits and mindsets. Training to help employees discover their personal values, growth mindset training and mindfulness immediately come to mind.
We will explore also best practices about companies training their staff on curiosity, what it is, why it is important and what they can do to become better at it.
Curiosity has been around since the dawn of time. How curiosity was defined and who was allowed to be curious as a concept differed across times. We cannot change the past, we however can influence the present and the future. Knowledge of the past can help us to learn from mistakes.
Malala Yousafzai’s example we discussed is extreme. Closer to our own environments, I encourage you to reflect on your own situation. Look for elements in common culture, language and social norms in your environment or organisation that either uplift curiosity or downplay it.
In the corporate sphere, companies, both start-ups, scale-ups as well as traditional enterprises are starting to embrace curiosity in all its incarnations as a way to be resilient, to remain competitive in the future, to accelerate their innovation roadmaps and to create more humanistic spaces for their employees.
Questions for Reflection
How would you describe the dominant connotation of curiosity in your extended family or country?
What examples do you have of the positive or less-positive connotations of curiosity?
When you reflect on your own thinking about curiosity: where do you stand?
What can you do to allow curiosity more in your private or professional environment?
Who do you consider your hero? How do you describe her/him through the lens of intellectual, empathic and self-reflective curiosity?
Note: If you enjoyed this chapter and you are even more curious about curiosity and how it manifests in life and at work, I invite you to get a copy of the bestselling book: The Workplace Curiosity Manifesto (2022). You can order the paperback or ebook version on pretty much any global or regional online book selling. Alternatively, you can give the business to your local bookshop and they will be able to get you your own copy.