Ask a group of five year olds what they want to be when they grow up, and they have all kinds of ideas. They can be anything: an astronaut violinist? Sure. A mermaid doctor? You bet.
But by age 10, many of those ideas have disappeared. Their window of curiosity narrows. They’ve been told by teachers, parents, or society at large that what they love isn’t valued, that what they imagine isn’t real, that they don’t excel, or any one of a range of disheartening (and all too often downright untrue) comments. As they grow up, these original aspirations often vanish. It’s easy to see why.
One big reason is that, in much of the world, we’re stuck in an education system that was designed for the first industrial revolution, training workers for factory jobs and soldiers for war. This system prioritized, indeed it systematized, obeying orders and not questioning. This may have worked well for an era of mass production, but it is a very poor fit for the fourth industrial revolution, which is now upon us. It also does an extraordinarily good job of stamping out curiosity, which we’ve never needed more than today.
If there is one skill we might think of as the “killer” app for success and well-being today, it’s curiosity. The World Economic Forum and Pew Research Center, among others, have found that curiosity consistently ranks as one of the most essential capacities to have, and that’s across sectors, roles, geography, and demographics. Yet few people seem to know what curiosity really means, how to cultivate it, or how to celebrate it as five-year-olds do.
Historically, being curious wasn’t necessarily a positive trait. The Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us that curiosity has several meanings. Three of the most common are:
A desire to know: inquisitive interest in others’ concerns : nosiness
One that arouses interest especially for uncommon or exotic characteristics
An unusual knickknack (The antique shop was full of curiosities)
How times have changed. Indeed, what may have been deemed a deficit in the old economy (curiosity often meant labeling as a “class disruptor” or dilettante) is actually a superpower in the new one.
In the 21st century, we need skills to solve complex problems and address challenges that do not have one answer and cannot be distilled into mathematical equations or contained by traditional borders. Moreover, with the rise of automation, skills that machines and robots simply can’t do—skills that are “unautomatable”—become all the more important. Curiosity and imagination meet these criteria perfectly.
Go back to the five-year-olds. They are innately, inherently curious. Figuratively speaking, their minds are on fire with questions, as they learn and wonder about the world. But by the age of 10, many have shifted from asking questions—often unabashedly—to being more concerned about getting the right answer. Educational systems that rely on standardized tests and prioritize grades not only contribute to this; they ultimately keep many people from reaching their full potential.
Children are born curious. Curiosity is not something that must be “taught.” Rather, it is a trait, a skill, a superpower that we must learn not to stamp out.
Keep in mind, it matters far less what a child (or any person) is curious about than that she is curious, period. Perhaps one day it’s mermaids, the next it’s music, and the next it’s metaphysics, math, or meteorology. The crucial skill is to be able to identify what fascinates you, follow it through, and nurture your curiosity over time. This is how we will make new discoveries and create new solutions.
One easy way to begin this quest is to rethink our conversations. Curiosity is about questioning, investigating, and learning. The pursuit of curiosity—how we nurture our inquisitiveness—may lead to answers. But prioritizing answers above all? This gets the equation backwards.
Instead, focus on asking better questions. Organizations like the Right Question Institute help people do exactly this, with clear guidance and details. But it’s easier than that; there are simple exercises you can do to get started. For example, pick a topic and ask as many questions as you can about it in five minutes. Don’t judge; just ask. Chances are great that this will help to not only organize your thinking, but also to spur new ideas, connections … and even answers.
Speaking of helpful inquiries, asking five-year-olds “what they want to be when they grow up” isn’t the right question. The future of work isn’t about “jobs” or lifetime careers (plus, we can’t even imagine many of the livelihoods that may exist by the time today’s five-year-olds are adults). Rather, start with why (why something is important to learn, why they enjoy doing a given activity) and be curious from there.
The pace of change in our economy and in our workplaces similarly requires changes in our educational systems as well. As parents, teachers, and members of society, we must keep curiosity alive and thriving—at all ages.