How an open-ended, curious mindset creates career success

Photo: Jyotsna Sonawane via Flickr

Everybody has questions. Everybody wants answers. What determines your future is the kind of questions you ask, and whether the answers satisfy or stimulate you.

One way to succeed is to get really good at something. This competency-focused mindset can get you a good job, and if you’re good at something for which there is demand, a good career. But given how fast things change, you’ll find your skills becoming obsolete. Whether you’re a C++ coder or a shoemaker, the world today isn’t what it was ten years ago, and won’t be the same a year from now.

Another way to succeed is concentrate on constantly expanding what you know. This curiosity-focused mindset might leave you at a disadvantage compared to established experts in your field for now, but it provides for growth. In the end, the curiosity-focused worker will have a longer and more productive career. Plus, it’s more fun to keep learning. All true analysts know this.

The difference is in what questions you ask, and what you do with the answers.

Curious people focus on open-ended questions, not answers

Some questions have known answers. You can find those answers on Google. Other questions are open-ended. Their answers just lead to more questions. Consider where different kinds of who, what, when, where, why, and how questions would take you.

Who

“Who did that” questions often have answers. “Who is responsible” questions will lead you on a manhunt.

Closed-ended. Who was the sixth U.S. President? John Quincy Adams.

Open-ended. Who is responsible for the polarized state of American politics? You won’t find a definitive answer to this on Google, although you’ll find a lot of discussion. Pew points out that conservatives tend to stick to their “ideological silos.” Bill Bishop wrote a book about how we’re sorting ourselves into like-minded geographic clusters. The answer to this question keeps evolving as the concept of polarization changes.

What

Some “what” questions are open-ended, especially “what is the future of.”

Closed-ended. What tools do I need to assemble an Ikea bookcase?

Open-ended. What is the future of books? A question like this will lead you to questions about publishing models, generational differences, retail modalities, and even home architecture. A third-year medical student recently told me, “I learned everything from videos; textbooks are just too tedious.” This transformed my concept of what books are for and led to a whole host of other questions about education and training.

When

Questions about the past are closed-ended. The future, not so much. One thing I learned as an analyst is that it’s far easier to predict the future than to predict when exactly that future will get here.

Closed-ended. When did Czechoslovakia split into two countries?

Open-ended. When will a majority of Americans get their TV from streaming rather than from broadcast and cable? To answer this, you’d have to get information on streaming penetration, a trend that Nielsen tracks carefully. But not everyone who streams content has cut the cord. So “get their TV from streaming” isn’t precise enough. Even as you answer this question, you’d wonder what this will do to the value chain that starts with actors and scriptwriters and ends with consumers watching content and either paying for it viewing commercials (or both). “When” questions about the future rarely have neat and simple answers.

Where

You’d think most “where” questions would have a definitive answer. Of course, it depends on what you ask.

Closed-ended. Where is the Barack Obama presidential library?

Open-ended. Where is the most interesting place in the world to visit? Are you interested in waterfalls? Public art? Bars? What makes a place interesting?

Why

“Why” questions are the most interesting. As anyone with a three-year-old will tell you, they nearly always lead to more questions.

Closed-ended. Why do people drive in on the right in the U.S. but on the left in the U.K.?

Open-ended. Why did Donald Trump win the U.S. election? Was it the weakness of Hillary Clinton as a candidate? Was it his visits to states like Wisconsin and Ohio? Was it James Comey’s letter two weeks before the election? Or is it because of underlying economic forces that favor Republicans right now? I don’t think there is a definitive answer to this question, but exploring it reveals a lot about what’s going on in America right now.

How

“How to” questions are straightforward. Other “how” questions aren’t.

Closed-ended. How do you change a bicycle tire?

Open-ended. How do you attribute sales to different marketing tactics? Does the last click get all the credit for an online sale, or was it some other marketing program that made the difference? How can you determine what’s effective and what’s not? And how will that change as new tactics become available?

Qualities of an open-ended, curious thinker

It’s hard to be constantly curious. It tends to make people around you uncomfortable, because you’re never satisfied with an answer. Curiosity is not relaxing, but it is exciting. In a world of constant change, only the curious, open-ended thinker will survive. If you want this to be you, then cultivate these qualities:

  1. Focus on the unknown, not the known. If Google has the answer, learn it and be done. If not, you have the chance to be the first to find that answer. That’s a path worth pursuing.
  2. Ask the next question. Answers are not endings. Once you learn one, ask, “What does this mean? What next?” Then pursue those questions.
  3. Cultivate a taste for surprises. In your work, you will find things that don’t seem to make sense. These are surprises. Most people hate surprises at work — the marketing program that didn’t work, the part that failed, the sales strategy that suddenly became less potent, the policy that backfired. Curious thinkers see surprises and wonder “Hmm, why did that happen?” Investigating surprises can lead to new insights that nobody else had.
  4. Learn everything. Every time you interact with somebody, you have the chance to learn what they know and you don’t. How do apps remember who you are? How do Chinese businesspeople get around the government’s Internet restrictions? Why do airlines tickets cost less on Tuesdays? Why do some plumbers now use plastic pipes instead of copper? The more you learn, the more chances you have to connect that knowledge and find out something new.
  5. Bring an outsider’s mindset. It’s no coincidence that many scientific advances come from people outside the field. They’re unencumbered by “conventional wisdom.” As you learn about different topics, you’ll able to bring that outsider’s mindset and perhaps see what no one else has seen. And even if you’re an expert, try to use interactions with outsiders to see your area of expertise anew. Borrow an outsider’s mindset from them.
  6. Learn to be wrong. If you’re curious, you’re going to learn things that turn out to be wrong. (If you’re always right, you’re not trying hard enough.) Spend less time defending your decisions and more time learning from the ones that turn out to be mistakes.

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