Distinguished scientist Dr. Louis Agassiz once spoke of a woman who labored in a boarding house. Her job for 15 years was to skin potatoes and chop onions on the bottom step of the kitchen stairs, her feet resting on glazed brick. Upon complaining about her own limited circumstances, he invited her to explore the world around her. “What world?” she responded, her life was spent on the same steps each day skinning potatoes. For starters, he invited her to consider the brick underneath her, and to write him a letter concerning the nature of glazed brick.
On a dare, she took him seriously, studying books and even visiting a brickyard. When she finished her study, she sat down and wrote Dr. Agassiz a 36-page letter on the subject. He wrote back stating that with a few minor changes he had published her letter and was sending her $250. At the bottom of the letter he asked, “What was under those bricks?”
She found ants, and so began to study ants, finding that there were seemingly endless varieties. After wide reading and careful study, she wrote 360 pages on the subject. He published it as a book and sent her more money. With the money she received she went to visit all the lands of her dreams, enriching her life far beyond the monies themselves.
If curiosity could pay create that kind of payoff for a potato peeler, imagine the possibilities in our own world if everyone would be a bit more curious. For example:
- Beyond selling, sales would always be looking for new markets as well as new ways to connect to existing markets.
- Beyond the title, boards of directors would take on the fiduciary responsibility of asking tough questions of management.
- Beyond lowering your taxes, political officials would be engaged in the question of doing so while still improving the quality of those services.
- Beyond ringing up sales, store clerks would be identifying ways to up-sell their merchandise and prevent spillage.
- Beyond going through the paces, airport security officers would be mentally engaged in questioning every aspect of your own safety as you boarded the plane.
In essence, we live in a world with countless opportunities to go beyond our “potato peeling” lifestyle by being curious. So how do we make this happen? Just start doing it! And as you do so, you will find that there is both a discipline and a rigor in being curious. Let’s first look at how those who are curious discipline themselves to be in the question.