Don’t have wool in your ears, be driven by curiosity

Unconscious habits stop us from being more productive, none more so than our compulsion to check a smartphone screen, explicitly designed to exploit our addictive psychology. This is not the result of passive addiction or weak willpower, it’s engineered. A Harvard math genius, Jeff Hammerbacher, took the job as first research scientist at Facebook and created the original algorithm that tracked our online behaviours.

What concerns me most about this behaviour is it’s turning us all into sheep. Where I live I’m surrounded by hills, and surrounded by sheep. Sometimes I get so angry with the simple life they lead. They just stand there, looking like they’ve never questioned anything, never disagreed. Sometimes I think they must have wool in their ears.

We laugh at sheep because sheep just follow the one in front. We humans have out-sheeped the sheep, because at least the sheep need a sheep dog to keep them in line. But we’re in danger of following the herd ourselves.

Sheep are not curious, but contrary to what you may think, sheep are not stupid. They rank just below the pig in intelligence among farm animals. Simply, sheep react to the domestication that has decreased their instinctive behaviour and increased their docile nature, and being ‘one of the herd’ is what they’re all about.

But we need to be heard rather than one of the herd, to build the habit to be ourselves and be thinking, not doing something banal like smartphone addition, trapped in a repeatable mobius loop of technological determinism.

Bottom line, we’re not asking enough questions and more cognisant of what we don’t know. We need to be more inquisitive about everything, to organise our thinking around what we don’t know. It’s becoming a bad habit to simply spend time browsing without purpose. We need to be less curious about people’s social habits and their selfie photos and more curious about new ideas and learning.

Asking questions helps spark the innovative ideas that startups bring to market. In my own research, I track business breakthroughs, and from the Polaroid instant camera to the Nest thermostat, you find some curious soul looked at an existing problem, asked insightful questions about why that problem existed, how it might be tackled, and came up with a solution.

The Polaroid story is a favourite. The inspiration for the instant camera sprang from a question asked in the mid-1940s by the three-year-old daughter of its inventor, Edwin Land. She was impatient to see a photo her father had just taken, and when he tried to explain that the film had to be processed first, she asked: Why do we have to wait for the picture?

More recently, Steve Jobs’ curiosity for design sensibility became an essential part of Apple’s core culture and product differentiator. His genius may be outside the reach of most of us, but his quest for understanding is worth emulating.

When we open ourselves fully to our curiosity, we are able to think without limits. Curiosity isn’t about solving problems, it’s about exploration and experimenting. Curiosity can start and lead anywhere, and that’s precisely the sort of broad, open mindset startups need.

Curiosity is the driving force behind discovery and learning, continually building upon itself, allowing your mind to open to new ideas, fuelling our imagination. It’s fundamental to our success, it shapes your instinct to explore which should grow into an instinct for inquiry, and it ultimately helps you discover amazing things about what you can do now and in the future.

A curious mind can relate and connect ideas better. Maintain an open mind and be willing to learn, unlearn and relearn to find get the answers you seek. Your curiosity will develop into an amazing discovery. Something you will easily identify with and can pursue further. Curiosity can give you more and better building blocks to develop creative solutions. It fuels the soul and drives innovation.

So how do you create and sustain a culture and the mindsets of curiosity within a startup as part of its business model, when the pressure is on in a race to simply get things done? Instead of the think-build-ship routine which quickly becomes a wash-rinse-repeat cycle, adopt more of the build-measure-learn heartbeat, with its essential focus to be curious about feedback, learning and iteration, on several levels:

Be curious about the outside world We all need to take our focus off our immediate surroundings and get curious about other people, their thinking, about trends, about other cultures and points of view. About anything and everything beyond our too often insular worlds. Ideas know no hierarchy. We need to get better about responding to ‘What if?’ with ‘let’s find out’ rather than ‘let’s wait until someone else tries’.

Be curious about customers Don’t see customers simply as a transaction or an opportunity for a future revenue stream, understand why they buy from you and how your offering in turns helps your customers’ customers. You need an external focus beyond winning the next customer, and see them as a source of innovation: ‘what would an existing or new customer say to this?’ An enquiring mentality, asking ‘is this the best we can do?’ will bring success.

Assume nothing, question everything Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers – Voltaire. The acquisition of knowledge and learning derives its energy through questioning. Brilliant ideas can come out of a better question. Einstein reckoned that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he would spend the first fifty-five minutes making sure he was answering the right question. Start asking better questions to find the right answers.

Be curious about your people Many startups work hard to attract people with inquisitive mindsets and then stick them in an environment in which curiosity is discouraged as they pivot to ‘business as usual’. Hire people with a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences and aptitudes and then enable those differences to spark off each other. Building a culture of curiosity starts with seeing the individuals behind the job.

Be curious about what you’re working on When was the last time you lost track of time working on something? If you’re curious about something, you’ll worker harder than the next person, who is just trying to maximise some other metric. If you follow your curiosity, you’ll end up somewhere nobody else is. Meanwhile, people who aren’t curious are trying to figure out who they should catch up with. They create a world of the uncurious, parroting something someone else told them.

Curiosity makes your mind active instead of passive Curious people’s minds are always active. The mental exercise caused by curiosity makes your mind stronger, and it makes you observant of new ideas. Without curiosity, new ideas may pass right in front of you and yet you miss them because your mind is not prepared to recognise them. Just think, how many great ideas may have lost due to lack of curiosity?

Curious minds connect information better Leonardo da Vinci was insanely curious.His observation and belief that ‘everything connects’ informed most of his work. Making connections between seemingly unimportant things is perhaps one of the most crucial creative thinking skills you can ever master.

Curiosity will conquer fear and uncertainty even more than bravery will. And that’s the point: a culture of curiosity inspires courage. The courage to challenge all those assumptions and hesitations that for too long have held us back, and those unknowns.

It was this belief that shaped the philosophy of Andy Warhol. I read that Warhol would just walk around New York City on rainy Sundays. That was one of his favourite things to do, and that gave him ideas and inspiration. He called it From A to B and Back Again.

Of course, curiosity is the key trait for finding out what we don’t know. I’m always minded of former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who made semantic history back in 2002 when he gave the profoundly perplexing explanation about known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns in relation to the military conflict in Iraq:

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Those three sets of simple word pairs, used by Rumsfeld to describe military strategy, also convey powerful conceptual ideas with relevance to developing your startup thinking. Satisfying your curiosity and making entrepreneurial decisions based on knowns – truth, facts, and evidence – are far more likely to succeed than those based on hopes, wishes, and mythology.

We can know things but not realise how important they are. We can know things but not understand how the pieces fit together or know what is causing what. We can be blind to the obvious or blind to the implications of the obvious. It’s curiosity that brings us an awareness of how things connect. What this conveys is that ‘knowns’ are fewer and rarer than people believe, and ‘unknowns’ are ubiquitous. They surround us on all sides.

Curiosity has been a major factor behind many scientific and technological discoveries and the advancement of human development. It’s never too late to starting focusing on developing curiosity instincts. Begin practicing mindfulness and be conscious of your immediate surroundings. Be curious about things you usually ignore.

Following your curiosity can lead to the breakthrough ideas you have been waiting for as a startup founder, but you can only harness and make the most of curiosity if you recognise and accept the need to make time for it. As Walt Disney said, We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

Back to sheep. I’m curious that sheep only sleep 3.8 hours in a day, meaning they are active 20.2 hours a day. What do they think about for all that time? But don’t be a sheep. Either you get eaten by a wolf today or else the shepherd saves you from the wolf so he can sell you to the butcher tomorrow. Assumptions are quick exits for lazy minds that like to graze out in the fields without bother. So ask yourself, What am I most curious about?

Curiosity and innovation: the entrepreneurial mindset of Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking died last week aged 76, having battled motor neurone disease to become one of the most respected and best-known scientists of our age. A man of great humour, he became a popular ambassador for science and was always keen to ensure that the general public had ready access to his work.

He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man, whose work and legacy will live on for many years. His book A Brief History of Time – a layman’s guide to cosmology – became an unlikely best-seller although it is unclear how many people actually managed to get to the end of it.

Was it mere coincidence that he was born 300 years to the day after Galileo Galileo died, in Oxford on 8 January 1942? After gaining a first-class degree in physics from Oxford, he went on to Cambridge for postgrad research in cosmology. While at Cambridge, aged 21, he was diagnosed with muscle-wasting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a form of motor neurone disease, which was to leave him almost completely paralysed.

In 1964, his doctors gave him no more than two or three years of life, but the disease progressed more slowly than expected. However, Hawking was confined to a wheelchair for much of his life, and as his condition worsened, he had to resort to speaking through a voice synthesiser and communicating by moving his eyebrows.

He was renowned for his extraordinary capacity to visualise scientific solutions without calculation or experiment, as once he could no longer write down equations, theories had to be translated into geometry in his head. After a tracheotomy in 1985, the ocean of his thinking had to be forced through a cumbersome and narrow technological aperture. His words necessarily became fewer, and emerged in a voice that was both robotic, and curiously laden with emotion – and frequently humour.

Undeterred by his condition, from 1979 to 2009, he was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge – a post once held by Sir Isaac Newton. In his day job, it was Black Holes in particular that he studied. He gave his name to ‘Hawking radiation’, which was not observed in his lifetime, which was why he never won a Nobel prize, but the link it provided between the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics was rich food for physicists’ imaginations.

He spent much of his career trying to find a way to reconcile Einstein’s theory with quantum physics, and produce a Theory of Everything, and it was this work that attracted most public attention and awareness through a successful film, with Eddie Redmayne taking on the role of the scientist in what was an inspiring biopic of Hawking.

He also impacted popular culture, staring in The Simpsons, The Big Bang Theory and Futurama, and became the only person to play themselves on Star Trek where he played poker with Einstein and Newton.

Those who live in the shadow of death are often those who live most. For Hawking, the early diagnosis of his terminal disease ignited a fresh sense of purpose. Although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before. I began to make progress with my research, he once said.

What a triumph his life has been. His name will live in the annals of science, millions have had their horizons widened by his best-selling books, and even more have been inspired by his unique example of achievement against all the odds, a manifestation of amazing willpower and determination.

Whilst we mourn the loss of one of the greatest scientists, creators and thinkers of C20th, here are a few things we could learn from this man about approaching the challenges in our startup businesses, based on some of the inspirational things he said.

Curiosity does not kill the cat Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.

Why did Hawking reach such great heights? Because he never stopped asking questions. I am just a child who has never grown up. I still keep asking these ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. Occasionally, I find an answer. Curiosity and asking questions can take you to new places, overcoming self-made barriers. Curiosity keeps you innovating, growing, and moving forward.

Time is your most precious resource I have so much that I want to do. I hate wasting time.

For someone whose life expectancy was supposed to be only 24 years, Hawking worked hard to make sure every minute of his life was used to create something great. Hawking proved time and again that life can give us great things if one is brave enough dream, believe and work hard.

In Hawking’s research about time, he remarked that it is impossible to turn back the clock. Never waste your time doing things that do not take you forward. Never waste your time doing things that do not help you grow.

Let nothing stop you from doing what you can do Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.

Hawking’s inability to speak did not stop him at any point in his life. Adapting to the environment around you, and using it to reach your goal is the sign of intelligence. Minor hiccups should not stop you from moving ahead, adapt to the change facing you, reroute and move forwards.

My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically.

Obstacles are inevitable and uncontrollable. What you can control is your ability to use your strengths, without focusing too much on the hurdles and roadblocks.

Have a purpose Never give up work, Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it.

Never be idle. There is always something that needs to be completed, find what you like and make it your driving force, your passion. When you enjoy doing something, it is no longer work. Don’t just keep the hands busy, keep the mind active as well.

I want my books sold on airport bookstalls, reflects Hawking’s humour, but passion for share his work. Hawking never took a day in his life, whether good or bad, for granted. He embraced life as it was and moved ahead, every single day. He advocated the mantra of living in the now and embracing the uncertainty.

Never give up It is no good getting furious if you get stuck. What I do is keep thinking about the problem but work on something else. Sometimes it is years before I see the way forward.

In the case of information loss and black holes, it was 29 years until Hawking had the answer he wanted. If there is just one take away from Stephen Hawking’s illustrious life, it is to never, ever stop trying. Give up and nothing seems possible in life. If he had given up right when he was diagnosed, then the world would have truly lost one of the greatest revolutionaries.

What a triumph his life has been. His name will live in the annals of science. Millions have had their horizons widened by his books. Many have been inspired by a unique example of achievement against all the odds — a manifestation of amazing willpower and determination.

Be an optimist There should be no boundaries to human endeavour. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope. My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.

He had a very enviable wish to keep going and the ability to summon all his reserves, all his energy, all his mental focus and press them all into that goal of keeping going. Gone but never forgotten, Stephen Hawking’s demise will leave a vacuum in the field of science. But his research throughout the years has given physicists and cosmologists of today a path forward.

Humour is important to keep a balance The downside of my celebrity is that I cannot go anywhere in the world without being recognized. It is not enough for me to wear dark sunglasses and a wig. The wheelchair gives me away.

Hawking will forever be associated with the concept of Black Holes, a complex and intriguing mental challenge as any you can imagine. He had a searing intellect to converse with the most mentally demanding matters but communicate them to everyone:

Einstein was wrong when he said, ‘God does not play dice’. Consideration of black holes suggests, not only that God does play dice, but that he sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen.

Hawking tells me to think about what you’ve never thought about, but also to reflect that the most consequential ideas are often right under our noses, connected in some way to our current reality or view of the world.

Hawking constantly lived in the future. When we talk about taking time to reflect and ponder about the future and new ideas for our startup, this is exactly what we have to do. In Hawking terms, we need to work on the business, not in the business.  But don’t just sit there and daydream, think and picture the alternate realities – realities where what you are doing today is completely different tomorrow, in order to go and find the revolution before it finds you.

The world isn’t waiting for you to get inspired, you have to inspire it, and at the same time don’t let your doubts sabotage your thinking – there are far better things ahead than any we leave behind. We are all confined by the mental walls we build around ourselves, sometimes innovation starts with a critical decision to reinvent yourself and kick-start your thinking – a moment of truth, flash of brilliance or the end result of a bout of determined reflection to make a difference.

No philosophy that puts humanity anywhere near the centre of things can ignore the thinking of Hawking and its relevance to our everyday attitudes of hope, optimism and endeavour. All that remains is to huddle together in the face of the overwhelmingness of reality. Yet the sight of one huddled man in a wheelchair constantly probing, boldly and even cheekily demonstrating the infinite reach of the human mind, gave people some hope to grasp, as he always wished it would.

The message is that Black Holes ain’t as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up – there’s a way out…

As a man who overcame such incredible obstacles and lived such a brave and amazing life, this advice couldn’t come from a better place.