Curiosity doesn’t kill the cat: What Jack Ma and Steve Jobs can teach us about competitive advantage

Curiosity is one of my research areas of interest and it’s a topic I teach and cover in my modules. You could call me the Professor of Curiosity! I’m inherently curious, reading at least one book a week.

In the course of living what I hope to be a life of curiosity and meaning, I have drawn inspiration from other inquisitive people around me. Through this blog post, I hope some of that spirit will rub off on you.

Jack Ma and his friends were once googling for beer when he realised how difficult it was to find Chinese beer on the internet. It prompted him to create a homepage in Chinese. Within five hours of posting the page, he received five emails from people across the world, including in the US and Germany. The power of the Internet surprised him – one which he harnessed towards building Alibaba, now a Chinese giant specialising in e-commerce, retail, Internet, AI and technology.

On 17 December 1903, the Wright brothers, with no formal training in engineering, defied gravity with their manned airplane flights, ushering in the era of flight.

After observing how apples always fell straight to the ground, Isaac Newton spent several years working on the mathematics showing that the force of gravity decreased as the inverse square of the distance.

If we look at similar moments of breakthrough, insight and innovation in life or in business, one characteristic stands out. Curiosity is at the core of all of them. These curious achievers did not start out with an end goal in mind. They were just curious. Once piqued, they kept exploring things that intrigued them, which I call “explorative curiosity”. Often these were unrelated topics. In the end, the pieces that came together, bore fruit. You could say that curiosity connected the dots.

In today’s VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environment, where nobody knows what might be around the corner and what the next big thing could be, curiosity is a key quality students, leaders and corporations need to have to stay ahead of the curve.

Curiosity knits the lattice. Louis Mobley, founder of the IBM Executive School in 1956, says curious people share one trait: an inexhaustible curiosity about everything from “NATO to Plato.” The more they learned, the more connections they saw, from history, psychology, philosophy, science, literature, and poetry that produced their greatest creative business insights. What we might dismiss as irrelevant and therefore uninteresting, a genius like Steve Jobs sees as pieces of an unfolding interwoven jigsaw puzzle that are sifted until the piece that fits the problem emerges. In the world of business, people like Jack Ma and Steve Jobs cobbled bits of information they had chased and pieced them all together to create breakthroughs.

Executives agree on the importance of curiosity. In a 2015 survey of more than 1,000 CEOs, a number of them cited “curiosity” and “open-mindedness” as leadership traits that are becoming increasingly critical in these challenging times. Curious leaders are more open to new experiences, more tolerant of ambiguity and are more likely to nurture curiosity in their organisations.

Yet, curiosity is lacking and not given due attention. According to MERCK’s 2016 State of Curiosity Report, while 80% of workers agree that curious colleagues are most likely to bring ideas to life, only 20% of workers actually self-identify as being curious. A lot has been written on innovation, but not much on curiosity. Curiosity has to start from the top. Leaders lead by example. This critical capability – leadership curiosity – comprises three key components: self-curiosity, interpersonal curiosity and environmental curiosity.

Self-curiosity starts with a deep-seated interest – even obsession – to find out more. At 13, Jack Ma regularly woke up at 5am to go to a nearby hotel to chat with tourists and take them sightseeing. That was how he learnt to speak English. He did this for nine years, picking up Western ways of doing things. When Steve Jobs started studying calligraphy and the practice of Zen Buddhism, he had no idea it would lead to the design simplicity of Apple computers. He was only being curious.

Personal curiosity is crucial to success because a naturally curious person is more likely to learn from mistakes, try new things, explore new ideas, engage more deeply, be more adaptable, take risks and embrace change. In today’s digital age and Industry 4.0, where technological change is happening at an unprecedented speed and scale, and where disruptions and black swans abound, personal curiosity is critical in closing the gap between the human capability to change and the exponential change in technology.

A leader must also be curious about others. This interpersonal curiosity is the desire to learn about other people, including their life experiences, thoughts and motives. If you are a student leader curious about your group mates’ experience with your club or society, you develop greater empathy and a deeper understanding of what they actually take away from joining the group. You learn how to improve everyone’s experience, understand what value needs to be created to meet their needs, and even find new ways to connect in today’s digital age. When you are curious about your group mates, you will engage with them at a deeper level, and this could build stronger trust and collaboration that could lead to more fruitful outcomes and pursuits.

Unfortunately, what often happens to leaders once they’ve attained a position of leadership is that they may feel the need to project confident expertise. They are afraid of being seen as ignorant or incompetent. A truly curious leader is humble enough to acknowledge that he doesn’t have all the answers.

Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, once said: “We run this company on questions, not answers.” At meetings with his employees, the Director-General of BBC starts with the question: “What is one thing I could do to make things better for you?” Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Centre, says leaders have to learn to ask questions. When the leader is curious and starts asking questions, others will take the cue and follow suit.

A truly curious person is curious about the environment and ecosystem in which he or she operates. For example, being curious about what else goes on in university or what your friends are researching drives learning and thinking out of the box. Staying curious about new trends or new ideas that are at the edge or periphery, or being curious about weak signals that are not yet clear or coherent in domains you’re interested in, helps you seek out new blue oceans of growth opportunities.

An example of an exceptionally curious leader is the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, who embodies all three components of leadership curiosity. Mr Heng Swee Keat, his former Principal Private Secretary, shared that Mr Lee had a red box in which he carried “a wide range of items”.

“It could be communications with foreign leaders, observations about the financial crisis, instructions for the Istana grounds staff, or even questions about some trees he had seen on the expressway. Mr Lee was well-known for keeping extremely alert to everything he saw and heard around him – when he noticed something wrong, like an ailing raintree, a note in the red box would follow.”

While it was hard to anticipate what Mr Lee would raise, Mr Heng revealed the matter would always be “about how events could affect Singapore and Singaporeans, and how we had to stay a step ahead. Inside the red box was always something about how we could create a better life for all.”

According to Prof Kishore Mahbubani (retired Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy), among the founding fathers of Singapore, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr S Rajaratnam stand out for their “incessant curiosity” – they always had questions to ask.

Whether you are a student choosing a university or subject area to specialise in, or someone building a career and trying to improve the world, remember one thing: Being curious will put you on the path to success.