Timothy R. Clark: Real job creation requires finding ways to make people curious

Published: Wednesday, May 22 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

People are born curious. Just watch toddlers. They meet each day with a sense of wonder. But with many of us, something happened on the way to adulthood and our curiosity flamed out.

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People are born curious. Just watch toddlers. They meet each day with a sense of wonder. But with many of us, something happened on the way to adulthood and our curiosity flamed out.

A nation whose citizens watch an average of 34 hours of television a week would not appear to be a highly curious nation. Rather, we seem to be suffering from an epidemic failure of imagination. This is more than a passing curiosity — to use a word — because society relies on the curious. It's not outlandish to say that jobs are traceable to curious people. It's not outlandish to say that our economy relies on curious people. They are the ones who puzzle until their puzzlers are sore.

They don't talk about curious people in economics textbooks or policy circles. Yet they are the real job creators. Not Powerball, a new casino or other such gimmicks. It's the curious who ask the brave questions and solve the wicked problems. They create new value, new industries and new opportunities. They are the ones who bring fresh perspective to overcome the grooved thinking and bias that chain us to the status quo. All hail to the curious among us who invent and innovate and move us forward.

Since the Great Recession began in 2007 we have accumulated a deficit of 9 million jobs. The permafunk may be gone, but job prospects are still dim for many people. We need more curious people to solve more wicked problems to create more jobs. How? By encouraging them. By finding out what motivates them. By praising effort more than results. By letting them test and learn. By letting them fail fast and forward. By giving them problems that need solutions. By eliminating bureaucracy and disincentives that get in their way. By getting rid of staid educational methods that constrain rather than unleash fresh thinking.

Referring to our educational system, Bill Gates said, "People who are as curious as I am will be fine in any system. For the self-motivated student, these are the golden days. I wish I was growing up now. I envy my son. If he and I are talking about something that we don't understand, we just watch videos and click on articles, and that feeds our discussion. Unfortunately, the highly curious student is a small percentage of the kids."

Gates is an off-the-charts curious person. But there are many other people who are curious, but don't know it because society has immunized their curiosity. Many young people pass their discretionary time with endless gaming, surfing the Internet or just hanging out with friends. They haven't been curious for years and they hardly notice. What they need is someone to take a personal interest in them and help them rekindle their curiosity.

It's important to understand that curiosity is more about motivation than smarts. Sir John Gurdon, a developmental biologist at Oxford and winner of the Nobel Prize, studied literature in college. But in his graduate work, he switched to science. "Maybe a good teacher," he said, "tries to find out what interests a student?"

"What are you interested in?" is a question that can lead to a vein of motivation in a young mind. When a teacher, parent or employer mines a vein of motivation in someone, that someone accelerates, develops confidence and increases capacity. When you find motivation in a problem, the problem becomes what Sir John Gurdon calls a "problem of interest." In other words, it becomes a problem you want to tackle and solve.

We need more curious people chasing more problems of interest. That's a jobs bill that needs to be sponsored in every house.

Timothy R. Clark is founder of TRClark LLC, a leadership development organization and LeaderMaker.org, an open repository of leadership development content. Email: trclark@trclark.net

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