I was on a lunch break at work last week, browsing PsychologyToday.com when I stumbled across Dr. Liz Alexander’s article: “To See Your Status Soar, Be More Curious.” It screamed bold, fresh, and insightful, and I found myself nodding as I read about the impact a curious mentality can have and the forward movements it can inspire. Interviewing Dr. Alexander, both a futurist and educational psychologist, was an absolute pleasure, and below she has shared her insight on curiosity. Check out her website to learn more and continue reading to discover more about how having a curious mind can change your life!
Dr. Alexander, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer some questions for us! Why did you decide to go into the field of educational psychology, and in particular, study strategic thinking and methodologies?
When I read the degree description at The University of Texas at Austin where I got my Master’s and Ph.D. my first reaction was, “They’ve created something that speaks to every interest I have.” I’ve always been fascinated by how an innate ability like thinking, which everyone takes for granted, can be enhanced just by getting to grips with more strategic approaches and methodologies.
How it helps to know more about ourselves as learners, such as what kind of instruction we respond to best (from listening passively to a lecture, to being given a practical assignment to figure out for ourselves); when we might benefit most from one-on-one instruction over, say, group work; and what support there is for identifying and overcoming learning challenges, like dyslexia.
How does educational psychology govern ideas that influence our thought processes and lifestyles?
Imagine two students. One of them, in addition to all their usual coursework, has been guided to understand and incorporate study skills that will help them learn new things more quickly and easily. They are taught about the extent to which their emotions and personal motivations will impact their ability to learn as well as ways to create a supportive environment that facilitates effective learning. The second student is left to figure things out for themselves. And, unfortunately, all too often that’s what happens in schools and colleges where the assumption is that given access to information, students will automatically learn.
It’s thanks to people in the field of educational psychology, whose research has shown how people learn best, that the first student I described will not only get the most out of their school experience but also be more academically successful. In my own case, my graduate studies in educational psychology were focused on the emotional, social and motivational factors that contribute to effective learning. I discovered that we shouldn’t take the ability to learn for granted because it’s impacted—for good or ill—by so many things.
How might curiosity factor into both our daily and work lives? You write about how the work world is increasingly focusing not only on creativity but curiosity as a source of fostering that sense of creativity.
It seems we are being pulled in two directions at once, these days. On the one hand, algorithms used on social media plus the media bubble we hear so much about, are narrowing the range of information we take in. In short, they play to what we call “confirmation bias,” which is the tendency only to respond to information we already believe in or agree with, and shun everything else. That’s why, for example, some folks will only tune in to Fox News while others only get their news from CNN or MSNBC. These channels, to a large extent, play to their audience’s known preferences so they expect to be served with content that fits with their existing worldviews.
On the other hand, the need to take responsibility for our own careers and to demonstrate our value as creative thinkers and innovators means we must broaden, rather than narrow, the range of content we’re exposed to. You can’t hope to change the world when you’re mired in a singular way of thinking. You only need to review the lives and passions of successful entrepreneurs to realize that they are fascinated by lots of different things. Which enables them to combine ideas that otherwise wouldn’t be thought of as having any relationship – like calligraphy and computers (Steve Jobs at Apple); chocolate and multi-culturalism (Katrina Markoff of Vosges Haut-Chocolat); and technology and conservation (as exemplified by the company founded by Robert Bosch in 1886, long before environmentalism was a “thing,” due to young Robert’s interest in zoology & botany).
In your article, you provide good motivation for why we should seek out curiosity. Do you have any suggestions on how to better incorporate doing so into our everyday lives?
When I was in high school I belonged to the debating society. One of the experiences I’ve always remembered was having prepared to defend a particular position then being told by our teacher to reverse them. That is, those of us who were “pro” had to become “anti” and vice versa. That was done on the fly and I probably sucked at it back then. But what that experience inspired in me was to adopt different perceptual positions. To think: I believe this, but am I taking for granted the fact that not everyone would agree with me?
One way I’ve continued to fuel my curiosity and, through that, my creativity, is with overseas travel. I’m a Brit who came to live in the US 17 years ago, who has serviced clients in India for the past 7 years, works with an Australian business partner, and is about to relocate to Penang, Malaysia. Being used to interacting with different cultures has prevented me from adopting the “my way or the highway” attitude that so many people have. An attitude that will not serve them well when trying to work in distributed teams with members from different backgrounds and worldviews.
Why do you think an information gap still exists today? What can we do about it?
If by “information gap” you mean missing out on some of the information needed to fulfill a certain task or solve a problem, then I think my previous answers speak to this. If you surround yourself with people who come from the same background as you do and therefore think and act like you, there is no catalyst on hand to provide new information. That’s the way so many companies shoot themselves in the foot. They silo certain groups – like engineers on one floor, sales people on another, finance on another – so that diverse fields rarely get to speak to one another, let alone share ideas. Whereas the new trend for co-working spaces and innovative office designs shows how information gaps are being filled by having different kinds of people “collide” with one another. Then all that’s required is the willingness to listen and value different perspectives.
Are there any other companies, brands, or groups out there at the forefront of curious thought today like Egremont? Would you say such companies are increasingly becoming more common in a general effort to bridge the information gap, or are they still somewhat unique?
Let me share something surprising about Amazon, as this is a story I always love to tell. It’s about an approach they use called “working backwards.” You can read more detail about it here. But essentially it involves creating a hypothetical press release, about a product or service that hasn’t yet been created. What this prompts is the curiosity to wonder what the customer would want to know, similar to how I talked about my debating society experience. You have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to be able to more fully understand how to solve their problem or meet their need. All of this curiosity, within Amazon, is channeled toward creating FAQs, user manuals and mockups well in advance of moving ahead with a new idea. It’s not surprising to me that they are so successful at innovating across a wide range of arenas – far beyond the online book sales they started with.
And, yes, I think with the impressive evidence about enhanced innovation coming out of co-working ventures, we are seeing more companies – including Samsung in the US, for example or Deloitte at The Edge in The Netherlands – redesign their work spaces to take advantage of the remarkable ingenuity of human beings when left to interact naturally.
You’re a member of both the Association of Professional Futurists and formerly the World Future Society, and you were named one of the world’s top female futurists. Can you speak a little about what your work of being a futurist entails and how it shapes your own personal thinking?
Here are a few recent interviews that include me talking about my work as a futurist and why I’m so passionate about the field.
The Mojo Radio Show (starts at 5:30 mins)
Leadership Skills for the 21st Century, a podcast for Success Performance Solutions
The future of leadership for Echo Junction
What Does a Futurist Really Do? with Dawna Jones (scroll down to Episode #2)
I also invite readers to check out the free eBook I compiled, entitled How to Use a Futurist, drawing from the insights of 24 of my global colleagues, in addition to myself.
What has been your greatest accomplishment so far in your career?
I’m not sure I’d describe this as an accomplishment as much as a characteristic. But one of the things I’m most grateful for is my ability to pre-adapt. That is, I don’t wait for change to blindside me – I anticipate and even go so far as to provoke change. That’s why, every 4 years or so, I reinvent myself. Throughout my career I’ve been a secretary, “temp,” TV presenter, freelance journalist, author, career coach, marketing manager, university lecturer, global book consultant, and now futurist.
Those shifts all felt very natural to me. So it was a great joy reading Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin’s wonderful book, The Neo-Generalist: Where You Go Is Who You Are to discover that I’m not some lone weirdo, but one of a growing number of people with a similar fluid approach to work. We’re the folks who can adapt to any new environment because we’ve accrued a broad range of skills that can be applied to just about anything. In my case, communication in all its forms.
If you could give one piece of advice to Millennials and future generations, what would it be?
One of the topics of greatest interest and concern at the moment appears to be the future of work. Here’s my advice on that: Become marketable in all the skills and talents that cannot be automated and therefore “robots” (at least for the foreseeable future) will not be able to do. For example, if you’re in retail sales, stop acting transactionally and give your customers an experience they couldn’t get online or via a machine.
Think about ways you can enhance relationships and be fully human. Which means taking responsibility for nurturing your own curiosity. And one way to do that is to stop accepting the recommendations that algorithms serve up on social media sites. Explore new books, fringe magazines, unusual movies, and documentaries you might not otherwise check out. The more interested you are, the more interesting you’ll be.
I believe passionately in a very human future. I’m not going to be around as long as you are (I’m a Boomer!) but as long as you remember that the future is not fixed and that it’s plural, you will be free to determine—from what’s possible, probable and plausible—what your preferable future is going to be.
Thank you Dr. Liz Alexander for sharing your insight and experience with us!
Dr. Alexander is a best-selling book author and strategist as well as a strategic futurist. She runs two consultancies: Leading Thought and Dr.LizAlexander.com. Check out with her article, website, and blog for more!