Why curiosity matters

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AMI VALDEMORO

“ASK what you can do.” These words form one of the most recognizable calls to action even today, more than 50 years after President John F. Kennedy uttered them on the steps of the US Capitol building, inspiring a new generation of Americans – and citizens of the world – to serve.

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For the longest time, I thought that JFK’s call was about taking action: getting out there and doing something. Only recently did I realize that the “asking” part of his call is just as important as the “doing.”

The world that we live in tends to reward “doers”, exceptional individuals who make something of themselves through initiative, entrepreneurial spirit, and chutzpah. We glorify “leaders” who are visionaries, taking us to places that we never imagined, whether a colony on Mars, a chain of record stores, or a rainbow nation.

While these accolades are merited, what we often fail to recognize is that these individuals got to where they are today through cultivating genuine curiosity. They asked questions – questions about why things are the way they are, as well as what they or their teams can do to change or improve the current reality.

Curiosity is a simple skill. We are all born with an innate curiosity about the world, and explore that curiosity as children learning about the world around us. As we grow older and become more versed with “how things are,” however, many of us learn to become complacent and forget how – or why – to ask questions. We learn this habit for any number of reasons. Perhaps we already find ourselves in a position where we can exert influence and do not feel a need to ask questions about the status quo. Perhaps we accept the current reality because to do otherwise would jeopardize our security, be it financial or otherwise. Maybe some of us come from contexts where we feel we never had the power to ask questions, because our education or experience taught us to sit down, absorb and repeat.

Curiosity is one of the skills that are critical drivers for success, particularly in the workplace. Labeled a “21st century skill” by the World Economic Forum and others, curiosity – along with other competencies like critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and adaptability – are essential skills for a world in which many of the jobs that today’s young schoolchildren will have, do not exist yet.

So how can we cultivate curiosity?

Asking this question is not a vanity exercise. The median age in the Philippines is just 23 years old. With the economy growing at over six percent over the past five years, the country is currently ranked 16th in the world in terms of GDP growth. As it stares at opportunities for strengthened regional integration and a globalized marketplace, the Philippines has a unique opportunity to foster sustained – perhaps even inclusive – economic growth.

With this opportunity, however, there is also a big risk. A risk that if the people with a stake in educating or employing young Filipinos do not embrace practices to enable them to be competitive in the global workforce, we will lose this momentum.

People may question how or why to cultivate “soft skills” like curiosity in young people when there are myriad other problems that need to be addressed, from a student’s basic learning needs to other development priorities. This critique, however, has more to do with timing than questioning my argument’s rationale.

Others may argue that building 21st century skills requires funding and resources. The idea behind this perspective is that the mitigating factor that currently prevents schools or companies from cultivating these skills is finances. I would counter that enabling youth to engage in a behavior that comes naturally to them costs very little, if at all.

Finally, there may be those who value curiosity for its own sake, but hesitate to encourage youth to ask questions because doing so has proven or could prove to be a risky enterprise. On this last point, I do not have an adequate response, other than to say that perhaps this is where we should start.

Curiosity, in its purest and simplest form, begins with you and me. Maybe the key to unlocking the Philippines’ potential starts with each person doing their part to cultivate a safe space where each of us can be curious and ask questions not just about what is, but what could be.

Ami Valdemoro is the founder of Three Points Ventures, Inc., a firm specializing in strategy, execution, and leadership development for nonprofits and businesses working in social impact. She earned her Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School in 2013.

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