How To Be Curious

Cognitive Fitness for Planners

April & May 2018 | Ian Leslie

At the start of this year, you probably paid a little more attention than usual to your health. You may have challenged yourself to go running more often, or to eat more vegetables. But how much you think about keeping your mind in shape?


As strategists, our careers, our livelihoods depend on our intellectual contributions. That’s what we get paid for. Not just that, of course. We also need to be great at collaboration, a skill-set in itself. But then, so does everyone else. Our comparative advantage, our specialism, is being smart (not smartarse).


Being smart is not about having an advanced maths degree or dropping the names of French philosophers in creative briefings. It’s not even about intelligence, in the narrow sense.


It is about being able to bring a range of different perspectives to any problem.


It’s less about having the right answers than it is being able to ask penetrating questions.


It’s less about being right than being productively wrong.


To perform these functions at a high level, your mind needs to be a diverse ecosystem. It needs a deep stock of knowledge of brands and marketing. It also needs to be able to range confidently across related fields, like popular culture, business, technology, and psychology.


Crucially, it needs to be constantly replenished with new information and insights from the world beyond your office walls.


In other words, strategists need to be curious and stay curious. That’s not as straightforward as it sounds. It requires us to think strategically about our own cognitive habits.


In my book on curiosity, I explain a fundamental distinction made by psychologists. There is diversive curiosity: the desire for new information. Then there is epistemic curiosity: the ability to accumulate and combine knowledge.


The internet is a machine for stimulating diversive curiosity. It is always feeding us new distractions. But it doesn’t necessarily help us with epistemic curiosity. That requires effort and focus. And a strategy.


Over the next few weeks we’ll be exploring tips and methods for building your epistemic curiosity, and optimizing your cognitive performance. What constitutes a healthy information diet? Should I specialise or generalise? What are the best places to go for new insights and ideas? How should I organise my reading and listening?


How can I get smarter?


One important aspect of fitness is diet. In the next few weeks we’ll be giving you a look at the information diets of different strategists, via a Q&A. To kick off, here’s mine