This is the first of a series of guest chroniclers - selected thinkers, clients and friends - who I’ve asked to write about curiosity as it pertains to their world. Jim Brett is President of one of my favorite brands, West Elm, part of the Williams-Sonoma group. He is based in New York, and under he and his teams’ watch, the brand has experienced significant growth.
In 19 years of retail, I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with many people who’ve stretched and inspired me. Usually, they’re the people who ask questions that let a little light into the conversation: “How can we make this mean something more?” In all the meetings I’ve sat through—from early on in my career when I was nervously trying to make my mark, to the leadership role I assume today—it’s always the power of curiosity that bridges the gap between what is and what can be.
I’m not exactly sure when the word “curious” came to simultaneously mean “odd” and “inquisitive,” as though these two personal traits are linked. But I imagine it occurred during the straight-laced days of “polite” society when it was socially unacceptable to think for yourself—as though sending your mind on a fact-finding mission beyond conventional boundaries was an unnatural act. In a way, this restrictive societal conformity is the early ancestor of today’s corporate groupthink, and ultimately just as damaging to free thinkers now as it was then. Because being curious is our intuitive state, our primal wisdom, and we should respect its power. Curiosity is how fire was harnessed; today it’s how children learn to experience the world.
Curiosity is the hallmark of a critical thinker.
Albert Einstein said it best when he claimed that he didn’t possess special skills but rather “passionate curiosity,” viewing that single quality as an integral part of intelligence and certainly of creativity. Being curious means going beyond the obvious: it’s what encourages us to say, “I’ve got a different idea.” Perhaps it is this seeking of alternatives, especially when it means breaking away from groupthink, which gives curiosity its risky reputation. But, in my experience, curiosity is elastic and will stretch you outside the standard framework to play a bigger field, rather than leaving you stuck in what you believe is your “specialty.” That’s because curiosity inspires curiosity, leading a group to feed off each other’s ideas. It may bring about spirited discussions (if you’re lucky), but I can tell you, curiosity is where the magic happens.
One of my most successful coworkers knows all sorts of random information plucked from all sorts of sources. He remembers and understands the nubby little details of everything. His curiosity is more than just an idiosyncrasy; it’s one of his core strengths. It’s as though he has a better mental filing system.
What’s fascinating, and what sets one curious mind apart from the next, is how each patchwork of material is aggregated: How people who tie together the souvenirs of their own curiosity can produce wildly unpredictable ideas that twist and turn, yet somehow still go straight to the heart of the matter. It’s remarkable, really.
Curiosity succeeds when it’s a combination of intellect and action.
And the best conduit is passion. But only when it is present in two equally important stages: the passion to discover as well as the passion to follow through. Because passion can be fleeting, a tendency I find in some of the most curious people: They feel so passionately in the moment, but that passion can quickly fade as their curious minds take them elsewhere, often accelerated by today’s social media which can generate short-term curiosity that leads to a lack of focus. For a leader, the challenge is to know when to encourage the sort of no-boundaries curiosity that can produce a great idea and when to impose structure that will lead to action and flawless execution. Because while I believe that curiosity creates the magic, I also understand that focus is what points the wand at your target, makes that magic happen, and gets the job done.
Curiosity can build your brand.
At west elm, curiosity is part of what defines our brand. Our customers and our employees are curious about the connections and the people behind the process. I believe that this particular type of curiosity stems from the desire for a more personal exchange: a time when you knew the shopkeeper, and you valued how, where, and by whom your products were made. We have an intensifying curiosity about makers. Allowing this curiosity to lead us, we’ve focused on how to bring that human element in through handcrafted production and storytelling. We’ve had 11 consecutive quarters of double-digit revenue growth. So, curiosity can eventually impact revenue if you follow it through.
Curiosity is intellectually liberating when you do it right.
Curiosity is ongoing. We’re always moving forward, and we take turns shining the flashlight for one another. I believe it is my responsibility to continue to cultivate curiosity among the people who work for me by asking the right questions and by letting them know that new questions and new ways of thinking are welcome.
My goal is often to expand the boundaries of the discussion, so people feel comfortable bringing up seemingly unrelated information that might ultimately take us where we want to go. This requires diffusing defensiveness and keeping the group’s criticism in check long enough to give curiosity the chance to do its job. As Alex Faickney Osborn, cofounder of the advertising agency BBDO, once said: “It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one.” And he should know. Obsorn is credited with inventing the creativity technique named “brainstorming,” which he outlined in his 1953 book, Applied Imagination. Sixty years later, it’s still a book worth reading—but only if you’re curious enough to track it down.