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Ignorance is Not Bliss: An Extract from Leadership Assets by Dr Monique Beedles

Dr Monique Beedles has shared with us an Extract from her most recent book, Leadership Assets.

We’re told that ‘curiosity killed the cat’ and that ‘ignorance is bliss’, but we shouldn’t really believe either of these. In truth, ignorance is not bliss and curiosity is the cure.

We’re all born curious. Curiosity is the desire to learn, and it’s as natural as the desire to eat. Just as a baby will cry until they’re fed, so they will reach out to touch that colourful object or take a bite of that scrap they found on the floor. They just want to learn more about it.

Curiosity is essential to our survival as it alerts us to dangers and potential threats. If we’re not curious about a roar from the trees, it may be too late once the lion has pounced. The flipside of this essential curiosity is the anxiety that comes from being ever alert to threats. At its extreme it can lead to paranoia and a crippling fear of trying anything new.

Ignorance is not bliss. Instead, knowledge is power. Rather than being afraid of the unknown, or defensive in the face of potential threats, a mindset of curiosity helps us to learn and to grow through the ever-changing uncertainties of life.

Dr Todd Kashdan, a professor of psychology, has done extensive research on curiosity. In his book Curious? he highlights five of the demonstrated ‘big benefits’ of being highly curious.

Those with higher levels of curiosity show:

  • improved health and longevity
  • higher overall intelligence
  • a greater sense of meaning and purpose in their lives
  • healthier social relationships
  • greater fulfilment and ultimate happiness.

While we’re all born curious, our curiosity can decline if we don’t nurture and encourage it. Since it’s innate, we don’t need to ‘develop’ curiosity. Rather, we need to avoid stifling it.

We know that three-year-olds love to ask ‘why?’ They’ll ask it over and over again, never satisfied with an adult’s perfunctory answer, driven by a compelling desire simply to know more. Sometimes the questions are impossible to answer, or too complex to explain to a three-year-old.

When my daughter was about this age, we were driving in the car and it was very quiet. Suddenly from the back seat she asked, ‘Mummy, why don’t Saturn’s rings fall down?’ I had no idea how to answer that. I’ve studied physics, but I’m not an astronomer and the reasons behind this are no doubt very complex. It’s an interesting question, but outside my expertise.

Not wanting to stifle her curiosity, I had to admit that I didn’t know that answer, but that we could try to find out—later, when I wasn’t driving! Shutting down a question with a false answer or a guess won’t encourage curiosity. Neither will killing it off with a response like ‘That’s a stupid question’, or ‘Why would you want to know that?’

There are no stupid questions.

When three-year-olds ask ‘why?’ they are following a natural instinct. One that’s essential to their survival and growth. After repeatedly being told to ‘be quiet’ or ‘stop bugging me’, they give up asking.

The same thing can happen in the workplace if we don’t have a safe space to ask questions. Sometimes we’re afraid that asking a ‘stupid question’ will make us look incompetent. Instead, we should view questions as an indicator of a person’s desire to learn—a desire that we should nurture and encourage.

If we’re socialised to accept the status quo and ‘not ask too many questions’, our curiosity can be stifled as we move through life. To progress in your career, you need to actively nurture your curiosity and ensure it isn’t suppressed. You need to develop a habit of always asking more, always probing deeper. A good question to ask yourself is, ‘What else do I need to know?’

If your questions are being shut down or fobbed-off, look further. It may be that the real problem that needs solving hasn’t been properly identified. In today’s world, information is widely available and rapidly accessible. There’s always someone you can ask.

We know that if we don’t exercise, our muscles will atrophy. Likewise, nurturing your curiosity needs to become a habit. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. Asking questions and gathering information need to be part of your daily work. It’s the way that you identify problems and it’s an essential pre-requisite to solving them.

Be curious about which problems are important

We need to be curious about which problems are important to our team, to our business, and to our careers. As much as we might like to, we can’t solve all the problems at once. To empower your career, your curiosity needs to be channelled. It’s easy to get carried away by things that are interesting (to you), but not relevant (to others).

That doesn’t mean though, that we should confine ourselves to the specific domain of our expertise. In fact, we can learn a lot by looking outside our domain to other companies, other countries and other industries.

I worked on my PhD in the late 1990s. There was email and there was internet, but certainly not the same rapid access to information that there is now. Some very recent research papers were available online, but most of what I needed was still in hard copy. To access research not held by my university’s library required a request to another library, quite often overseas. A paper, photocopied from the original, would arrive in my in-tray in a big yellow envelope, usually about six to eight weeks later. I had plenty of time to be curious about what it might say. In that time, I pondered the question more deeply, found other relevant research, and asked more questions.

Curiosity drives innovation, which is an imperative in today’s economy. Being curious means identifying problems, but this doesn’t apply only to the technical aspects of your work. You can apply the same curiosity to your own career journey, and you might be surprised where it could take you.

What are you curious about?

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Posted by Jade Collins - Femeconomy Director

Jade Collins has 20 years’ global experience in corporate executive Human Resources and management consulting roles in the Mining, Energy and Aerospace industries, leading large scale, complex multi-million-dollar change management programs. Jade finds the combination of her HR, Psychology and MBA qualifications and her leadership experience is invaluable for increasing gender equality in leadership across industries. Jade was a member of the Queensland Government's Strategic Advisory Group for the Toward Gender Parity: Women on Boards Initiative and the 2019 CQU Alumni of the Year for Social Impact for her work with Femeconomy.