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Find what’s next with 3 ways to cultivate curiosity

“There’s this basic circuit in the brain that energizes people to go out and get things that are intrinsically rewarding. This circuit lights up when we get money or candy. It also lights up when we’re curious.”
“There’s this basic circuit in the brain that energizes people to go out and get things that are intrinsically rewarding. This circuit lights up when we get money or candy. It also lights up when we’re curious.”
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This article originally appeared at Forbes.com

It could change the face of medicine — altering not only your lifespan, but also the future of disease research. What is it? It’s a machine built by one daring researcher that is able to identify 130 DNA mutations that could help fight numerous diseases and conditions like schizophrenia, influenza, meningitis and HIV.

“I was doing it (the research) out of curiosity,” said Andrew Jin, the researcher, in a recent Fast Company interview. “I was curious about what mutations help us be sophisticated human beings.”

Jin, obviously sophisticated in his own curiosity, is not only worthy of attention due to his research, but also because he’s just 17 years old. He wasn’t being paid to examine and sort through nearly 537 million pieces of genetic data. It was a project he chose to work on over his summer break while he attended a program at MIT.

“Ambitious!” a colleague of ours spouted when we told him the story of Andrew Jin. “But is it?” we asked.

Ambition is a desire for success. The prescription for ambition is “work harder.” Curiosity, often mistakenly viewed as a dangerous practice of aimless exploration, is now considered a powerful tool. It’s simply the innate desire to know, understand and experience. The question is, “How do we write a prescription for curiosity?”

A study published in the journal Neuron suggests that our brain’s chemistry changes when we become curious. Charan Ranganath, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, was curious to know why people retain some information and forget other information. He asked 19 volunteers to review more than 100 trivia questions and rate each question by how curious they were about the answer.

While these questions and answers were reviewed, researchers monitored brain activity of study participants using a functional MRI. When curiosity was piqued in a participant, the parts of the brain that regulate pleasure and reward lit up. And, when curiosity was high, the scans showed increased activity in the hippocampus, which is involved in the creation of memories. “There’s this basic circuit in the brain that energizes people to go out and get things that are intrinsically rewarding,” Ranganath explains. “This circuit lights up when we get money or candy. It also lights up when we’re curious.”

That’s fascinating. The so-called “reward” for our efforts are, at least, physiologically similar to curiosity and knowing. But it begs three big questions:

1 . At work, how do we motivate our own curiosity?

2. How do we inspire the curiosity of our team members?

3. How do we, as leaders and managers, enable the curiosity of our workforce?

Culling through the thousands of interviews we’ve conducted, and through the millions of data samples collected in the Great Work Study, we searched for examples to answer those questions — for yourself, your team or your entire organization. And, although these may not be the only methods of piquing curiosity in the workplace, they’ll give you a great start.

1. Reframe your constraints

Architect Frank Gehry, best known for building the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, shared what really inspires his curiosity. It’s an unexpected answer: constraints.

Contrary to the way most of us think about curiosity — that it is a product of freethinking — Gehry suggests that constraints are necessary for creativity and curiosity. He names one of his greatest architectural challenges as the time he was asked to design a house with zero constraints. “I had a horrible time with it,” he said. “It’s better to have some problem to work on. I think we turn those constraints into action.”

Think about your constraints for a moment. Why do they exist? How can you overcome them or use them to your advantage?

2. Invite curious questions

While assessing 10,000 cases, researchers at the O.C. Tanner Institute found that a whopping 88 percent of award-winning work projects began with provoking questions. They were questions like “Why can’t we?” or, “What if we could?” Even more, the same study found that workers who are curious enough to go see how their work is being received are 17 times more likely to be passionate about their work.

Tired of unproductive or predictable brainstorming sessions? Gather your team for a provoking question session. What could we do that people would love? Who are the people who benefit from our work? What do they like least about our work? What one thing could we add or remove from our work product that someone would appreciate?

3. Create a culture of curiosity

Curiosity comes in many forms. It may be a team in an organization seeing if it can be more efficient. It might be a person in a company, at any level, who wants to “find out” if they have a new product idea, a better way or a more fitting position that fulfills their passion. And none of these curiosities can lead to innovation unless two things happen.

Leaders must make room for questions: Organizations that encourage their people to raise questions, pursue open dialogue and suggest alternatives attract employees who are willing to empty their pockets of ideas and stimulate curiosity.

Effort and results need to be recognized: In organizations that have strong recognition practices, 79 percent of employees report being “engaged.” Only 25 percent of employees at companies with weak recognition practices report being “engaged.” And 65 percent of employees who consistently perform award-winning work choose to work at companies with great recognition practices. When people question the status quo and create new value, they need to know it was appreciated.

Curiosity, as proven by Andrew Jin, is a proverbial “dark horse” in the world of business. We’ve seen it win. We’ve seen it lose. However, the once naïve or dangerous practice of searching for knowledge or experience, without having all the specifics is something we all should take seriously. Why? Because ambition won’t necessarily answer the question “What comes next?” Curiosity will. And the only real danger in curiosity is not exploring it — because somebody else will.

David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom work with the O.C. Tanner Institute. Learn more about The New York Times best-seller "Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love" (McGraw-Hill) at www.greatwork.com.