The Most Powerful Question in the World

“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious” Albert Einstein

One question has been the source of almost all scientific, creative, and philosophical discovery and progress since the beginning of time. And it happens to be  my favorite question. Just two words: what if?

What if we try it this way? What if it’s not X that’s causing Y? What would happen if we simply stopped doing that? What if we substituted B for A?

It’s also a scary question – perhaps the source of all fear. What if this doesn’t work? What if they don’t like it? What if I’m wrong?

Like it or not, this is the question that defines you, at work and in the rest of your life.

I’ve written about the Big Five personality traits before.  The one in charge of your reaction to “what if” questions is Openness. In psychology, openness is a combination of six facets, or dimensions, including active imagination (fantasy), aesthetic sensitivity, attentiveness to inner feelings, preference for variety, and intellectual curiosity. Both artists and scientists tend to score higher in openness on psychometric assessments. Openness factors in your creative life, of course, but it’s also part of what you should look for when hiring for your team.

People who score high in openness are curious people; they love to expand their knowledge. Often, their second favorite question (after what if) is why? Why do we do it that way? Why do people like that better? Why does it matter that part A goes on before part B? Curious people learn faster and deeper because they seek to understand why decisions are made. Yes, this can drive you crazy, whether you’re dealing with a three-year-old at the zoo or an intern who has a never-ending stream of questions about a process. Invest in answering; understanding how and why things work means they’ll be more likely to remember and to be able to fix things when they break.

Curious people don’t always accept the status quo. Once they understand why, they go back to wondering what if. They tinker with ideas, things, and processes.  They skip steps to see what happens. They start in the middle or work backwards to see how that affects the outcome. They get bored or impatient and try another approach they think might work. Without permission, by the way.

How did reading that last paragraph make you feel?  Did a cold shiver run down your spine? That’s okay. Curiosity can drive you crazy. It can also drive you forward. In fact, it may be the only thing that will. That means you need curious, open and “what if” people on your team. No matter how crazy they make you. They are the ones who will question authority, conventional wisdom, and the bean counters.

They are also more empathetic and aware of their own feelings.  They can put themselves in the minds of your customers more easily and imagine how someone might react to the new product or concept. They learn faster and more eagerly and are more interested in personal growth and development. They will be interested in how to do things better, faster, and more creatively than the workers who simply do as they’re told.

If you want to hire more curious people, here are some tips. A great way to determine whether someone is curious is to ask questions in the interview: “Tell me something you have taught yourself in the last six months. How did you go about teaching yourself this new skill or idea, and what was the result?” or this: “What are you reading right now?  Why does that interest you?”

You can also let interviewees ask questions.  Curious and open people will ask interesting questions.  They’ll ask follow on questions.  They’ll be interested in what you do and why you do it. They’re easy to spot.

Sure, they may drive you crazy sometimes after you hire them. But you’ll be glad you brought them on.








1 thought on “The Most Powerful Question in the World

  1. […] In my last post, I wrote about how curious and open people are invaluable to your team.  I made a strong case for hiring people who are intellectually curious and open to new ideas – avid for them, even. But are there times when a curious person is not the ideal addition to your team?  The answer is yes. […]


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