What makes you a good photographer? If you say it’s your “eye,” it’d be hard to argue. If you say it’s your technical skill, I’d agree that certainly helps. If you say it’s your equipment … I’d probably ask you to rethink your career choice.
But if I had to select one single thing that has probably driven my photography more than anything else over the years, it would have to be my sense of curiosity. This kind of thing is hard to describe and even harder to measure. We’re talking about the kinds of skills that aren’t normally cultivated in a classroom…and in fact, are often discouraged. That means as adults, we’re preprogrammed to ignore our curiosity.
Having said that, researchers have found that curiosity is one of the most valuable attributes in the workplace. But here again, businesses don’t always encourage it in employees, even though leaders typically admit to seeing its value. Why not?
Curiosity in Corporate America
It helps to think of a different situation: the military. In the armed forces, curiosity is often actively discouraged in the rank-and-file. At the bottom rungs of the ladder, soldiers are more likely to be hammered with the importance of strictly obeying authority and rigidly adhering to the chain of command. Those at the top of the food chain are looking at the big picture; people in the field are taught to almost mindlessly trust the judgement of the superiors, and with good reason: people’s lives can depend on it.
Unfortunately, that type of indoctrination tends to follow soldiers as they advance in rank…and since the only way to get to the top is to start at the bottom and work your way up, officers commonly put more faith in concrete things like discipline than in an abstract concepts like curiosity.
More than a few businesses today follow this same philosophy (undoubtedly exacerbated by managers with military backgrounds). But even within the military complex, there are those who preach the value of curiosity. An informative article in The Military Leader points out that “…curiosity communicates certain aspects of who you are as a leader or member of a team.” One of the biggest benefits a sense of curiosity offers employees, leaders and businesses is innovation.
Studies by the Harvard Business Review rank curiosity as important as intelligence, and show how an increase in curiosity leads to an increase in creativity…which in turn leads to innovation, improvements in the workplace, and better solutions to problems.
It’s particularly relevant for those of us in creative fields. A sense of curiosity can benefit a photographer or other artist in multiple ways:
- We notice things that others are oblivious to. Clouds, for example: who besides meteorologists and artists ever looks at clouds? Yet clouds are fascinatingly diverse and beautiful to watch. There’s so much in the every day world that most people bypass … but curious people can’t.
- We look for new ways of seeing normally. Again, most of our professional work isn’t shooting the out-of-the-ordinary; rather, we’re constantly looking for subtle new ways to see the same things. The best wedding photogs, for example, don’t shoot people: they capture the emotions.
- We push the limits of our equipment. Auto-mode is for people who take pictures; as photographers, we’re trying to solidify everything we’re seeing in a way that can be shared with others. Sometimes that means going outside the bounds of the user manual.
- We don’t stop. For an artist, “the best I can do” is merely the best we’ve done to date. There’s always something else to try—it may work, it may not, but it will probably lead to something else, either way.
The Trait that Keeps on Giving
As relevant as all this is, it’s still just the tip of the Curiosity Benefits iceberg. Studies show that curiosity can increase worker productivity, foster better communication, help reduce conflict, and more. People who are encouraged to practice curiosity are more likely, for example, to share information and listen to their peers. In a competitive workplace, emphasis is placed on finding solutions that help the finder’s position. A shared sense of curiosity, on the other hand, is less concerned with receiving individual credit, and more apt to focus on finding the best answer, period.
Children—and artists—are curious by nature. But a test-oriented education system and a head-down work experience can snuff out that curiosity by the time some of us get to adulthood. It’s never too late to recapture it, though.
Being curious typically means stepping out of your comfort zone, but willingness to learn is actually a good thing, according to successful entrepreneurs. Take small steps. Start slowly by training yourself to ask questions. As you gain confidence, sticking your neck out for a new idea will become easier. Keep moving forward, and you’ll soon find that curiosity becomes a way of life. And your art will benefit.