8 December 2019
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Kill' the genius who told us "curiosity killed the cat"

I was in the privileged position to be in the company of my granddaughter — Sloane Switzer — who is three and a quarter going on 21. As I watch her with my one biased eye I ponder what are the inputs that will make her successful and happy, and not in that order, though

I do believe success — which I define as living up to your potential — is pretty well a good starting point for feeling good about yourself when you eventually finish work.

To get it right at the end of a working life I would argue you have to get a good start when you are young. And while you’d think money, love and nurturing would be really important to kids or us when we start out, the experts say being curious — no matter the income bracket of your family household — is more critical to whether you are on the road to success.

Of course the loving stuff is a great foundation but kids who come from poor homes and emotionally screwed ones, if they are curious, they can eventually stand out from the crowd. So that makes me ask who was the ‘clown’ who coined the proverb that “curiosity killed the cat”?

Apparently this silly ditty has been around for centuries but if you want to point the finger of blame at someone for promoting this stupidity you should put one Bill Shakespeare in the frame.

This is what Wikipedia tells us about the origins of the subject: “‘Curiosity killed the cat’ is a proverb used to warn of the dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation.”

But wait there’s more on the subject.
“The original form of the proverb, now little used, was ‘Care killed the cat’” but care was meant to mean excessive care/worrying results in bad outcomes.

And, okay, that is a defendable proposition, under some circumstances, but this historically recognised condemnation of curiosity has meant too many parents have not encouraged their dear little pets to be the types to incessantly ask: “but why?”

I will admit this week I was a victim of a parent that was too encouraging when her child cried from Melbourne to Sydney on a Virgin flight!

The acrimony towards this control-less parent was palpable and so I hope that kid does grow up to be our PM or a life-saving surgeon some day so I can one day know the misery was worth it!

These hate sessions aside, the importance of being curious has even been underlined by one of the world’s greatest ever investors — Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates.

In his great book entitled Principles he summed up his addiction to curiosity in this piece he wrote called “Open mindedness and the power of not knowing.”

“To make money in the markets, you have to think independently and be humble,” he counseled us.

“You have to be an independent thinker because you can’t make money agreeing with the consensus view, which is already embedded in the price. Yet whenever you’re betting against the consensus there’s a significant probability you’re going to be wrong, so you have to be humble.”

He learnt the value of being curious and to be an asker of questions when he screwed up big time.

“Early in my career I learned this lesson the hard way — through some very painful bad bets,” he explained. “The biggest of these mistakes occurred in 1981–’82, when I became convinced that the U.S. economy was about to fall into a depression.

“My research had led me to believe that, with the Federal Reserve’s tight money policy and lots of debt outstanding, there would be a global wave of debt defaults, and if the Fed tried to handle it by printing money, inflation would accelerate.

“I was so certain that a depression was coming that I proclaimed it in newspaper columns, on TV, even in testimony to Congress.”

When Mexico defaulted on its debt in August 1982, he was sure he was right.

“Boy, was I wrong. What I’d considered improbable was exactly what happened: Fed chairman Paul Volcker’s move to lower interest rates and make money and credit available helped jump-start a bull market in stocks and the U.S. economy’s greatest ever noninflationary growth period!”

So what did Ray learn from this bet that saw him shrink his business, sell his house and borrow from his dad to rent out temporary digs?

“This episode taught me the importance of always fearing being wrong, no matter how confident I am that I’m right,” he said. “As a result, I began seeking out the smartest people I could find who disagreed with me so that I could understand their reasoning. Only after I fully grasped their points of view could I decide to reject or accept them.

“By doing this again and again over the years, not only have I increased my chances of being right, but I have also learned a huge amount.”

He became objectively curious and it opened up his eyes to what has turned him into one of the wealthiest people in the USA.

Aussie but US-based marketing expert, Bob Pritchard, recently looked at how important curiosity is for kids and their progress and there were no signs that it was linked to any premature life-exits!

He says “US researchers studied more than 6,000 kindergartners and found that the kids rated by their parents as more curious and willing to try new things, performed better on maths and reading assessments at school.

“The curious kids did well regardless of socioeconomic background – suggesting there’s something about being curious that helps everyone learn.  Even curious kids who weren’t as persistent or attentive in class did well, and the researchers suspect that curiosity may be a more important trait to foster in children than self-control.”

Academic studies have often linked household income to school performance with kids from poorer homes are:

  • Less ready to start school.
  • They score lower on vocabulary tests and have more trouble concentrating in class.
  • Being chronically hungry, unsafe, or neglected can re-shape a developing child’s brain, dosing it with toxic stress.

Pritchard says: “New research published in The Journal of Pediatric Research in April suggests there may be one simple trait that can help kids learn and succeed in school, regardless of their socioeconomic background.”

“Researchers who looked at the reading and maths scores of 6,200 kindergarteners in 2006 and 2007 found that those kids whose parents rated their children’s behavior as most curious did the best in school, regardless of socioeconomic status. The results were consistent for both boys and girls.”

Of course a poor family might have so many social issues that encouraging kids to be curious might be low on their list of priorities and so it’s probably an avenue that governments should drive down. It might be an outlay for today that could save a lot of pubic sector spending on health and crime-prevention in the future.

For others who are lucky to be in better off households it’s a big lesson that as leaders we should be encouraging our followers — our children, staff and team members — to be more curious because rather than killing your potential, it breathes life into it.

Pritchard says, “I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice and then going away and doing the exact opposite”, which is an interesting take on the pay-off of being curious!

Psychologists advise that when your child asks the first question most ask — “what’s dat?” — it’s the perfect time to show that this is a great question to ask and is the starting point of a potentially beautiful and intellect-growing relationship for both parties. Yep, I reckon kids, and now grandchildren, have taught me a lot about asking about stuff.

I will let Ray Dalio, the founder of the world’s biggest hedge fund with about a cool $US160 billion assets under management have the last words on the value of curiosity.

“People who are successful… approach disagreement with curiosity, not antagonism, and are what I call ‘open-minded and assertive at the same time’. This means that they possess the ability to calmly take in what other people are thinking rather than block it out, and to clearly lay out the reasons why they haven’t reached the same conclusion.”

Dalio’s determined curiosity is his competitive advantage. He explains that “it is a process of being intensely worried about being wrong and asking questions instead of defending a position. It demands that you get over your ego-driven desire to have whatever answer you happen to have in your head be right.”

Ray’s curiosity has not killed him or his business but he’s actually killed them in business and his special brand of curiosity is largely to blame!

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