The Importance of Cultivating Curiosity

After graduation, students often don't apply this intellectual asset to their careers, even though satisfying job choices are tightly correlated with it, writes Mike O'Connor.

May 16, 2019
 
 
Istockphoto.com/Nikolamirejovska

In the coming weeks, millions of college students will transition from educational consumers to economic producers as they leave their respective campuses to join the work force. Despite all the intricacies involved in finding a fulfilling career, I have found students receive oversimplified and contradictory advice regarding career selection:

  • “Start in consulting and then you can go anywhere.”
  • “Major does not equal career … major in anything you want.”
  • Or the one I find most frustrating: “Just follow your passion!”

Without clear criteria for making informed career choices, it's no wonder many students place so much value on, and default to, getting a job with a prestigious, name-brand organization. Every fall, my calendar is filled with students interested in going into consulting -- who can’t even articulate what the profession is, let alone why they want to go into it. And I inevitably field requests from their friends just a year or two later lamenting their first career choice.

When I speak to these young alums, I find they're often not using one of the greatest assets they applied during their time in college: intellectual curiosity. From my vantage point, satisfying career choices are tightly correlated with curiosity -- and separating from one from the other is difficult, if not impossible.

In my role, I’m struck by the contrast in mind-set between wide-eyed, excited seniors in the throes of contemplative career decisions and the discouraged alums just a year or two removed from college, second-guessing their choices. While the stories don’t always repeat, they sound quite similar. Common symptoms of “missed the boat” syndrome include:

  • feeling that one’s first job won’t lead anywhere,
  • a lack of connection to work and/or its meaning,
  • risk aversion and reluctance to get out of one’s comfort zone, and
  • FOMO (fear of missing out) on the successes (real or perceived) enjoyed by peers.

Most often, young alums don’t have the perspective to realize that the majority of educated adults have gone through some version of what they’re experiencing and that such periods are more like blips in an upward trend line than signs of a crash. But such assurances do little to remove the sting from the struggle, and the emotional toll is real.

In my conversations with such graduates, I toe the line between empathetic listener and proactive life coach, channeling my inner Tony Robbins as I search for sparks of excitement and curiosity. More often than not, I find the person demonstrates those qualities if I shut up, actively listen and pepper in the occasional question or insight that does some combination of validating their struggles and challenging their assumptions while helping them work toward their goals.

When I find it those sparks -- or rather, when we find them together -- the advice I give is usually a variation of an approach they’ve considered before, yet it’s framed in a way that builds on their kindling enthusiasm. From here, we work out a game plan, and they generally walk away feeling somewhat reassured and empowered.

And what increasingly stands out to me after dozens of such encounters is that curiosity is the vehicle that transports my clients from mini-existential crisis to renewed enthusiasm -- and ultimately the driver that inches them toward sustainably satisfying choices. The importance and benefits of applied curiosity are many, and here are just a few.

Persistence when you run into hurdles or hiccups. In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck lays out the difference between fixed and growth mind-sets. To summarize, people with a fixed mind-set believe their intelligence and talent are set and immobile. In contrast, people with a growth mind-set believe their abilities can be cultivated through dedication and hard work.

A liberal arts education can do much to cultivate a love of learning, and that is reflected in our students and graduates. I’m endlessly fascinated when speaking to seniors about their thesis projects -- so impressed by the ingenuity, grit and intellectual curiosity they apply to complete the most comprehensive research projects of their young lives.

What perplexes me, however, is why struggling young graduates are unable to apply this same rigor, creativity and resiliency to their career search one to two years later. I’m not sure where the disconnect occurs, but I have found that when you’re able to help graduates couple their love of learning and innate curiosity with their career search, the results follow.

To this end, I’ve found what and how questions like the following are an approachable way to help students and graduates clarify their thinking, build their own action plan and engage their latent curiosity.

  • “What can you do to increase your chances of breaking into this field?”
  • “How can you stand out in such a competitive market?”
  • “What are you going to do if option X doesn’t work out?”
  • “How is Y a better choice than current role?”

The goal is simply to stoke their latent curiosity and get them to take specific action. When it comes to careers, imperfect plans in motion are generally better than flawless ones at rest.

Motivation to get out of your comfort zone and experiment. As a career counselor, pushing against student comfort zones is part of the job. Trying to get freshman students to hit send on their first networking inquiry, prepping sophomores for their first “real” interview or teaching first-gen seniors how to politely but firmly negotiate offer specifics are challenges every college career counselor is familiar with. But what I’ve found is that students who are genuinely interested and curious about their chosen field are more motivated to take those leaps of faith and persist past inevitable hurdles. They're better able to push past that initial discomfort to track down answers that satiate their curiosity. They’re also more likely to persist if and when they don’t receive the quick positive feedback successful young people are often accustomed too.

More productive and genuine networking conversations. Just about every student knows that they should be networking -- a term students often misunderstand and apply. In competitive fields, it’s not just helpful, but necessary, in securing a position after graduation.

The problem is, many young people don’t approach networking -- or any professional interactions, for that matter -- with the right state of mind. Not long ago, I met with a student who felt his recent networking interactions were “ungenuine and transactional.” As I dug deeper, I learned he’d had 10-plus alumni conversations to prepare for case consulting interviews. But he was so narrowly focused on getting case interview help and alumni endorsements that he didn’t build genuine connections with those in a position to actually help him. Moreover, his tunnel vision made him overlook the more traditional and behavioral-based questions, resulting in his underperformance.

Quite often, students view networking as a zero-sum game rather than a mutually beneficial transaction. In Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, breaks down individual reciprocity styles into three categories: 1) takers, or those who get more than they give, 2) givers, or those who like to give more than they get and help others even when the benefits to others exceeds their personal costs, and 3) matchers, or those who like to balance taking and giving, practicing quid pro quo. As Grant explains, givers tend to use communication tactics like asking questions, signaling vulnerability and seeking advice, which allows them to reduce ego tensions, gather more intelligence and build more impactful relationships. Givers, who focus on adding value to interpersonal relationships, also tend to build bigger and more effective networks.

A Beginner's Mind

So how do we in higher education cultivate this impulse toward curiosity and willingness to push career-comfort boundaries?

For starters, we should make information gathering from experts (i.e., networking) an integrated piece of the college experience, where students are encouraged, incentivized and rewarded for chasing their curiosity. The more we’re able to teach students to network in a genuine way rather than simply as a means to an end, the more successful our graduates will ultimately be.

Various technology products can help simplify and augment the networking process. PeopleGrove, for instance, empowers colleges to build institution-specific networks leveraging aspects of LinkedIn’s highly targeted search and connection features with traditional alumni networks. Speednetworking.com uses a proprietary algorithm and underlying technology to match students by customizable criteria and support in-person networking events. Yet it’s important to remember that such tools are ultimately only as effective as the faculty members and administrators who implement them across their institutions.

We must also reinforce grit and resiliency through academic and co-curricular experiences while teaching students how to apply curiosity to their work-life and career search. The latter is easier said than done. Here, I find life-design coaching strategies like career prototyping (or short-term career experiments) and a bias toward action (such as networking meetings with alums) are far superior to mere intellectualization and reflection. The more we can encourage students to take risks while the stakes are low, the faster they’re able to learn, broaden their skill sets, enhance their marketability and grow. For these reasons, I’m of the opinion that encouraging young adults to experiment with different jobs is generally a good risk that outweighs the prospect of them being viewed as a job hopper.

In sum, in a job that allows me to interface with successful alums from a variety of fields, I find the happiest, and oftentimes most successful, are the insatiably curious. They are obsessed with solving big problems, see their work serving a larger purpose and have the distinct ability to view their work and the world from a myriad of lenses. Zen Buddhism refers to shoshin, meaning a “beginner’s mind” -- an attitude of openness, eagerness and lack of preconception. It encompasses the ability to look at things from new perspectives and see things from a novice point of view. While we might not all be capable of inching every student toward the path of enlightenment, we can lean on them to actively apply their curiosity to their career pursuits.

Bio

Mike O’Connor is the dean of the Center for Career, Life and Community Engagement at Lawrence University.

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