The Dangers of Curiosity

On the risk, and power, of wondering.

March 31, 2024 • 3 min read

Legends have long warned about the dangers of curiosity. Curiosity led to a bargain with the devil for Faust. Pandora cursed all humanity when she opened a jar full of evils. And we all know what curiosity did to the cat.

In unsafe environments, curiosity really can be dangerous.

An over-curious forager might have eaten unsafe berries, or explored the woods after dark. An inquisitive servant may have opened that door the king insisted he must never open. A ruthless crimelord might not take kindly to his goons’ “five whys”. Legends warning against curiosity arise from a real concern: in a dangerous situation – or organization – it can be much safer to conform than experiment. When people feel unsafe, they are inclined to tread lightly on the well-understood path.

This caution may, at times, be rational. Many situations disincentivize curiosity. However, if you’re trying to do something hard, this can be a serious problem – because great work requires curiosity.

Pandora’s gift

You see, curiosity makes people push. It makes us explore, wonder, and wander; ask, experiment, and reconsider. The curious forge new paths.

Curious people aren’t satisfied with “It’s best practice”. They start ambitious new things, to see if they’re better, then learn from their mistakes. Curious team members are more resilient to change, receive feedback better and make more use of it, and get agitated when they’re not learning – which drives them, over time, to learn very much indeed.

When faced with a problem, curious people are more likely to determine the cause. They’re inclined to develop research questions. “Why” is a powerful systems-thinking tool, and they apply it liberally.

Teams where it’s safe to be curious are also more likely to recognize there’s a problem in the first place. Jeff Bezos likes to say:

When the data and the anecdotes disagree, the anecdotes are usually right.

An incurious – or scared – person tends to take presented data at face value. A curious person, meanwhile, will be annoyed by any discrepancy between what they see and what they hear, then hunt down the truth.

Curiosity drives some to keep trying, even if their first attempt fails, while others write off an uncertain opportunity when they first hit a roadblock.

An LLM that can hallucinate might seem useless to the incurious. Or perhaps it will seem to them as dangerous as Pandora’s jar. But to a curious mind, a stochastic black box full of wonders and a few spikes is catnip. “Might it be useful for this… no? What if we try that, though?”

In time, curiosity and iteration together tend to lead to things that initially seemed impossible.

Yes, please

If all this sounds appealing, and you want to work on a team with other curious people, there are a few things you can do. First, find or build a team with high psychological safety. That is, an environment where people feel safe to try things, ask hard questions, admit mistakes, address disagreements, give feedback, and so on. You know, the opposite of the rule-by-fear crimelord vibe.

Another way to find high-curiosity teams is to work at startups. Startups tend to attract the curious, since a startup by definition is an experiment, and they tend to encourage this mindset for the same reason. Many large organizations lose their most curious people as the bureaucracy and fiefdoms set in, and the slowing pace of shipping starts to disincentivize curious explorers.

However you do it, the key idea is to find a place where it pays to be curious, a team of other smart curious people, and a shared sense of purpose. It’s a simple formula. But surprisingly often, this is how you can do the work of legends.

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© Allen Pike. 👋🏼 You can contact me, or check out Steamclock.