Why You Need to Ask the “Dumb” Questions

Photo courtesy of SpaceX

According to a recent study from SAS, 72% of managers value curiosity in their employees. More than half (59%) see curiosity as vital to their businesses.

Managers also see curiosity as vital to innovation (62%), problem-solving (55%), and data analysis (52%).

In my line of work as a technology writer, curiosity means asking seemingly dumb questions.

What is that? Why did you create it? What does it mean to you? How does it work? What’s the point of it?

These kinds of deceptively simple questions inspired by curiosity and approached with a beginner’s mind often lead to insightful answers that get to the heart of the most important element of technology: people. People who create, build, and use technology.

In other words, curiosity helps you build a story. And stories are always about people.

When I interviewed Tom Mueller, propulsion chief at SpaceX and inventor of the Merlin rocket engine that takes U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station (for Popular Mechanics), I asked him how a rocket engine works. The answer has been shared 92,000 times and counting on YouTube.

In my first interview with Tony Tether, the then-director of DARPA, the most influential government agency that most people have never heard of, I asked him what the agency’s purpose was. The answer formed the basis of my book The Department of Mad Scientists, the first mass-market book on DARPA and one that a subsequent director, Stephen Walker, kept on his desk for inspiration.

Unfortunately, the SAS study also found that significant numbers of managers feel they can’t consistently recognize curiosity in job candidates (reported by 47% of respondents) and the people they manage (42%).

That’s a problem, as increasing numbers of dissatisfied employees quit their jobs to find better opportunities elsewhere. Organizations that don’t foster curiosity and recognize it as a valuable trait risk losing good talent to their competitors.

The problem needs more attention. That’s why when I wrote articles and helped produce a video for an Economist microsite for SAS, the heart of the project revolved around the following question: “What makes you curious?”

Along with the usual suspects (i.e., the heavy-hitters at SAS guiding multi-million-dollar technology projects), I also spoke with hackathon teams working on shoe-string budgets building amazing things. “For me, collective work, co-creation, is what keeps curiosity alive,” said Maria Rita Marques de Oliveira, head of team Tupã Fit in Brazil, whose project aims to end childhood obesity.

So, the next time you interview someone or meet anyone you’d like to get to know better, ask the dumb, seemingly obvious questions. The answers might surprise you.


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