The Childhood Trait That Unlocks Adult Learning

Mar 6 / Ulrik Juul Christensen (Repost from
It was a photographer’s paradise: Antarctica with its otherworldly landscapes of sculpted icebergs and a menagerie of seals, whales, and penguins. Accompanying my family and me on a recent expedition was Erik Malm, who is not only my wife’s cousin, but also a world-class photographer.

After years of taking realistic, National Geographic­­-style photos and publishing several photo books of these images, Erik has developed and perfected his own version of the technique known as “intentional camera movements” (ICM) over the past twenty years. He is one of the few, if not the only, photographer in the world to master its aesthetic in the way he does. This technique captures mood and movement dramatically. 
While I still enjoy practicing traditional wildlife photography, my marine biologist daughter Caroline, who has a minor in photography and photojournalism, has been fortunate to have Erik coach her in his special ICM technique over several polar expeditions.

On one particular day, we weren’t discussing camera shots and settings. We were talking about, of all things, ChatGPT and GPT-4 search capabilities. “I’m not using Google anymore,” I told Erik.

To explain why, I pulled up ChatGPT on my phone and asked it to explain ICM. Within seconds, ChatGPT produced an answer—not just a simple definition, but a nuanced description that explained the general technique quite well. Erik reacted the same way as most people when they see fairly general responses—mildly impressed, but not overly so. I continued to prompt it to explain how Erik’s technique differs from general ICM; this time, ChatGPT nearly hit the nail on the head. Erik’s eyes widened as he read the text on the screen. “So, which app do I download for that?” he asked me.

Curiosity—the Key to Unlock Learning

Erik’s first-time interaction with ChatGPT captured an important moment in the learning life of this 60-year-old world-class photographer, whose varied background also includes being a professional clarinetist and symphony orchestra conductor—as well as growing and selling his family company that designs some of the best ergonomic office chairs in the world. That background, alone, would attest to him having a growth mindset, which fosters lifelong learning to continuously build and advance one’s skills. As author and researcher Carol Dweck found, people with a growth mindset harness the power of believing that they can learn, and so, they do. This contrasts with those who have a fixed mindset, which locks them within the rigid limits of what they have always done.

As part of having a growth mindset, Erik had to connect with another aspect of his personality. Curiosity. An inborn human trait, curiosity is how we grow and learn as children for whom everything is new and different. Sadly, schools are infamous for quashing curiosity as young children are taught to conform to expectations (curricula, grades, schedules, and seat time) as well as the practical constraints of one teacher in a classroom of 30 students. The workplace is another environment where conformity (“just get it done”) does not encourage curiosity to explore and risk failure, which is inevitable at first when people experiment and innovate.

It’s time for all of us, especially as business leaders, to encourage curiosity among employees who will need to engage in lifelong learning to build their knowledge and skills for the future of work. People will need far more than additional technical skills, such as using a new software platform or computer program. Increasingly, the durable skills (what are erroneously called “soft skills”) of creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication will be highly valued among humans as more jobs are being changed and outmoded by generative AI and other advanced technologies.

Amid such workplace challenges, curiosity may actually save the day.

Stefaan von Hooydonk, the former chief learning officer of Cognizant and founder of the Global Curiosity Institute, believes deeply in the power of curiosity. He explained in a recent conversation that curiosity can lead people in two directions. On one path, they push more deeply into a particular area, becoming specialists where they already excel. The second path, however, follows where curiosity leads. People look beyond what they already know and explore new, unfamiliar areas. The higher up one goes in an organization, the more they need broad-based curiosity, von Hooydonk said.

But here’s the challenge for business leaders. The people within their organizations may have largely lost their curiosity. It’s not that they didn’t have it as children; rather 12 years of primary and secondary education, and most likely college afterwards, diminished this inborn ability. That’s why von Hooydonk estimates that about 15 percent of people in an organization are naturally curious, while the other 85 percent need managers, processes, and learning opportunities that help drive them toward developing a growth mindset.

For leaders and organizations, having employees who exercise their curiosity regularly is a competitive advantage. This is the sought-after talent who exhibit learning agility. They’ll not only extrapolate lessons learned from prior experiences, but willingly move beyond them to ideate and innovate. In other words, success will not be judged on what was learned in the past, but rather what can be learned in the future.

Following Where Curiosity Leads

By being curious, Erik moved beyond his existing areas of mastery (photography, music, entrepreneurship) and ventured into what was unknown for him. Without ego or the need to impress, Erik became almost childlike as he looked over my shoulder at ChatGPT’s explanation of his field of expertise and showed excitement when he asked how to download the app. This is exactly the attitude that needs to be modeled and encouraged in today’s rapidly changing workplace.

Just like Erik, people will need curiosity to embrace the unknown, along with resilience (otherwise known as grit) to overcome the fear factor that can be induced by change. Or, in the words of Hondo, from the popular American TV series SWAT, they will need to “stay liquid.”

The world of work will be far more “liquid” in the future, with high stakes for adapting to changing demands and circumstances. Jobs will no longer have the “rinse and repeat” of routine tasks and duties, but rather responsibilities will change constantly. More jobs will be high stakes, and not just those we associate with high risks—such as aviation, medicine, first responders, and the military, where the difference between avoiding and committing errors is literally life or death. More jobs will require precision to produce the quality and satisfaction that maintains and builds a competitive edge—truly the business equivalent of life or death.

The future will not be a predictable world of yes/no answers, based on what was true in the past. Rather, we will confront many more gray zones, including ethics and morality. Decisions will be complex and complicated, based on projected consequences both seen and unseen.

To rise to these challenges of the future, people will have to revert to the natural ability of their childhoods—curiosity—to unlock their potential and lead them on a path of lifelong learning.

Author: Ulrik Juul Christensen
Original Post Date: March 4, 2024