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How to remain curious?
The idea of constant change is exhausting, how to stay curious when everything changes all the time
By setting clear priorities, starting to monotask, and regularly sharing I think digital folks can set themselves up to be curious in a way that is sustainable (and enjoyable) over the long term.
In my Digital Works podcast conversations I regularly ask the people I speak to about what the most important skill, or trait, or attribute is for successful digital working.
The answers vary (a bit) but the one thing that everyone mentions is the importance of curiosity.
“curiosity is the starting point of any learning process. I think without curiosity, people just stand still”
Curiosity leads to high-performing teams that are very collaborative and open to change.
The culture sector needs curious people.
I’ve written before on how you might cultivate a culture of curiosity. But the more time I spend with folks working in (and not in) the cultural sector the more I have come to realise that being curious is perhaps not the problem, it’s sustaining curiosity that is hard.
In a recent chat with ACMI CEO, Seb Chan he hints at why this might be.
“it's not a simple point A to B process at all. There is no ‘B’, in my view of it. […] So it's about becoming comfortable with volatility and having an interest and optimism about having agency within that technological space to see and be curious about where things might head”
This is a difficult idea to embrace.
The idea that you are not heading towards some reassuring (even if it’s distant) end point, but instead trying to move make progress along a never-ending continuum.
Most of the people I know working in digital roles are doing so because they find this stuff interesting. They are excited by new things - ideas, tools, ways of working. They like understanding how new things could be used by their organisations.
But, when the pace of change feels to be exponentially increasing, and resources are - in tandem - reducing, not becoming overwhelmed and burnt out is a challenge.
Especially in the context of the pandemic, and the repercussions that we’re all still dealing with.
“I think we are still suffering the burnout of the last two years. Certainly my team is, and that's something I recognize. I think what we're dealing with now is possibly the fallout of lots of what happened then in terms of people just having, you know, a lot to do and continually a lot to deal with”
Curiosity is a habit
The danger is with things feeling difficult and overwhelming that we retreat into working in a way that feels very controlled.
And that usually doesn’t involve a whole lot of new.
In this scenario there is a danger of curiosity atrophying. I think of curiosity as a muscle or a habit, the more regularly curious you are, the easier and more comfortable it is to be curious, and the stronger your curiosity becomes.
Filtering and Prioritising
The role of digital folks in the cultural sector still comes with a hefty slice of needing to be a cheerleader.
The case for digital is one that needs to be made over and over again.
“after launching the content strategy we did a bit of a roadshow and everyone was really excited and we were like, cool, we've got buy-in, we've done it <laugh> it's all good.
And then a year later, two years later, 50% of the staff are different and you think, okay, we have to keep doing this”
The responsibilities of people with a digital focus still involves a lot of advocacy and change-making.
Most if not all the people I know working in digitally-focused roles in institutions are very much surrounded by non-digital mindsets, processes, structures, and culture.
In this context it is easy to become overwhelmed with what you should be familiarising yourself with and where you should be directing your attention. This is alongside the fact that ‘digital’ itself is a very loosely (unhelpfully so) defined area of specialism.
I have observed that the most effective digital teams (and organisations generally) are where there is a clear shared understanding of what is important and why.
This relates to messier realities around leadership, culture, purpose, values, and strategy that are probably largely out of your control.
It’s far more straightforward to decide what is and isn’t worth your time and attention if you have a joined-up sense of where you’re heading and the reasons for doing so.
Sadly in many organisations this clarity doesn’t exist, or there are different competing priorities.
Even if you are working in an organisation that doesn’t have this clarity it should be possible for you to form a version of this on a team or departmental level.
Having principles, objectives, and goals that are shared and clearly communicated will give guidance on what to focus on, but also allows you to start to see what not to focus on.
With this framework in place it will be easier to prioritise, and in turn remaining curious about whatever things you’ve decided are important is a much more manageable task.
Studies have shown that about 2.5% of humans can successfully multitask. The other 97.5% cannot.
Unfortunately the nature of working in a cultural organisation, and in a knowledge-based job in 2023, means that multitasking is probably how you exist for most of the time.
I’d really urge you to try and stop it.
Multitasking just means you’re doing lots of things badly. It’s also stressing you out.
If you can switch monotasking you will almost immediately stop feeling so overwhelmed (trust me!).
Multitasking negatively impacts our ability to learn, and learning and curiosity are inherently linked. So by starting to monotask it also means you can be curious in a much more focused, enjoyable, productive way.
Being curious in a vaccuum is boring and ultimately demotivating.
When you can share what you’ve discovered it sparks feedback, further discussions and thinking which rewards your initial curiosity.
Humans are reward-based creatures, we do things that make us feel good.
Regularly sharing what you’ve learned, through formal and informal structures is something that I think is part of every healthily curious team culture. Whether that’s through blogging, weeknotes, show and tell sessions, lunch and learns, or simply having informal but regular chances to discuss things with colleagues.
Also engaging in the wider discourse around whatever it is you’re being curious about can be a great way to unlock new avenues of exploration, expand your network, and consolidate (or challenge) what you’ve learned.
Working in digitally focused roles can be overwhelming, but curiosity is essential for good work to happen. And for your skills and knowledge to remain relevant and up to date.
By setting clear, shared priorities and using those to ignore the things that aren’t important, by focusing on one thing at a time, and by being willing to share and discuss what you’re learning I think you can set yourself up to be effectively curious in a way that’ll still be manageable and valid in 5, 10, or even 20 years from now (famous last words as we welcome the AI apocalypse, but that’s a subject for another day).
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