“The most fruitful and natural exercise for our minds is, in my opinion, conversation.” — Michel de Montaigne, Of The Art Of Conference
As we, Eitan Reich and Mark Storm, are planning for a transformative learning program to help senior managers and executive leaders make sense of the world, we often share our thoughts and ideas, and talk about our own experiences. Our conversations meander in many directions and frequently run into dead-end streets. We like to share them anyway because we believe that ‘thinking out loud’ is not only “the most fruitful and natural exercise for our minds” but also leads to the most beautiful results, in the end…
In our first conversation, we talk about the importance of ‘not knowing’ and how this can be a great starting point for ‘being curious.’ There is, of course, nothing new about curiosity but within the context of today’s interconnected and complex world, it gets a whole new meaning. We also ‘think out loud’ about the fluency of being and doing.
Not knowing, knowing yourself
Getting comfortable with living in a state of continually becoming, a ‘perpetual beta mode,’ is an essential trait for anyone who wants to find their way in the transformative economic, technological and societal shifts we are currently challenged by. It requires you to relentlessly question the things you hear and see, search for alternative viewpoints, postpone judgement and allow yourself not to know all the answers. This might sound easy to do but many of us are so entrenched in our own beliefs — in our view of how the world works — that we don’t even allow alternative views to enter into in our minds. Why should we when we already know all the answers.
In the clip below, Eitan and Mark talk about how we have come to believe that the world is ‘linear’ and neatly arranged in verticals, and how more agile ways of thinking can help us navigate the complexity and non-linearity of the real world. In this real, interconnected world, ‘not knowing’ isn’t a weakness but a given, which shouldn’t stop us from acting. According to Eitan, being a good manager today would be to say, “I don’t know how to solve it but I know how to lead you to a solution.”
Finding your way in a world which resembles Jackson Pollock’s Number 14: Gray demands curiosity. There is an “evolutionary” reason for our curiosity, says Sreekanth Chalasani, a neurobiologist at the Salk Institute of Biological Sciences and founder of its Chalasani Lab. “New information supports better decision making and allows adaptation in a changing environment. Curiosity drives the pool of insight and reflection, and we never know when it will come in handy. Yet curiosity is about the present. Our perceptions, imagination and understanding of today’s world define what we are curious about,” Daniel Egger writes in Future Value Generation (page 9–10). In other words, it is less about what we don’t know than what we already know.
Curiosity may start in the present, it is key for the future. “Questioning and exploring makes old knowledge and perspectives less sticky,” Egger says. “It helps us to reduce the perception of uncertainty, drives us to understand new perspectives, and reduces biased decision making. We might not withhold judgment and may never will, but we can be more conscious. The more we understand different context, the likelier it is that we can generate a more neutral view of the future.”
We will certainly ‘bag’ curiosity as an essential leadership trait for navigating complexity.
“To collect facts in one thing, to discover the meaning of facts, quite another. To ask questions that inherently have no answers. To have an instinct that a cluster of events somehow are related, though the relationship is not clear. Again, not comparison, but connection.” — Anne Michaels, Infinite Gradation (page 45)
Our own curiosity can lead us into strange paths and territories. We started with ways of thinking but ended up in actions, and with the realization we are really talking about a way of being. One where art and business mix up, where thinking and acting are one and the same. One where philosophical journeys and business models combine.
One of the topics we talked about was craftsmanship and the fluency of being and doing. A modern-day example of this is Brunello Cucinelli.
According to Rebecca Mead in a 2010-article for The New Yorker, The Prince of Solomeo — The cashmere utopia of Brunello Cucinelli, Brunello Cucinelli “has distilled an idiosyncratic business philosophy that draws on Renaissance humanism, Senecan stoicism, Benedictine rigor, and the theories of Theodore Levitt, a twentieth-century marketing scholar who argued that the purpose of companies is to keep and serve customers.” He told her he would like to make a profit using ethics, dignity, and morals.
Last year, Luke Leitch visited Cucinelli’s model factory in the heart of Umbria. In The Philosopher King, he notes, “[C]apitalism and Kant don’t always go well together, and pleasing the stock market isn’t Cucinelli’s priority. His ideal growth rate, he says, is 10%: ‘the hedge funds aren’t interested in that but the pension funds are … we want only a smooth growth level. It must be gracious. Everything in this business has to be gracious. Profit is the gift when creation is perfect.’”
Companies like Brunello Cucinelli promote a fresh image of the artisan and have a very important impact on a new generation who are thinking in new and different ways about craftsmanship, says Stefano Micelli, a professor of innovation technology at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University and the author of Futuro Artigiano (The Future Craftsman). But it isn’t about nostalgia or going back to the past. “It’s about the future, technology, and being innovative.”
Next to curiosity, we will add craftsmanship and beauty to the treasure trove of ‘new thinking.’
“Those are the ancient thinkers, philosophers: Socrates, Confucius, Constantine, Palladio. These people are the contemporary figures that left me with a different view of the world. Dostoyevsky, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Kafka, Kennedy and the Pope. At the end of the day, all these great people, what do they focus on? Human dignity. They all talk about being custodians in the world. Hadrian, the emperor said, ‘I feel responsible for the beauty in the world.’” — Brunello Cucinelli in an interview with Om Malik
“In Hesse’s last piece, which she referred to as the ‘rope piece,’ knots are places of disconnection and of made connections; one could say these joinings are places of weakness. But that depends on whether one sees these knots as joining for the first time, or as a kind of repair. Hesse’s knots can only be both,” Anne Michaels, Infinite Gradation