- Why can intellectual curiosity change the world but not necessarily make it better?
- Why should we consider shifting from the pursuit of the “Cool” to include the pursuit of the “Good”?
Oftentimes, when I look at a job description for just about any industry and my eyes move down to the “qualifications” the candidate should bring, I notice this one bullet that reads something like “strong intellectual curiosity.” Back in the day I thought this simply referred to the idea of being interested in as many things as possible. Later, when I got into consulting, I realized it referred more to the ability to tolerate and endure boring projects when you were staffed in something that could not be further from intellectually stimulating to you. For instance, if you were originally passionate about media and technology companies in Silicon Valley, but got assigned to work for six months at a mining company in Canada or a wood polish manufacturer in the U.S. Midwest, having “intellectual curiosity” meant that you would be less likely to jump off your hotel window on a depressing, cloudy Wisconsin Sunday afternoon.
But today I don’t want to talk about intellectual curiosity as a mere ability to endure the inane. Instead, I want to examine it in its classical sense as what most would consider a very positive driving force for intelligent people to engage in productive activity. However, I want to assert that for recent centuries it may have been dangerously overrated just about everywhere in the world… at the expense of something more important. I will argue that despite the marvelous inventions that we have been afforded by raw intellectual curiosity (and talent), overall many of us motivated by our talents and intellectual gifts do not necessarily find ourselves happier or at greater inner peace. Something is missing. But what?
- Back to what intellectual curiosity drives us to do. Why do most intelligent people, educated or not, find an interest in one occupation or another? I would argue that if they are not driven merely by the need to earn a living, or by artistic sentiment, or parental expectations, many are driven by their intellect, their mind. What is their goal? Why do they do what they do? Perhaps, they may answer, either because (1) their occupation matches their talents well, (2) they want to just create or do something “cool and interesting” or (3) they just wanted to overcome a challenge and feel proud for it. There’s certainly nothing wrong with any of that, as far as I can tell.
- Fast forward to the year 2012. The present. We have billions of intellectually curious people driven to working in millions of companies creating gazillions of products. Tons of stuff everywhere. Lots of cool stuff, too. Then the alarm bells of sustainability ring: too much stuff = too much waste = too much pollution, etc. everything’s going downhill from there. Blow the trumpets, in come our small army of the Good Generation to save as much as we can. Bring in the philanthrocapitalists, the impact investors, the social entrepreneurs, the NGOs and super-responsible corporations, and so on and so forth. You’ve heard that tune more than enough and it is not what I am concerned about today.
- What I am concerned about is this question: for every intelligent person of the Good Generation who wakes up to her conscience one day and recognizes the urgency of our big, big problems, and who decides to take up arms and engage in whatever she can to make things better, why are there so many more people (so many, many more), who are perfectly content to go about business as usual? They have lunch with their Good Generation friends. They even go to their children’s Bar Mitzvahs. But then they just put on the same clothes, go to the same job inteview, and aspire to work at the same companies that do little to nothing to help solve these so-called big problems. They may even contribute to causing these problems. For example, why is it that in the case of a modern business school, about 1-2% of students go into the “do-good” jobs, while 98% go to produce more shoes, more computers, more luxury handbags and more oil? What drives these highly intelligent, highly educated people to read about, hear about, and see scenarios of disaster, and still opt to be part of the status quo?
- In my opinion, at the root it is not a matter of callousness or having wrong values. It’s not even ignorance. What I fear is that most of these intelligent people are mobilized by the power of intellectual curiosity and the call for their talents to be put to use. It is an age-old, awesome power, this intellectual curiosity, which drives us towards the cool and the fashionable, the recognized and the popular. And, in itself, it is also an incredibly dumb power that has reached epidemic proportions.
- This is my claim today: that too many of our current and previous generations aspire for occupations and activities that are a result of being driven on a mostly intellectual basis. This must be accompanied by a healthy anti-dose of what I would call “moral curiosity.” I define the latter as an interest in exploring activities not primarily on their promise to satisfy our minds but to engage our moral sensibilities. In other words, there is nothing wrong with being driven by intellectual questions or sense of wonderment about the world. There is also nothing wrong about seeking jobs where we can solve problems we find interesting and in so contributing to create things that we hope will benefit others, like shampoo. The problem occurs when we lack a strong sense for the moral weight and consequences of our actions and occupations.
- I will go further to say that a disproportionate part of contemporary culture is about valuing accomplishments of the intellect and raw talent without taking into account their moral significance. By “moral” I mean whether the results of certain actions, creations or activities are in any common sense “good” or “right” for us. In short, whether they actually matter in the grand scheme of things. “Wait, aren’t you being judgmental,” you may ask. Not judgmental. But indeed asking us to exercise values judgment more frequently and deliberately! Judging has become a dirty word in our democratic free societies where the highest value is the individual’s right to freedom – freedom to do whatever one wishes. In return, we are told that everything we do is fine, that everything people choose to do is fine, as long as it does not impinge on the freedom of others to do as they please. For this to work, we are asked to cultivate tolerance and give up our right to judge to God or the courts or Bill O’Reilly. A popular snare at people who assert their values goes like this: “Who are you to judge?”. My answer: “I am me, I am a fellow citizen of your society, and I have moral convictions about the good that I am not afraid to trust.”
- What specifically can be gained by a strong sense of moral curiosity to accompany the intellect? Enormously much. Most importantly, the development of an expansive sense of our responsibilities and civic duties to one another in the society that we share. The very ability to think about what those responsibilities and duties should be in the first place. In short, a quest for “the good life”. You may wonder if we could ever find common ground given so many people with so many different minds. What’s more, a common fear is that if we allow too much expression of moral beliefs that we will give in to oppression of the minority by the majority. As a result, we end up paralyzed by intractable differences in values like abortion or same-sex marriages – and choose to be silent for fear of offending or for appearing dogmatic. But we should not let this get to us. We should be glad if we are even able to reason about these issues and see each other’s point of view despite not agreeing. The act of deliberation about values and morals itself is what we should celebrate, not store in our mental closets like a dirty little secret.
- I am arguing that our first duty should not be to wrestle and be fascinated by questions of intellect but by questions of morality. That is at the core of “moral curiosity”. Like a muscle that has long fallen asleep due to lack of use, we have to exercise where we stand with our values before we go off enraptured by the journey our intellect will lead us on. We don’t have to agree on everything. All we have to do is trust ourselves as capable of making sane decisions about what is good and not good for us. I am not talking about cookies vs. carrots. I am talking about whether or not we should condone daily environmental destruction, chronic poverty, inequality and so forth, if the talents to diminish or end these problems reside in each and every one of us given a healthy brain and one or two hands. For those of us who have always sought to use our intellect and talent solely for the purpose of doing “the cool”, please consider the alternative. Consider using your intellect for the purpose of doing “the good” for a change. For this article, I will define “the cool” as simply “the nifty” or “the interesting”. I will define “the good” as “the essential” or “the right thing to do.”
- The nifty is bright and shiny, it is interesting and entertaining. It increases convenience and comfort, it can even reduce pain and suffering. But the nifty alone does not know why it or anything else matters. For that it has to connect to a set of personal convictions about what constitutes the good, the right, and the just. To put it simply: the reason why some people at heart are unhappy is because they have spent their lives mastering the art of pursuing the nifty, but, lacking moral curiosity, never cultivated a commensurately acute sensibility for what is meaningful, i.e., “good” for them.
- Back to the present and my frustration with the 98% above. They choose to join “business as usual” despite deploying their talents to tackle a world of urgent, meaningful problems. I would argue that their motivations lack moral curiosity and instead cater to the satisfaction of their intellects, or “quest for the nifty and the cool”. They do not see the urgency of the big problems not because they do not recognize them as problems. They do not truly recognize the urgency because they have not properly developed their moral compasses to register when something offends an otherwise strong belief. For example, if they had been allowed to cultivate strong beliefs about how the world should be, e.g., without poverty, hunger, etc., their compass would show them when their intellect drives them towards career directions that have nothing to do with or even run opposite to creating a world according to their beliefs. What, other than a poorly developed moral compass, explains why someone, who believes in a world with less disease, at the same time enjoys the intellectual challenge of optimizing operations for a tobacco company? Or, why would anyone believing in animal habitat protection and environmental responsibility on his weekends, go full steam ahead at a career developing oil rigs (possible answer: because it’s cool and interesting to build oil rigs)?
- Read carefully. I did not say such individuals lack morals or good values by any means. I just claim that it is a lack of moral curiosity that makes few of them think twice about the compatibility of their career choices with their deepest felt beliefs. They may not even know their beliefs. This, in return, is due to a culture and society that prize the exercise of individual rights, freedom and leisure, but heaps scorn on discourses about ethics, values and moral beliefs that would otherwise give truer color, context and meaning to individual actions.
- In summary, I rest my case that intellectual curiosity can be healthy as it leads us to discover, explore and cultivate our talents and interests. But given the size of the problems we have created for ourselves over the past few centuries, driven mostly by people pursuing their interests for what they considered neat and cool, this type of curiosity has been given way too much free room to drive us and our actions exclusively. We need to return to a saner place where we drive with one hand on intellect as our steering wheel and the other on moral sensibilities as the gear shift and brake. As long as people prize intellectual pursuit free of internal moral guidance, there will not be the necessary growth in our Good Generation membership base, which we need to truly make a difference. What can you do? Don’t be afraid of making moral judgments at the risk of being called “judgmental” by others. Have the courage to take a stance on what you believe should be and do your best to make it happen. Then invest time in debating with them, with your friends and with your mentors about what it means for you to do right, good and true. If you succeed in understanding your own vision even only half-way, I promise you will still be better – and happier – off in the long run with whatever career your choose… and yes, you probably will make the world a better place.