Thomas Edison once visited Luther Burbank, the famed horticulturist, who invited every guest who visited his home to sign the guest book. Each line in the book had a space for the guest’s name, address and special interests. When Edison signed the book, in the space marked “Interested in,” Edison wrote: “Everything!”

Edison, who was awarded more than 1,000 patents, was a prime example of curiosity. He said, “The ideas I use are mostly the ideas of other people who don’t develop them themselves.”

That was an understatement. In his lifetime, Edison invented the incandescent light, the phonograph, the hideaway bed, wax paper, underground electrical wires, an electric railway car, the light socket and light switch, a method for making synthetic rubber from goldenrod plants and the motion picture camera. He also founded the first electric company. Edison refused to let his curiosity be stifled.

“Ideas are somewhat like babies,” said the late management guru Peter Drucker. “They are born small, immature and shapeless. They are promise rather than fulfillment. The creative manager asks, ‘What would be needed to make this embryonic, half-baked, foolish idea into something that makes sense, that is feasible, that is an opportunity for us?’ ”

I like that thinking. It validates all my little scraps of paper and two-word dictations, among them my best ideas in infant form. Developing them and watching them grow, seeing where they go from a seed — and seeing what other bright ideas grow along with them — that’s what gets my creative juices flowing.

“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity,” goes an old saying. It’s pure genius, in my opinion.

Curiosity is a hunger to explore and a delight in discovery. When we are curious, we approach the world with a childlike habit of poking, prodding and asking questions. We are attracted to new experiences. Rather than pursuing an agenda or a desired set of answers, we follow our questions where they lead.

Socially, curiosity lets us really listen to other people because we want to know who they are. We open ourselves to the knowledge and experience they can share with us. We relish having discoveries of our own to share.

The best way to empower your employees is to ask questions that spur their curiosity and creativity.

Challenge the conventional wisdom. Ask questions that move people away from the tried-and-true and help them think more creatively. For example: “What if we give our product away to every 10th caller on Tuesdays?”

Change the perspective. Pose questions that take a higher view of a problem and encourage people to think of the long term or the broader implications. “How will this change affect the competition? What will happen to the marketplace as a result?”

Include the entire organization. Frame questions that address the needs of your organization and the people in it. “If we eliminate unnecessary paperwork, what will happen in the accounting department?”

Spur excitement. Ask questions that get people excited about possibilities and potential (and not afraid of the price of failure). “Do you see any reason why we shouldn’t put this idea into action right away?”

Curiosity goes far beyond the what-ifs — but that’s the best place to start.

Mackay’s Moral: The only question that doesn’t have an answer is the one that is not asked.


Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail