Good morning, Mr. Magpie
How are we today?
They’ve stolen all my magic
And took my melody
— Radiohead, Good Morning Mr. Magpie
Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of the smart question nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant. Pursuing it is liable to bring you into conflict with authority at some point.
— Ian Leslie, Curious
The more fully we believe a model is reality, the more rigid the model becomes. And the more rigid it becomes, the more it confines us.
— Gordon MacKenzie, Orbiting the Giant Hairball
From the seat of a bicycle ideas are shaken loose and mashed up. As the mechanics of the body enable pedalling and steering, doors into the unconscious are unlocked. Fast thinking and slow blend together. The mind becomes a melting pot, forming ideas, signalling calls to personal action. No one knew this better than Tullio Campagnolo. A racing cyclist during the 1920s, Campagnolo would go on to establish one of the most famous marques in cycling, accumulating patent after patent along the way. The company retains a fiercely loyal following. Its bike parts are recognised both for the quality of their engineering and their aesthetic appeal. Some have become collectors’ items.
As a racing cyclist himself, Campagnolo was confronted with the conundrum that affected all his contemporary giants of the road. The rear wheel of a bicycle includes a central hub. Cogs are attached to this which determine the gearing on the bike. During the 1920s, racing bicycles were fitted with one cog on each side of the rear wheel hub. To change gear, selecting something more suited to the terrain being traversed, necessitated stopping entirely. The rider would have to dismount, remove the rear wheel of the bike, turn it around, reattach it to the frame and ensure the chain was correctly fitted to the new cog. This was fiddly. It consumed valuable time. Climbing a mountain might require two changes; one for the ascent, the other for the descent.
Campagnolo had insider experience. He accumulated knowledge as a member of the peloton, constantly having to switch the gears on his bicycle. He was prompted by both frustration and curiosity to seek out more effective ways of making the change. Losing a race because he could not loosen a wing nut in freezing conditions gave added impetus to his quest. So began a lifetime of innovation. His first product, still seen on many bicycles today, was the quick release skewer, which allowed for the rapid removal of a wheel from the bike frame. A sliding hub and a derailleur, which precluded the need to remove the rear wheel to change gears, soon followed.
Campagnolo’s story illustrates a point made by Ian Leslie in his excellent book, Curious. Knowledge and curiosity feed off one another. Foundational knowledge – what the individual already knows – serves as a platform for curiosity. Curiosity itself services the individual’s desire to acquire more knowledge. The curious individual constantly moves to the boundaries of their knowledge. In Not Knowing, their award-winning new book, Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner observe that ‘The edge is the place where something new can emerge. We call this Not Knowing.’ We seek to bridge our knowledge gaps through curiosity, combinatory play and serendipity.
The story of the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, and their contribution to the history of aviation offers another good example. The Wrights possessed foundational knowledge and skills. They were experienced at working with machines like printing presses and motors. More tellingly, perhaps, they had extensive experience with the bicycle too, as did their workshop collaborator Charlie Taylor. They were able to draw on their knowledge about balance and stability, derived from their cycling experience, and apply it in another context. Using their existing knowledge as a basis, they allowed their curiosity to lead them into an exploration of controlled and powered human flight and resolve the problems with which they challenged themselves. As Ian Sanders puts it in his essay, The Art of Curiosity, ‘Being curious is often about shifting your mindset to ask a really simple question: what if?’
Regardless of industry or sector, organisations that want to thrive, to survive, need to be breeding grounds for curiosity. They need to be responsive and adaptive, open to the serendipitous occurrence, experimental and open-minded. Innovation rarely happens at the closely regimented conveyor belt. In that environment, there is little time to lift your head up and observe what else is going on around you, to wonder, to daydream, to mash up ideas in the maelstrom of creative thoughts.
Both curiosity and combinatory play tend to be characteristics of neo-generalists. A compelling reason to introduce a few of them into the domain of hyperspecialism.
The bricoleur has an exploratory mindset, working at the edge between knowing and Not Knowing, constantly improvising and spontaneously engaging with the surrounding environment. For a bricoleur the process is as important as the end result.
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing
Hyperthinkers are curious, want to learn and discover new things; they marvel at the wonders all around them. This curiosity can be innate or it can be developed through education, but the inner drive to discover and learn, the ability to ask questions, challenge preconceptions and get genuinely excited about the discovery of something new are all marks of the hyperthinker.
— Philip Weiss, HyperThinking
Goals in both life and career are important; it’s good to have a vision of where you’re headed. But stay open minded. Instead of having a fixed linear path for how to get there, embrace randomness and serendipity along the way.
— Ian Sanders, On Being Curious
a deathful realm of fact
— e. e. cummings, Selected Poems