What I learned is that there appears to be a part of our brain called the ventral striatum, that’s the technical term, or you also could call it the seeking system. And this system is urging us to explore the boundaries of what we know. It’s urging us to be curious. And, by the way, I mean innately. I mean children six months old, three months old. If you give them some toy they love it for a little while. As they get used to it, your car keys become more interesting. It’s the new and it’s the desire to learn.
Some people might call it a short attention span, like that of a goldfish. The whole “hey look, a castle” kind of outlook on life. Having endured life with a toddler/preschooler these last couple years, I can certainly attest to a child’s natural curiosity. Nothing short of stimulating screen time (which is a whole other conversation for another day) will hold her attention for more than a few minutes at a time.
Over time, modern society attempts to train this habit out of us so that we can focus on the task at hand. Here’s the one thing I need you to do, so just do that one thing until it’s done. Whether you work in a warehouse or a cubicle, the same fundamental principle applies. I remember when I used to work as an accounts payable clerk for an electronics chain. My job was to match supplier invoices with packing slips. Piles of them. Mountains of them. Over and over again.
By the end of the day, I felt like ripping my arm off and throwing it at a window. A window that I would not see until the end of my shift.
Daniel Cable is the chair and professor at Organisational Behaviour Faculty, and he is also the author of Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do. He has come to recognize that the novelty-seeking behavior we see in children persists in adults but is actively suppressed. Hey! Pay attention! Focus on this one thing. And get the job done. Again and again.
For Henry Ford, curiosity was a bug, it was a problem and he needed to stamp it out in the name of reliability and quality. Now I’m not saying we’re still acting just like the 1900s, but I am saying that’s when we cut our teeth on management practices and the way we use control systems and punishments and extrinsic rewards to kind of cull people out into doing really repeated and sometimes tedious tasks again and again and again without having a sense of the bigger picture or who uses the final product.
This is a big part of the reason why working at a small Internet startup can feel so much more exciting and so much more invigorating than working at a larger multinational corporation. You feel less like a cog in a machine, and more like you’re a part of a dynamic organism. Your role is not “burned into your flesh,” as Daniel Cable puts it, so what you bring to the table can be much more fluid.
It’s about going beyond simply turning a profit to attempting to make a difference in people’s lives. This is true regardless of your chosen vocation, because everyone wants their work to mean something.
In order to be happy with the work you do, you need to enjoy a sense of perceived progress and control. When you’re just a worker bee assigned a very specific set of tasks that you must repeat over and over again, with no real connection for why you’re doing what you’re doing, you experience neither. You can feel like a hamster on a wheel. That’s why you’re bored.
It is by nurturing our innate curiosity that we can cultivate a culture where people can figure things out rather than simply be told what to do. And we’ll all be happier for it. The full Big Think talk by Daniel Cable, where these excerpts were extracted, is embedded below.