Questioning and Curiosity

“Today, we can’t afford to become adults”

Thoughts on change, questioning, and childlike wonder from MIT’s Joichi Ito

Joichi_ItoIn recent weeks, I’ve been sharing some of the fuller versions of interviews conducted while I was researching and writing A More Beautiful Question. Here are some quotes from my talk with Joichi Ito (@Joi), one of the world’s most respected technologists and the current director of that hothouse of innovation known as the MIT Media Lab.

Ito on why questioning is becoming more important than ever

“There are two important differences in the world now. First, it’s a time of exponential change, so things are different every day. The old model of learning—that you do a lot of it when you’re young and then become an adult who doesn’t learn as much—that just doesn’t work as a productive way of living now. You have to learn new things all the time. And you learn by being curious and by questioning

“The other important difference: in addition to increasing change, you’ve got increasing speed and complexity. In a world that’s complex and fast, things aren’t as predictable as they were before. You must be much more resilient—to change, to failure, to the unexpected. Now you must maintain some of that childlike wonder and that ability to keep questioning and learning through doing.”

On questioning and learning

“If the learner is doing the questioning, it’s very different from when an examiner (or teacher) is doing the questioning. When you have the examiner doing the questioning, you’re in what I would call education mode. I think education is something other people do to you, whereas learning is what you do to yourself. You don’t learn unless you question—but we often don’t teach our kids to question; we teach them to answer our questions, forcing them to learn facts and skills. But since we may not know what facts or skills that kid’s going to need in the future, what you really want is to empower them to be able to find their own answers when they need them.

“Through questioning, we can also find more than answers—knowing how to ask the right questions can help you to pull support from a network of people or communities as you need it. You pull from the network by querying it, but you need to understand how to frame the questions. So it may be a matter of, how do you formulate the query to Google, or to an online community, to get the support or resources or answers you need. And if you have that skill, you may not need to know anything, other than people; it’s more about understanding the context of the network and how to traverse it.”

Diversity and questioning

“If a group is asking a question or challenging itself to come up with an answer for something, there’s a great body of work that shows diversity is extremely important. Everybody has different frameworks or models to ask the question; and it turns out that having a large number of very smart people that are similar is not nearly as useful as having maybe less smart people but with diversity of background.

“Then the issue becomes, how do you have a constructive conversation when everyone’s frameworks and backgrounds are different? At the Media Lab, we do what I call practice over theory. So, if an artist and a mechanical engineer are working together, it might be difficult for them to write a rigorous academic paper together, but they can build something together… and it either works or doesn’t. Often, academics create theories and test them and if it doesn’t work they start questioning the reality, the data. We’re the opposite; we build a robot and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. And if it works but we don’t understand it, we can study it. Being able to “build the robot” is a really essential in this kind of environment where you’re searching and trying to discover things.

“At the Media Lab, we try to discover answers to questions we don’t know to ask yet. And that’s actually a harder kind of questioning because what you’re doing is asking, What is the question? That’s a harder thing but it’s where you get the really disruptive changes and discoveries. Some people would say we’re a pile of answers looking for questions.”


Why companies need to experiment more

“At the Lab, usually the costs of trying to figure out whether or not we should try something is more than just going ahead and letting people try it. For most things, the costs of experimenting, of building and trying things, have gone down. If you look at the people who started Facebook and Google, none of these guys asked permission, they just tried things out—because it didn’t cost them much to do it. And in companies today, I think people really need to think about that. Because in many companies, it’s still very difficult to do things without permission—and the permission-getting process can be slow. It’s important to lower the friction on innovation by allowing people to explore.”

On “neoteny”

“I was introduced to the term by Timothy Leary when he and I were writing a book together, and I kind of fell in love with it. Neoteny is about the retention of childlike attributes in adulthood; curiosity, playfulness, imagination, joy, wonder. This brings us back to the point that today, we can’t afford to become adults—meaning, we can’t afford to fall into that trap of being in repetition mode. Those childlike attributes, somehow you need to keep them. There are some people in our society who are allowed to remain creative, but for the most part, creativity isn’t considered an adult thing—you’re not supposed to fingerpaint. Neoteny is a word that gives you permission to keep that childlike creativity as an adult. To encourage neoteny, I think what’s needed is a culture that encourages playfulness and experimentation. That’s the culture we have here at the Media Lab.” (More on this site about neoteny.)

 On getting better at questioning

“To question, I think you have to have courage and confidence. A lot of times, if you’re sitting there and you think about something in the bathtub, you might say, “Oh, I’m sure somebody’s already thought of it”—and then you stop thinking about it. But the world is changing so fast and so much, every day, that things that weren’t true in the past are true now—so you should assume that what you’re thinking may actually be an original idea and pursue it. Have the energy and the courage and creativity to think through these ideas and try them out. And even if you fail you’ll have learned a lot more than if you just gave up.”

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