Udacity, Curiosity

Grit. The word seems to be everywhere, and every hiring manager and recruiter seems to be on the lookout for candidates who possess it. But don’t be suspicious of it as a trend—grit is real, and it’s an important trait to nurture within yourself.

But is it everything?

The Biggest Skill You Need

We are in an age when all job-seekers must understand personal branding, and everyone must be a lifelong learner to succeed. What then, do we make of advice like this?

“The biggest skill you need to have these days is curiosity.”

These words were spoken by Padmasree Warrior during her recent Udacity Talks episode with Sebastian Thrun, and I’ve been thinking about what she said ever since. This is, after all, someone who has been—and continues to be—extraordinarily successful in her career. She also happens to be someone who handpicked the first 150 employees at her new company, because (as she noted on Udacity Talks), “the first 100 people hire the next 1000 people.” In short, this is someone who knows what she’s looking for, and why.

Padmasree’s quote reminded me of something Sebastian himself once said. When asked what skills he would focus on were he able to go back to his teen years and start again, this was his answer:

“Be fearless, be curious, and develop a growth mindset. For those who learn, there is no such thing as failure.”

So you need to be curious. But what does this actually mean? Surely we’re all curious about things, right? How then does this broad idea of curiosity become a cultivable and demonstrable skill, a specific driver of success, and a key differentiator between the ones who get the jobs and the ones who don’t?

What Top Recruiters Are Looking For

Fortune Magazine recently ran an article entitled “The 100 Best Employers Are Looking to Fill 100,876 Jobs This Year.” In it, heads of HR, recruitment team leaders, and talent acquisition experts from companies included on Fortune’s annual “100 Best Companies to Work For” list were asked to describe what they’re looking for in prospective job candidates. In a quote from Capital One’s VP of Talent, I found a beautiful expression of why curiosity is so valued:

“We know we have found a good candidate when we see a deep intellectual curiosity, a passion for our mission and to drive positive change, and an inclination to lead with heart and humanity.”

When enunciated in this fashion, we can understand curiosity as something embodied through our approach to our careers, and to our lives. Suddenly, curiosity is no longer too general to be relevant, nor too abstract to be quantifiable. It is something enactable, and demonstrable.

Know-it-Alls Need Not Apply

In another Fortune article, this one entitled “15 Secrets From Recruiters On How To Get Hired,” a senior recruiting executive with the Boston Consulting Group described a strong candidate as someone who “not only will offer solutions to the problem at hand, but also will demonstrate a natural curiosity to explore other, related issues and opportunities.” A VP of Talent at Adobe Systems explained their objectives in this way:

“We are looking for ‘Learn-it-Alls.’ Know-it-Alls need not apply. We gravitate towards candidates who have humility and intellectual curiosity.”

For a different perspective on the value of curiosity, we can turn to a very insightful article on the AddThis blog written by their Senior Director of Engineering. The post is entitled 3 Things We Look For When Hiring Software Engineers. The first and third things the author lists are “Problem Solving” and “Humility.” The second is “Curiosity”:

“Curiosity sets apart the superstars from everyone else. It’s always nice when a candidate has exposure to a specific tech stack, but what gets us really excited is when they dig into this technology on their own so they aren’t reliant on another team to solve a problem.”

Hiring for Intellectual Curiosity

In reading through the quotes above, we find several instances of the word “curiosity’ being paired with ‘intellectual’; as in, intellectual curiosity. You will also see this pairing in an article from CIO entitled Why Curious People Make Better Employees. The author interviews Tony Vartanian, the CEO of a successful mobile game design startup, about why intellectual curiosity is especially valuable in a startup environment:

“One of the most difficult challenges at a startup is keeping pace with the rapidly evolving needs of a growing company. Hiring for intellectual curiosity means that candidates are not only qualified and thoughtful, but they are capable of thinking beyond the role they are interviewing for.”

For a deeper read into the psychology, science, data, and theory behind the importance of intellectual curiosity, consider “The Hungry Mind: Intellectual Curiosity Is the Third Pillar of Academic Performance.”

The abstract for this work provides a wonderful depiction of how grit and curiosity come together to power individual success, something we highlight later in this post:

“The additive predictive effect of the personality traits of intellectual curiosity and effort rival that of the influence of intelligence. Our results highlight that a ‘hungry mind’ is a core determinant of individual differences in academic achievement.”

The Curiosity Question

What would a recruiter or hiring manager discover if they looked at your resume? At your LinkedIn profile? At your Facebook page? Would they find evidence of a hungry mind at work? Would they find evidence of curiosity? What about a first interview? If someone asks you “the curiosity question” how will you answer?

This “curiosity question” use case comes from a Forbes article How To Hire Curious People And Keep Curiosity Alive.

“A great way to determine whether someone is curious is to ask this interview question: ‘Tell me something you have taught yourself in the last six months. How did you go about teaching yourself this new skill or idea, and what was the result?'”

Lifelong Learning

The truth is, the world of work is changing. Things move very, very fast. You know this. We all know this. Agility is critical. One must be a lifelong learner to stay relevant, and be necessary. A sedentary mind remains exactly that—sedentary. But the intellectually curious, those with the hungry minds, they move, they discover, they render the unknown known. This is how grit and curiosity come together. If curiosity is the motivation, grit is the method. You pursue learning because you’re curious to know more, and when the going gets tough, you stick it out. This is progress. This is your story.

“Curiosity is essential for progress.” —Simon Sinek

We wrote about storytelling as it relates to personal branding and career success in a recent post on this blog, and described it in this way:

“When it comes to storytelling and your personal brand, you want to understand, and be able to enunciate to yourself, what the reality of your story is. Then, you need to create and maintain the public-facing expressions and manifestations of this story, such that it’s always all in perfect alignment.”

This post essentially adds a layer to this line of thinking, by stating that your story—the one that must align at all times with its external expressions—must also have as its central character a lifelong learner, someone with a hungry mind, someone who is intellectually curious. That someone, of course, is you.