During the fall 2018 semester at Davidson College, Andrew Kelleher (our COO) and I co-taught an independent study with Davidson’s economics department titled: “Economic Analysis of a Small Business in a Monopolistically Competitive Environment.” In non-higher education terms, we worked with professor Fred Smith and five Davidson students to study how we run our business.
At the end of the semester, the students were tasked with assessing the “value” they added to Summit, and more specifically to the work Andrew and I are doing on a daily basis. As I reflected on the four months of class, however, the benefit wasn’t derived from financial strategies or business development strategies. The benefit came from sitting in a room, asking questions, questioning answers, un-learning and learning. And that came from one single motivation:
Sir Kenneth Robinson, the British author, speaker and international advisor on education (who also delivered my all-time favorite TED talk) wrote: “Curiosity is the engine of achievement.” It’s also my word of 2019.
Two different personality tests — Strengthsfinder and Enneagram — both identify me as an achiever through-and-through. I fit comfortably into the “Self-Actualization” segment of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that I “try to test the outer limits” of my abilities. Similarly, one of my bed stand books for years has been “Good to Great,” by Jim Collins. I so often get asked “why” in response to Summit’s constant innovation, need for betterment, drive to change and improve. It’s rooted in my need for achievement, and that is rooted in curiosity.
As a person, I want to be more curious. I need to be more curious. The author Walt Whitman wrote, “Be curious, not judgmental.” The opposite of curiosity is assumption and judgment. I aspire to spend more time asking questions, and less time providing answers; to spend more time getting to know, and less time assuming I already do; to spend more time learning, and less time doing; to be open eyed, not head down. How can I be more curious about our competition, about our company, about our staff, about myself? How can I meet ideas with “why not?” instead of “why?” How can I develop new ideas, not just hone in on the ideas I’ve already had? How can I be genuine in my pursuit of betterment, as a leader and a boss and a partner and a father? Through curiosity.
And as an entrepreneur, I have the privilege of imparting my personality on my company. So as I work to achieve, innovate and grow, so too does Summit. If I work to be more curious, so, too, will Summit. Let us constantly be open to new ideas, new approaches, new menu items and new people. Let us be curious about our customers and each other, our products and our processes. Let’s travel to new countries, new farms, fumble through new language barriers. Let’s not say, “that doesn’t make sense,” and instead meet ideas with “tell me more.”
The world is full of judgment and assumption, of existing prejudices and reasons not to be curious. I intend to channel Robinson’s words, and those from Whitman. I intend to lead a life of curiosity — genuine, optimistic, eyes-wide-open curiosity.
All of us — as people as companies as a country — are too blind to our surroundings. If we struggled for any reason in 2018 at Summit, it was a lack of curiosity. It was a focus on growth and improvement, without a focus on learning. We intended to flourish (and did) based too much on what we already knew and assumed.
We’re certain to mess up and miss opportunities in 2019, too, but it won’t be for a lack of curiosity. Because if we approach our work, and if I approach my daily life, with more curiosity, there will be more opportunity and more knowledge and more awareness. There will be fewer assumptions and less judgment. If I reflect on January 1, 2020 (that seems weird to write), that I was genuinely curious for 12 months at the expense of judgment and assumption, I will be a better leader. And Summit will be a better Summit.
Here’s to a new year, and to staying curious.