Curiosity, Not Credentials

Why to optimize for rate of learning rather than past accomplishments when deciding who to spend time working with.

One of the mistakes that people tend to make when choosing colleagues is selecting for credentials, rather than curiosity. This can work for status games, but breaks down if the job to be done requires working together over any time frame longer than a few months. For long-term endeavors, I believe that curiosity is a much better indicator of success.

This mistake seems to be so common because credentials are an objective measure of ability, whereas curiosity is dependent on the topic in question. Choosing who to hire is expensive, and credentials provide a paper trail that limit the downside of making a decision. If a well-credentialed candidate turns out to be a dud, hiring managers can throw up their hands and say, “how was I supposed to know, they looked so good on paper.” Curious candidates may be more qualified, but pose a greater risk to the individual responsible for hiring if the curiosity is feigned or misaligned with the work.

This poses a question: how to identify genuine curiosity?

I like to look for people who I call “amateur experts.” Amateur experts are individuals who have a personal growth rate that seems shocking to anyone who meets them. This part is important, because it helps to separate amateur experts from dilettantes. Observing growth requires time to pass between encounters, and this delay will help you identify people with genuine curiosity.

The following questions are helpful to determine if you’re dealing with an amateur expert:

  • Have they advanced their understanding of this topic in some meaningful way since the last time we spoke?

  • Were they willing to learn new information about the topic in question, even if the source was unorthodox?

  • Did they admit to gaps in their knowledge? Did they say “I don’t know”?

  • If they didn’t know something, did they take the initiative to learn about it? Did they tell you what they learned?

  • Do they have interests in other fields? Do they discuss connections between their other interests and the topic at hand?

These questions are useful heuristics, but only work if you’re willing to spread your evaluation over a few sessions. Multiple encounters will give your observations depth, like an astronomer using parallax to survey a distant object. The more points of information you can collect, the better you’ll be able to plot their rate of learning. When the line begins to inflect, you’ll have found someone who is on their way to becoming an expert, but with the added benefit of bringing you along for the ride.

stardust on sky

Image from Conner Baker on Unsplash.

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