Curiosity over Horsepower

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I heard a professor once say of all the young, highly-credentialed students that cycled through the top MBA program where he taught that they have “tremendous CPUs but such little RAM.”

While the analogy doesn’t exactly hold, what he meant is that these folks could process huge amounts of information in short order but didn’t have any experience to put it into context. Basically, they were super smart but knew nothing.  At least nothing as to how actual businesses were run, how ideas were conceived and turned into viable products, hows deals get done — basically how the real business world works. So much intellectual horsepower, he called it, but so little wisdom.

Related to intellectual horsepower is its sometimes misunderstood cousin, intellectual curiosity. Most folks equate curiosity with having broad interests or eclectic pursuits, as though the defining aspect of curiosity lies in diversity. Others view curiosity as always asking what-if questions and exploring the boundaries of what is possible. Both those are true to an extent, but for me it’s something deeper. 

At the core, I believe intellectual curiosity is a heady mix of tenacity and lateral thinking. It’s the indomitable drive to understand why things are the way they are and not accepting them at face value. Mixed with this is the inclination to combine existing systems of thought in novel and unexpected ways to probe what’s possible, learn new things and create new ideas.

First principles type thinking (like that attributed to Elon Musk) tends to be a trait of the intellectually curious. Once you have reduced something to its most elemental conceptual building blocks, it’s so much easier then to discover new angles for attacking seemingly intractable problems or to find application in new domains. First principles thinking is a powerful intellectual design pattern and a hallmark of the curious.

Those with high horsepower, like the ones our professor was referring to, will ace their exams, get good grades and easily deliver on assignments — basically excel at whatever you ask them to do. Where the high horsepower crowd excels at answering questions, the intellectually curious excel at asking penetrating and important questions. Questions that, if answered, open up all sorts of new possibilities. Folks with high horsepower tend to exceed expectations. But the intellectually curious can truly surprise you.

The world needs more curious people. Being classically “smart” is no longer enough to meet the innovation challenges most companies now face. Horsepower alone isn’t going to identify that next category defining product. Superior analysis skills shine a light a bit further down the track, but they don’t disrupt existing markets or create new ones unless they are combined with the tenacity and lateral thinking of intellectual curiosity. 

Now’s a great time for the truly curious. Never have so many powerful tools and so much information been so readily available. The curious have never been more empowered than they are today. Given a minimum threshold of capability, I will always value curiosity over horsepower. These are the folks I want to work with and invest in.

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