Be Interested, Not Just Interesting

HENRY FORD IS REMEMBERED as the industrialist who introduced the Model T — the jet-black car that forever changed the way Americans wheel around, simply because it was affordable (thanks to another Ford innovation, the assembly line). Less memorably, Ford was also an aficionado of auto racing: he both designed and drove fast cars. One day in 1905, he was attending a motor race in Palm Beach where a smash-up left a French car in pieces. Interested in more than just the spectacle, Ford walked over to the crash site after the race.

He investigated the pile of steel and rubber. “I picked up a little valve strip stem. It was very light and very strong. I asked what it was made of.

Nobody knew,” Ford recounted in his autobiography My Life and Work. “I gave the stem to my assistant. 'Find out al about this,' I told him. 'That is the kind of material we ought to have in our cars.'” It turned out to be a steel al oy that contained vanadium, which was not manufactured in the United States at the time.

Ford may have embelished this account for dramatic effect, but as biographer Steven Watts points out, there's no doubt about the significance of Ford's finding. Vanadium steel provided the “final, crucial piece of the production puzzle” of how to construct a durable, lightweight car at a low price, Watts explains in his book The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century. That Model T was introduced three years later, after much brainstorming, development, and prototyping.

There's much about this tale that ilustrates the ways of an Idea Hunter. It portrays someone who knew his gig — his mission, his passion — which in Ford's case was to mold a new production process to manufacture a car for everyone. It reveals a person who was quick to recognize how seemingly unrelated occurrences — a crash scene in Palm Beach or the English laboratory that experimented with vanadium — could connect with his plans and projects. But more than anything else, this story highlights the importance of being interested in the world out there. This is the first principle of The Idea Hunt.

Note that being interested is not the same as being interesting. Ford did not, as far as we know, wander over to the crash scene in order to impress others with his knowledge of automobile production or to regale them with stories of his feats as a race-car driver. He simply fol owed his curiosity to the scene.

Spotting the people who are genuinely interested is easy. Often you can see it in their body language and hear it in the questions they're asking.

Kurt Barnard, a retailing consultant in New York, told of his first encounter with Sam Walton, in 1967. “When he meets you, he looks at you — head cocked to one side, forehead slightly creased — and he proceeds to extract every piece of information in your possession. He always makes little notes. And he pushes on and on,” Barnard recal ed. “After two and a half hours, he left, and I was total y drained. I wasn't sure what I had just met, but I was sure we would hear more from him.”

The world did hear more from Sam Walton, who built the Wal-Mart empire at least partly on the intensity of his interest in other people's ideas. He traveled from Arkansas to Manhattan and points in between just to hear what people were saying about pricing, distribution, inventory, and other markers of his trade. As Walton once explained, this was one way he and the early Wal-Mart managers tried to “make up for our lack of experience and sophistication.” Whether they're in retail or any other line, people get ideas by cultivating a capacity for interest and the habit of intel ectual curiosity.

In a professional context, intelectual curiosity is basicaly an abiding interest in any and al matters that could improve the job you're doing.

Conventional wisdom holds that the cleverer you are, the better your ideas. But in our experience the cleverest people — important as they are in an organization — have a tendency to overestimate their brain power. Without the added component of curiosity, they stick to their success formula and may not go hunting for better ideas. In other words, they're just not interested enough.

Curiosity, on the other hand, can more than make up for a lack of briliance. No less a trailblazer than Albert Einstein once made the disarming comment, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” This is often the most striking characteristic of a highly successful person.

Consider this firsthand description of Scott Cook, founder and CEO of Intuit, by the writer Michael S. Hopkins: “Listening, he seems to forget himself. He seems composed of pure curiosity. He's like a man who always expects that the next thing someone — anyone — tel s him might be the most surprising and enlightening thing he's heard. He listens without blinking. He learns.”

A curious mind is on the lookout for surprises. It embraces them and finds a way to learn from them. Such thinking has a leavening effect on how we look at things, because when we are curious, we are less likely to take something for granted. We look at an ordinary happening and see something extraordinary. This opens a path to innovation, partly because an ordinary idea in one setting could prove remarkable if applied to another setting.

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