The Cat Survived & So Will You

Curiosity is dangerous. Surely you know the phrase “curiosity killed the cat.”  As a kid, I heard this from my parents time and again. I know now they were just trying to keep me alive.

Maybe it was because of that time I put my hands in the pot of water on the stove to feel how hot it was - luckily, it wasn't boiling water and I'm not scarred for life. Or that moment when I - warning: lots of alliteration ahead - beat a bush of bees with a bat.

You can imagine the painful consequences of my actions. And there were many others.

Let’s face it, I was a kid with an unfettered curiosity and I was dangerous. So, when espousing the cautionary tale of the killed cat, clearly my parents were simply protecting me from...well, me.

Origins Of The Killed Cat

Recently, I was curious (uh, oh) about the origins of this phrase, so I looked it up. I learned that its intent was to warn of the dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation. More so, it was used in an attempt to stop someone from asking unwanted questions.

Is it a warning then - that is, a threat - against being inquisitive?  I kept researching and found this from the The Phrase Finder at www.phrases.org.uk:

Curiosity hasn't received a good press over the centuries. Saint Augustine wrote in Confessions, AD 397, that, in the eons before creating heaven and earth, God "fashioned hell for the inquisitive."

John Clarke, in Paroemiologia, 1639, suggested that "He that pryeth into every cloud may be struck with a thunderbolt."

In Don Juan, Lord Byron called curiosity "that low vice."

This suggests that curiosity is a bad thing. Well, I suppose the painful consequences of dipping my hands in the pot of hot water or beating the bee bush support this idea. Curiosity equals pain. Okay, I get it - I suppose.

Curiosity In Leadership

If it is true that curiosity equals pain, at what point does this idiom keep us from fulfilling our responsibilities as leaders?  If it wasn't for being inquisitive then how could we have advanced as a human race?

Consider, for example, the caveman who discovered fire. Edison who invented the light bulb, Franklin and electricity, Bell and the telephone, Jobs and the iPod.

What if Newton hadn’t asked why the apple falls?

What if Einstein hadn’t asked a million questions about science? In fact, here's what he had to say about his own contributions to the world:

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

Einstein’s special talent was curiosity. And, given what he and many others were able to accomplish as a result of their thirst for answers - and despite what the people (and my parents) say about the killed cat - I believe curiosity is a critical trait for today’s leader.

One of my earliest leaders taught me how to channel my questioning spirit. He showed me the value of intellectual curiosity. He challenged me to look at an issue twice. To peek around corners and under rocks, to come at something from a different angle, and dig a little deeper. How not to accept the first answer and ask the same question twice or in a different way.

And even better, how to consider the possibilities of tackling a problem in a new way.

How to ask, "What if?"

I believe that if leaders are discouraged from asking questions then we'd simply go about our business unaware of the innovations around us, just waiting to be discovered.

Cats Have Nine Lives

For the curious among us, I have good news. What if I told you that curiosity didn’t kill the cat?

It turns out that my brief probe into the origins of this phrase led me to a new discovery.  I learned that there’s a less-commonly-known second half to this proverb.

The longer version goes like this:

“Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back”.

This tells us that the cat’s risk leads to resurrection. Cats do have nine lives after all.

And, there you have it. While curiosity might have an element of danger, that's what makes it worthwhile. Curious risk equals satisfactory reward, so it is okay. Ask questions. Challenge the status quo. Be curious.

Maybe it will hurt a little. For example, asking questions can be unpopular. Taking a closer look at an issue will surely make someone uncomfortable. Encouraging a new perspective will generate groans. And, so on.

But, imagine how much more painful it will be when tomorrow's advancements pass us by and we find ourselves asking, "what could have been."

In closing, Walt Disney said:

“When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.”

What if you were a little curious today? What could you discover?