Last month, I attended the Art of Coaching, a three-day conference in Pacific Grove, CA. In her keynote address, Elena Aguilar named elements of success that reached beyond her core audience of educators—purpose, connection, curiosity, and courage. I knew immediately that I wanted to develop this idea of purpose for my readers. And as the conference continued, I knew that before speaking to purpose, I needed to explore the concept of curiosity—specifically, my resistance to it.
The Danger of Asking What Else
My husband and my close friend, Jani, are two deeply curious people, as inquisitive with strangers as they are with me. And my daughter asks questions all the time, the kind I never felt free to ask as a child, like why and why not? I notice all this because I am not so naturally inclined.
My mother valued safety. While she traveled the world with my father who was a Master Sergeant in the Air Force, when it came to employment, she stayed with the same employer for many years. I quit my first job selling shoes at Macy’s because I was asking, what else is out there? What else can I have or do? My mom discouraged me from quitting such a good job. She valued knowing what you know and doing that well. She grew up in a time when curiosity beyond what you already have wasn’t safe and definitely not dependable.
I don’t want to say I’m never curious. I am. What I learned at the conference is that I am curious in environments in which I feel safe and in some measure of control. To be curious and vulnerable is challenging for me. Somehow in my mind, asking sets me up for rejection. Ironically, I don’t shy away from taking risks. But I do measure risks by what I am willing to let go. And I haven’t been willing to let go of my self-reliance. Self-reliance was the bedrock of my success and I didn’t allow myself to be in situations where I would lose. But I know now that holding on too tightly to what you have keeps you isolated and afraid to ask for more.
What became clear at that conference is that my preference for safety over curiosity leaves me missing connections.
When I was a kid, I avoided getting curious about other people and instead leaned on my resourcefulness and my intellect to solve problems. My intellect was a bridge between risk and safety. I gained a lot of accomplishments this way, eventually becoming a successful administrator who could give direction, take charge, and execute. It served me well, for a while.
Then, in 2006, I found myself leaving my position at a top law firm where I had managed two offices and 150 people. I felt I had run out of opportunity there and needed to move on. Looking back, I see now that I never asked anyone what else was there for me? As the only African-American female in senior management, I didn’t feel safe building relationships with people outside of my domain of control. Keeping to myself and not displaying curiosity had kept me from forming relationships, seeking support, and building more opportunities. My vision was limited to what I could do on my own. I hadn’t run out of room to grow, I had run into a wall of my own making.
I have since learned that if you don’t get to know the people around you, you’ll never discover the doors they are willing to open for you and how you can create something new together.
In the end, I moved to a firm that offered me less opportunity. For the first time, I realized that while I knew how to accomplish, I didn’t know how to connect in order to advance. I had to start re-thinking my understanding of achievement.
Sometimes, my husband’s curiosity feels intrusive and inappropriate. He was a reporter, and naturally asks a lot of follow-up questions, wanting to get the whole story. His approach leaves me feeling uncomfortable. Yet when I watch other people open up to him, eager to share their stories and grateful for his genuine interest, I realize the discomfort is all mine.
The truth is, people—including me—want to be seen and heard. And real connection requires vulnerability: the one sharing risks exposing themselves, the one asking risks rejection. But you can’t build a relationship any other way.
Over time, when people feel seen, they can feel safe enough to stop filtering out their differences—eventually, the only female lawyer of color at a law firm might be able to say, now Steve and I know about each other’s families and hobbies. We both went to the same university and we both passed the bar on our second try. I know he shares my litigation approach. I’m going to ask him to support my strategy in tomorrow’s meeting. If this happens enough, we might actually start to create safe company cultures.
In the book Can’t Hurt Me, David Goggins, an African-American and only man in history to complete elite training as a Navy SEAL, Army Ranger, and Air Force Tactical Air Controller, writes that he spent a good portion of his career so busy proving himself that he missed out on real connections that could have led to promotions and other opportunities. Hard work in isolation did not result in rising to the top. I too have learned this very lesson. And so I made a commitment which I still practice intentionally today: to get curious about people.
Real opportunity comes through people who know you and are known by you. They are the ones who will share your story and promote you. When we trust people enough to be our ally and advocate without using our weaknesses against us, we can see incredible rewards. Let me give you a personal example.
Curiosity Leads to Unexpected Healing
By the end of the conference, I was tired and not exactly up for the intense conversation about white supremacy that was developing between myself and a white woman at lunch. But I leaned into my curiosity and asked her flat out, “Why does racism matter so much to you? Given your position, it doesn’t have to.”
If I hadn’t asked the question, I never would have heard her remarkable response: “When I began to learn the real history of our country, I felt angry and cheated for not being told the truth for so long. Then I felt embarrassed. Now, I feel responsible for using that information and making sure it gets passed on.” Our exchange was surprising, real, and insightful for me. It was well worth the risk and vulnerability.
Curiosity Disarms after Disrupting Bias
Here’s another reason I persist with curiosity: it’s a key component of building audacity.
When I guide women of color through disrupting workplace bias, they at first assume it requires aggression and confrontation. Not necessarily. Disrupting bias starts with the very quiet act of getting curious about the bias itself—where does it come from? Who holds these views? Displaying curiosity is a tool for disarming defenses so that you can hold difficult conversations.
After disrupting bias, reconciliation and relationship building both require the curiosity that allows for deep listening, which is how we break through surface relationships, build trust, and move forward.
And ongoing bias disruption means you get curious and stay curious about how your organization works and why. It means asking, where does the perspective of bias and disenfranchisement come from?
Knowing Yourself and Finding Your Purpose
In pushing myself to be curious about people, I’m trying to bridge the gap between what I know I should be doing and what I actually practice. My own struggle helps me connect with my clients at Leverage to Lead, who are pushing themselves to do difficult things like claim ownership of their work, show up as themselves, and disrupt bias.
Part of my work involves helping clients find their purpose and develop real strategies for achieving it. But purpose isn’t something static waiting for you at the finish line. Real purpose grows and evolves. In my next article, I’ll dive into how a strong and ongoing commitment to curiosity is a must-have in order to truly pursue your purpose.