Radical Curiosity

Questioning Commonly Held Beliefs to Imagine Flourishing Futures

About the Book

A bold manifesto arguing that the most complex challenges we face today—as individuals, businesses, and a society—require us to ask deeper questions, not seek easier answers
“With this beautifully written book, Seth Goldenberg awakens the gifts we all possess: wonder, optimism, and the fearlessness to reverse destruction.”—Bruce Vaughn, vice president of experiential creative product, Airbnb

In a world with an endless hunger for innovation, why is it so hard to create audacious change? According to thought leader Seth Goldenberg, the answer to this question stems from how we, as a society, view questions themselves.
In Radical Curiosity, Goldenberg argues that because we value knowing above learning and prioritize doing over thinking, curiosity has become an endangered species. Only by rediscovering the power of questions can we hope to rewrite the commonly held “legacy” narratives that no longer serve us and to remake our organizations, our politics, and our lives.
With this empowering book, Goldenberg introduces the practice of Radical Curiosity through the lens of seven narratives that are going through significant transformation: Learning, Cohesion, Time, Youth, Aliveness, Nature, and Value. Along the way, he unpacks principles intended to spark our own questioning, including:
• Education is too big to fail, but maybe it should.
• Time travel isn’t reserved for DeLoreans.
• Let us now praise rural communities.
• Survival economics have made imagination a luxury good.
Blending philosophy, business strategy, cultural criticism, and fascinating case studies, Radical Curiosity is a new way of solving our most complex problems—one focused not on technology or science but on the power of human inquiry. By asking us to relearn how we learn, reengage in dialogue, revive our youthful sense of wonder, and rethink what we value, it reignites the curiosity needed to imagine and build a better world.
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Praise for Radical Curiosity

“A book that I hope gets widely read.”—Jaime Herndon, BookRiot

“Seth Goldenberg’s deep commitment to curiosity taught me how important it is to ask essential questions. The right questions connect our minds and hearts, and that’s how we achieve greatest outcomes.”—Denise Young Smith, former vice president of worldwide human resources and talent, Apple

“This book is a new operating manual for humankind that everyone needs to read. It engages both your brain and your heart in wonder and possibilities.”—Ivy Ross, vice president of design for hardware, Google

“During this era of fundamental change, Radical Curiosity invites and challenges us to reexamine, with intention and humility, what we need from one another. By doing so, we discover that our interconnectedness is the key to how we can survive and thrive.”—Roni Zeiger, MD, head of health strategy, Meta; former chief health strategist, Google
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Radical Curiosity

Chapter 1

Limited Exposure to Diverse Experiences

How much can we know of the world without seeing it? How can we appreciate the many diverse ways of thinking and being in the world without experiencing them? How can we expand our worldview beyond the narrow limits of our own experience without exposure? What do we really mean by diversity?

The more we know, the more we realize we don’t know. Learning and humility are kissing cousins. Humility is a celebration of the awareness that you are a part of something much greater than yourself. Holding this form of humility as a present sensibility calibrates an engagement with the world as interconnected. Through humility, we see ourselves in relationship to other forces. An ecology of relationships. Human to human. Human to nature. Living systems, constantly in motion.

Learned humility comes from living. From the front-row seat. From being exposed to the awe-inspiring vastness and complexity of experiencing the world, of experiencing ourselves. There is no shortcut. There are no CliffsNotes that can accurately translate the phenomenon of humility. Humility isn’t taught in a tenth-grade textbook. To truly digest learned humility, to let it shower over us, requires lived knowledge. There is a vast difference between informational knowledge and experiential knowledge. Experiential knowledge is a multisensory witnessing rather than a Scantron-tested commodification of information. As the legendary Maya Angelou says:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Experiences are profound instructors. Exposure exponentially increases our comprehension of the forces at play in the world, increases the lexicon available to us for what the world can become, and increases our capacity to imagine how we may inhabit that world.

Living through the language of experiential knowledge gives us the confidence to not fear the opacity of the unknown. Exposing ourselves to diverse environments, situations, and untrained arenas converts the unknown from friction to adventure, welcoming the invitation for us to be changed along the way. By extending our geographic radius, we extend the radius of our worldview. With every mile we travel, we overturn our assumptions and question the false constraints holding us back. These are the seeds of transformative learning. The real world is a better classroom than the artificial environment we have come to call classroom.

Over the past fifty years, advances in engineering and technology have afforded us extraordinary capacity to extend our personal radius. To travel, both literally and metaphorically. Yet, the majority of us rarely travel far from what we know. We spend lifetimes within places, institutions, and cultures—in the real world and online—that reinforce our own worldviews, not expand them. We don’t genuinely have exposure to what the rest of the world believes or practices. The world is exponentially more diverse than we know. Travel, in this context, is not about luxury. Travel as a form of exposure becomes the most significant form of learning because it is the primary source of lived knowledge.

Anthony Bourdain, tragic hero of traveling to Parts Unknown, said:

If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.

In 2019, 37.79 million Americans—11 percent of the total U.S. population—traveled abroad. And this statistic does not reflect how far out of their familiar comfort zone the 37.79 million traveled to. Consider this for a moment. This means that, roughly, only one out of every ten Americans left their country that year. Certainly, international travel can be expensive, so there is an economic burden to the accessibility of travel. But what is the cultural burden of 90 percent of a nation not leaving its own narrative? What might this mean to communities dangerously perpetuating echo chambers because of limited exposure to diverse experiences?

Miguel de Unamuno, the author of Tragic Sense of Life and a rector of the University of Salamanca, the third-oldest university still operating today, famously proposed:

Fascism is cured by reading, and racism is cured by traveling.

Unamuno didn’t mean traveling to a far-flung location only to visit an all-inclusive Sandals resort. He was referring to the kind of travel that expands our radius and delivers a learned humility that can only come from seeing beyond ourselves. When we travel, when we move beyond what we know, we increase the scope of what we conceive as possible. The more time we spend in the unknown, the more we appreciate that anything is possible. Our curiosity is strengthened proportionally. Conversely, when we limit our exposure to diverse ways of being in the world, curiosity narrows.

How can we be curious about the many ways to be in the world if we are unaware of their existence? Such a paradox of awareness is elegantly described by Ursula K. Le Guin, the science fiction writer and thought leader who proposed:

We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.

When I was growing up in the rural Adirondacks, my father, a lover of photography, cherished books that showed us the world. And none was more precious than his copy of The Family of Man, which catalogues an ambitious project curated by the prolific photographer Edward Steichen at the Modern Museum of Art in 1955. Steichen’s vision was an expression of humanism; he believed that by seeing people from around the world in their most essential elements, we could begin visualizing the universal human experience that connects us. One of the earliest forms of crowdsourcing and co-authoring, and a major artistic endeavor, the exhibition featured 503 photos from 68 countries: the work of 273 photographers. Dorothea Lange, the legendary photojournalist who documented and humanized the Great Depression, helped Steichen recruit photographers in a letter called “A Summons to Photographers All Over the World,” in which she invited them to

show Man to Man across the world. Here we hope to reveal by visual images Man’s dreams and aspirations, his strength, his despair under evil. If photography can bring these things to life, this exhibition will be created in a spirit of passionate and devoted faith in Man. Nothing short of that will do.

I was a child tethered to a place I had no agency to leave, and this book offered an invitation to extend my radius of exposure. The Family of Man acted as a profound radius extension. One that transported me and my curiosity for the human experience beyond the limits of physical geography, through photographs that became windows and portals into unfamiliar worlds. I suspect that longing for an experience beyond ourselves is in large part what led to the record-breaking attendance of the traveling exhibition, which was viewed by more than 9 million people in thirty-seven countries over six continents. Aren’t we all in search of windows that allow us to safely peer into worlds that feel fresh and new, as if we know in our hearts that there is more? Even if our feet remain anchored in place, our minds know not to respect the tidy boundaries imposed upon us.

More than sixty years later, in the great tradition of The Family of Man, Romanian photographer Mihaela Noroc created The Atlas of Beauty. At the age of twenty-seven, Noroc “decided to quit my ordinary life in Bucharest and put all my efforts and savings into travel and photography.” Over the next four years she would traverse more than fifty countries, photographing women from around the world. In an interview by NPR, Noroc was asked, “We are inundated by images of beauty on social media and in advertising in magazines. From your book, what can we learn about how other cultures view beauty?” Noroc offered:

The [other] cultures are also getting influenced by our Western way of seeing beauty. You see, in Asia and Africa, whitening products to lighten their skin. We have to start from early age with children to show them that people are very different but very beautiful in their own way.

What’s striking about The Atlas of Beauty is how it documents the diverse ways to interpret a central feature of the human condition: the notion of beauty. Through portraits of women from Ethiopia to Nepal to North Korea—women with lost limbs and tattooed bodies, dressed in everything from military uniforms to ceremonial garb—we see how vast the definition of beauty is. In seeing such an expanse, we are reminded of how small our own interpretation may be. How limiting our personal stories can be without the travel of our imaginations to see the stories of others.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian writer and 2008 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” offers a poignant observation about the flattening of the world in her aptly titled landmark TED Talk “Dangers of a Single Story”:

I recently spoke at a university where a student told me it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had recently read a novel called American Psycho, and that it was a shame that young Americans were serial murderers.

About the Author

Seth Goldenberg
Seth Goldenberg is a designer, curator, and entrepreneur who harnesses the power of questioning to catalyze innovation and cultural change. He is the founder and CEO of Curiosity & Co., a one-of-a-kind bookstore, experience laboratory, and design-ventures studio, and the creator of the Ideas Salons, invitational thought-leader retreats that tackle the essential questions of our time.
Goldenberg has led high-profile projects with clients such as Apple, American Express, the Oprah Winfrey Network, and the governor of Rhode Island. He also founded Dialog:City, the civic arts festival for the 2008 Democratic National Convention. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Wired, and Fast Company. He lives on the island of Jamestown, Rhode Island. More by Seth Goldenberg
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