How Your Intellectual Curiosity Is at the Heart of Your Career Success


Don’t become complacent as you advance in your career. Your success depends on your ability to provide value and perform at higher and higher levels. Only by cultivating your intellectual curiosity will you be able to keep your mind nimble, generate fresh ideas, and create dynamic solutions.

One of the biggest challenges we face as we get older is a certain sense of inertia that seems to take over our day-to-day careers. The longer we’re in a particular job, or a particular role, the more we get used to the routine. We stop challenging ourselves. Our comfort zone takes over. Our intellectual curiosity wanes.If you feel yourself slipping into this feeling of sameness and comfort around what you do and how you do it, beware. You run the risk of being supplanted in your job and career by someone with fresher ideas, more energy, and a keener sense of purpose. Rekindling your intellectual curiosity will make sure that never happens.

How to Define and Characterize Intellectual Curiosity

Intellectual curiosity is an appetite for knowledge and learning, continuously asking questions, and a desire to grow as a person.Education and credentials don’t necessarily equate to success, and they certainly don’t equate to motivation. The latter, in my view, is far more important than the former because, at its core, pursuing knowledge is what drives any career and that requires motivation.If you’re intellectually curious, you have not only an appreciation for learning about new things but a desire to learn and do… something. That “something” may vary from person to person; however, it’s that passion that will serve as your greatest asset in life and work. 

What makes someone intellectually curious?

Your intellectual curiosity stems from your desire to explore and learn about both current interests and new topics. Your intellectual curiosity is rooted in your experiences early on in life, whether you read voraciously as a child or experimenting with art projects as a young adult. It’s about an interest in the world around them, as well as how it works.If you’re intellectually curious, people probably think of you as well-rounded. You’re not just skilled in one particular area, but you have a wide range of knowledge that crosses over into multiple disciplines. It’s not necessarily about knowledge for its own sake, but for the thrill of what you can do with it.Intellectual curiosity isn’t just about knowing a bunch of facts. It’s about being open to new concepts and ideas, regardless of whether or not you agree with them. Intellectually curious people are willing to look at multiple sides of an argument to determine the best possible solution, even if it means straying away from conventional wisdom or thinking outside the box.Do you enjoy learning as a means of personal fulfillment? Then you understand that it’s beneficial to explore new avenues to expand your knowledge base and gain additional skills. This type of curiosity is often linked with those who are successful at work.Additionally, as an intellectually curious person, you love learning and will do so constantly in any capacity that you can. It starts with a fascination with something at an early age that often persists into adulthood. You delve into related topics, not just the main subjects you study. Or you find new ways to more fully explore the topics that interest you.Intellectual curiosity is a high-value, desired trait for employers. As a result, those who display it will be more likely to get recognized, get promoted, and succeed in their career. 

Why Is Intellectual Curiosity Important?

Intellectual curiosity is a regular practice that builds self-awareness and personal integrity. These are values that motivate all great leaders. It makes us excited about learning, asking questions, and exploring new ideas. It encourages us to seek out solutions rather than being complacent with what we already know.Intellectual curiosity allows you to evaluate and take stock of your strengths and weaknesses. It is an important step in developing a personalized learning attitude that can help you grow in your career. For those who are committed to personal growth and professional development, this mindset represents a pathway to success at very high levels.Consider these takeaways:

  • Intellectually curious people are more empathetic, tolerant, and collaborative. This enhances their capacity to listen, and to collaborate within a group to achieve a common goal.
  • Intellectually curious people can adapt quickly in a changing business environment because they are open-minded towards other people’s ideas and perspectives. They see every challenge as a learning opportunity.
  • Intellectual curiosity allows us to explore new paths, ask the right questions, and explore innovative solutions with an open mind. This process can transform your career into one that is stimulating, rewarding, fulfilling…and successful.
  • Intellectual curiosity brings out the servant leader who can learn from others who are wiser, integrate their knowledge into your understanding, and then share that expanded knowledge with others for their benefit. This is the very essence of good leadership.

In today’s global business environment, intellectual curiosity is more important than ever. New techniques and best practices are constantly being developed, so use your thirst for knowledge to stay abreast of new techniques. Intellectual curiosity improves critical thinking, problem-solving, and time management skills. All this then enhances and solidifies your professional identity and becomes embedded into your brand – i.e. the unique identifier for where you fit in the matrix of your professional life.

intellectual curiosity

How Does My Curiosity Support My Career Value Proposition?

People who reach the highest levels of success and influence in their careers tend to be those who are intellectually curious. It’s very closely linked with Emotional Intelligence (EQ). If you score highly on the EQ scale you will naturally be curious about others, their thoughts, and feelings.You’ll be more mindful as you search for solutions and new insights into issues that interest you. This is a great quality in any business setting as it shows that you’re not just along for the ride.You’ll be identified as a more resourceful person whose work is based on a solid research-based foundation. This is an outstanding quality to express in the business world.You’re willing to absorb diverse experiences and knowledge sources. People notice your interest in what they do and are more drawn to you. This is key to building and developing relationships.Your curiosity allows you to see what others may overlook, enabling you to gain insights and ideas not readily available to those who only accept the current situation.Your intellectual curiosity fosters critical thinking: your ability to derive key actionable insights from seemingly disparate sources or inputs. This increases your chances of being valued as someone who can solve problems and come up with practical solutions.Your curiosity makes you more than an engaged, aware, and effective individual. It can also directly impact your bottom line. Your employer or client will likely appreciate the greater value that your curiosity and engagement represent – and bump up your compensation accordingly! 

Am I Curious Enough?

If you’re thinking about developing a greater sense of curiosity around your work and your life, try these practices and routines to stimulate your mind and prime the pump:

  • Ask more questions. 

Before a meeting, always prepare at least one or two questions that you would genuinely like to learn more about. You don’t have to ask these questions in the meeting (and they may get answered for you anyway), but it is a good routine to adopt to get you used to being more inquisitive.

  • Read a challenging book all the way through. 

If you cringe at those thick novels that you avoided reading in high school or college, take one of them on as a project. Whether it’s a Russian novel or an exhaustive biography, immerse yourself in the world of a big book. You’ll find yourself energized as well as entertained by the richness and the complexity of the narrative. It will undoubtedly give you a different perspective on what you do and see in your daily life.

  • Learn something completely new. 

It could be a new language, a new sport, a musical instrument, or some other skill or field of knowledge. Pursuing this new commitment will give you both a sense of accomplishment, and open up a new way of looking at the world. It’s also a great experience that you can share with friends and co-workers who may well appreciate your bravery or initiative for tackling this project.

  • Engage more as a thought leader. 

One way is to get more involved in online discussions about your business (stay positive and don’t feed the trolls!). You can also get involved in volunteering to support community-building initiatives in your community or your industry. This can include working on conferences and other professional events where you can use a different skill set than what you do in your day-to-day work. Consider starting a blog or a podcast to share your expertise, or shine a spotlight on others who are contributing to positive developments in your industry or community.

  • Surround yourself with people who are intellectually curious.

Think about the friends or colleagues whose friendships you want to cultivate. Are they inquisitive and eager to learn about the world around them? Do they have a unique perspective on life? Do you find that you are the only one in your circle of friends or colleagues who is asking probing questions, or coming up with new or innovative ideas? Reach out to the people who are constantly learning, doing new things, and stretching their knowledge to new levels. By engaging with them (and asking them questions) you will also begin to up your curiosity game and become a more engaged, stimulating (and interesting – even fascinating!) person.Intellectually curious people believe that there are many ways to communicate ideas or get things done. They know that they can adapt and adjust to pretty much whatever gets thrown at them. They don’t get too comfortable or complacent with their ideas. They welcome debate and challenge. 

How Can I Turn My Intellectual Curiosity Into A Habit?

If you want to develop your intellectual curiosity into a habit, start with the previous steps and add them to a schedule, a tracker, or a calendar.Make your intellectual curiosity quest into a project. Start small, devoting only a few minutes or hours per week to some of these new pursuits. Gradually add more time and energy as you feel more comfortable with the process.Don’t expect that everything you pursue will work out.  You may get ⅓ of the way through that big book and realize it’s not for you. No problem!  Try again with a different book.Similarly, as you engage with new friends or colleagues, don’t push the relationships if they’re not clicking. Keep looking around, hanging out, and engaging with people over shared interests.  You’ll eventually find your upgraded and curious tribe.Don’t spread yourself too thin. These ideas are intended as possibilities, not as a set of “must-do’s.” You don’t want to over-stimulate yourself. You’ll burn out. And you may come across as superficial if you flit between too many new or different pursuits. Find a few activities, personal projects, or relationships that are deeply meaningful and stick with them. Find your authentic center in the midst of your outward pursuit.By following the path to intellectual curiosity, you’ll find that your life and work will have more meaning. But perhaps just as importantly, friends and colleagues will be drawn to you because of your new vitality, awareness, and connection to what matters most.

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John Tarnoff is an executive and career transition coach, speaker, and author who supports mid and late-career professionals in defining, planning, and achieving more meaningful and sustainable careers.

Fired 39% during his 35 years as a film producer, studio executive and tech entrepreneur, he learned how to turn setbacks into successes in a volatile business. He reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology to share his career lessons with others going through similar challenges.

Since leaving entertainment in 2010, John has coached individuals, groups, and led career workshops for university alumni, including for UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Corporate coaching clients have included Bank of America, Bridgewater Assoc., Levi-Strauss, Softbank, TD Ameritrade, and Thrive Global.

He is the author of the best-selling Boomer Reinvention: How to Create your Dream Career Over 50 and has been named a Top Influencer in Aging by PBS/NextAvenue.


  • I love this post – it’s a real shakeup. At a certain point, complacency and ‘same’ can get you by, especially if you’re a bit weary with your work, but does place a ceiling on interest and engagement. Time to step it up!

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