Amanda Lang: Passionately Curious

Amanda Lang found the key to unlock a happy life. How the “why” factor can push the rest of us to challenge our fears and overcome mediocrity

Complacency and mediocrity are given a swift kick in the pants in the thought-provoking, empowering life book The Power of Why. In it, Amanda Lang sharply explains how curiosity, inquisitiveness and the ability to connect to ideas can unleash our predisposed ability to think like innovators, both at home and in the workplace. Lang, co-host of the The Lang & O’Leary Exchange and senior business correspondent for CBC News, discusses her debut book.

What are some of the qualities you need to be an innovator?
I think you need to allow for your natural curiosity, which I’ve come to believe quite passionately is a universal trait — it’s something we’re all born with — and we know that because little kids are naturally curious. Real innovation is just about seeing possibility and connecting ideas. That’s it. My favourite definition of innovation is, “an old idea meets a new idea, and then something changes.”

What is the difference between an innovation that has drastically changed the world, for example antiseptic soap, or something as simple as a button?
Well, there is, in a sense, that one can have a more profound impact on our lives, what isn’t different is that it’s a new thing that leverages an old thing that changes behaviour, that’s sort of the standard. On the spectrum of innovation, there is outright inventions, so, the polio vaccine for instance — all antibiotics, penicillin — changed the way we live because it actually created something out of nothing, so invention is a very specific type of innovation. But you can have equally powerful innovations that are incremental, so Apple’s iTunes are a very incremental innovation in how we sell and buy music but it also revolutionized the industry and also consumer behaviour, so you can get it on both sides of the spectrum, I think.

Einstein once said, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Why is curiosity necessary for innovation, especially in today’s world?
The key thing about curiosity is that it completely undermines the status quo. So, curiosity says, it doesn’t matter that we know that this works and we’ve done it this way before, we’re going to ask ourselves, “What could be different?”And that right away changes the way you’re seeing things and leaves you open, and it could be very incremental, it could be a very small change, but it could also get you to a much more creative part of your brain where you do get some of those real breakthrough insights. Curiosity is the key because it never allows you to get complacent and do what happens yesterday just because it works, which is a very status quo bias. It’s a very seductive kind of a proposition that this is working already, why would we mess with it, but that is also the root to mediocrity and unhappiness.

Why is it that the majority of us take the road more travelled in that we don’t act on our ideas?
I think we’re not trained to think of them or spot them when they come up, first of all, and then I think that even when we see them or identify that we’ve had a great idea, we don’t want to take the risk and sometimes that’s totally reasonable. If you’re a doctor, you don’t want to go off all the time inventing new things just because you’ve had a great idea. So maybe it’s just a reasonable thing that you don’t pursue every single innovative idea you have. But I do think we would do a lot more of it in our own lives, in our own jobs, if we didn’t fear failure, if we were willing to take risks — that’s the biggest impediment to why we don’t innovate. We are afraid to get the wrong answer, we are afraid to take the wrong step.
And that’s also something we learned at school and from our parents: that to fail feels bad. And so I think that is one of the things that holds us back the most.

In your book you mention that you’re opposed to “fun” sport games where the winner isn’t glorified and the loser isn’t subjected to the feeling of failure. What is one instance in your life where you failed, and how did that experience help build your character?
There have been countless events in my life where something I wanted to happen didn’t happen, like applying to a specific university that I didn’t get into. And these are moments that aren’t fun or can be difficult to deal with, but the key thing is — and this is where it comes back to kids on the sporting field — is to know that if you failed. If it was something that you did — if my grades weren’t good enough, if my CV wasn’t strong enough — those are things that I could have controlled and so I need to learn from that. If it was something beyond my control, I should accept it, be gracious and move on. Those are just kind of life skills, and we kind of rob our kids of the opportunity to learn them early.

You liken your start in the career of journalism as a lucky break. Have you ever wondered if your success in the industry came to you because you were an outsider, just like the Socckeet team, Steve Gass, Sean Moore?
Well, I will say I think I allowed myself a certain level of ignorance that’s quite useful for a journalist. Certainly in the beginning, I knew I didn’t know much, and so I knew I had to learn, so I was very open-minded about learning and taking advice from people and just really kind of deferring to people that had more experience than me instead of thinking, well, I’ve got a degree in this, what do I have to learn from you? And the other thing, I guess, is the process of learning to interview people and then, relay that information first in print and then in television. I still feel like I’m on a learning curve. You can always do something better; you can always build on your experiences, so it may have actually been of help to me.

In your story about the company Roots, you hone in on Maria, an employee who took pride in making garments for the company. You explain that she approached each day with a willingness to do better. Do you often ask yourself how you can do better than yesterday, and if so, what areas of yourself are you hoping to improve on?
I do, constantly, and there are two aspects to it: one is, when you do what we do, when you’re on-air, there is a presentation aspect, like literally your presentation skills, and that is constantly something that you need to be thinking about. So there are things — I talk too fast, I sometimes don’t articulate enough and people accuse me of mumbling. If we get particularly heated, I sometimes interrupt Kevin too much, and it drives viewers crazy. There are things I need to be mindful of and try to do better at all the time. And then there’s a whole other kind of layer to it, which is the writing on the show: am I thinking about good guests, am I being creative enough, are we pushing the envelope, can I motivate the people around me to do a better job? Those are all things that are a constant. When you create a product every day, you can’t ever say, “OK, we’ve got the formula and we don’t have to keep trying to push the envelope.”

In your opinion, what are the three questions that can lead you toward success/happiness?
I don’t think anyone can claim to know the questions, and I don’t think they would be the same for anybody. The most important thing is that you’re asking, and the second-most important thing is that you don’t let yourself be satisfied with the first answer you get. If you do those two things — if you stay curious about why you do what you do, what you could do differently, what makes you happy (those are all the kinds of questions I would ask if you’re sort of trying to figure out your path) — but then don’t just say, “Oh, that sounds right, that’s a good answer,” because multiple questions on the same subject will actually reveal a great deal about whether or not you’re on the right track. Maybe you weren’t. My whole story about thinking I wanted to be an architect and then in fact realizing that it’s not the right calling … I would have realized that a lot sooner if I had asked the right questions and not stopped at the answer that sounded easy.

Do you often question whether or not the standard classroom teaching method will prepare children for what the future will bring?
I do, 100 per cent. And educators do as well. We all know it’s not new. The current school system was perfectly designed for the industrial era and it’s not perfect for the post-industrial era. And if you just think about the way kids consume information — something like social media has transformed the way they think about their peers and what’s happening in the world and how they’re going to get information. If we don’t respond to that in school, if we say, “well now we’re going to use a textbook and a pencil,” even though in your own lives everything you use is different, it’s electronic and it’s very horizontal — we’re not going to get through to kids. So I think we’re going to have to adjust and we’re going to have to adjust fairly quickly, because otherwise we’re going to have this whole generation that just isn’t really relating to learning. And we can’t afford that, we really can’t. Kids need to love to learn and leave school as lifelong learners.

Why is it so important for businesses to question their own existence?
It’s both important and very difficult for a business to say, “We know that this is working — this thing that’s making us money and we’re selling — but what should we be doing that we haven’t thought of yet?” That is the innovator’s dilemma — how do you keep doing what you’re doing on that market but also think about the markets you haven’t thought of yet but that some competitor’s going to come along and steal. Some really good businesses do use that in the fabric of their DNA: they really force the idea of change and renewal; they create a whole culture around it, systems around it. Companies like Procter & Gamble would be a good example. They know that if they don’t keep innovating, they’re out of business, and so they don’t just accept that they have a bunch of good products and stick at that — they keep trying to come out with new things.

What industry sectors in Canada would improve if they just asked more questions?
You can point to our manufacturing industry as one that is in desperate need of innovation that would result in higher productivity. But, there’s some really good research done that shows that at the small-company level — companies that are young, five years or fewer in business — we’re pretty productive, that Canadians actually are entrepreneurial: we start things up, we invest. But as our companies get bigger and older, we get into some weird complacency that sets in. So for me, it’s actually any mid-sized company that somewhere in its corporate culture says, “good enough is good enough” that needs to give themselves a kick in the pants, because that’s where the danger lies. The danger is: “Well, it’s working, we’re all doing fine, why do we have to worry, why do we have to get our exports to China, why do we have to buy that expensive piece of equipment that we don’t really need today but we might need tomorrow?” It’s all the cutting-edge stuff that we stop doing when we get any slight bit of success, and that’s actually where, I think for Canada, the biggest danger lies.

On a global scale, where is Canada in terms of innovation, and what ideological shifts are needed to foster a creative culture in Canada?
Well, we rank terribly, especially when you factor in all of our advantages in terms of education, government policy and just natural wealth. The most important measure is against the U.S., because it is our biggest trading partner and so the differential of productivity matters a lot. And so, as they say, on a sheer innovation, investment and R&D basis, we do great with young companies. When it starts to fall apart is when our companies get a little bigger, get slight success, but then for some reason they stop investing, they stop taking chances and risks. And that is where the gap between us and the U.S. especially, really shows. That gap has been estimated incidentally, in the tens of billions, in fact, one number I’ve seen puts it at $70 billion a year. If we were just as productive as America, we’d have $70 billion more in our economy — the federal deficit would be gone, we’d be able to fully fund health care if that’s what we wanted to do, we’d be able to fully fund all pensions — that’s a lot of money in our economy that we may be sacrificing just because we’re not making the investments that we should be making.

What ideological shifts should we be fostering here?
I don’t have hard research on this, but one of the questions that I’m now asking — and that I think is worth asking — is whether it’s something cultural at play, whether it’s something that we’re allowing to take hold that says complacency is OK and that we don’t have to keep striving, that once we get successful we can slow down and turn our attention to other measures of life value. That may be really holding us back. And it may be that when you have wonderful systems like we do — universal health care access to education for all — that it actually does create a culture where we’re all going to be equal so we don’t have to push too hard. I don’t know. Again, there is no research, but I do wonder why with all of our natural advantages and all of the policies we are getting right, we are not doing better on this.

How does missing out on opportunities to innovate affect our happiness?
I think we want to improve things and so, if you think of innovation really as connection or engagement and then curiosity — you can think in your own life, if you don’t actually think about what you’re doing, take that moment to say, “Why am I living here, why am I in this job, why am I in this relationship?” and then take the next step and say, “What are the questions I need to be asking here?” Those two things are very powerful change agents, and so when you talk about what innovation is, it’s really problem-solving is one way to put it, incremental change is another way to put it, but the key is, you can’t get it if you’re not engaged, if you’re not connected, and then if you’re not actually being a little curious. And so personally, those two things actually lend themselves to happiness.

As a parent of two children, you must have — and continue to — answer a lot of questions. What is your advice to parents who start to get annoyed by all the why’s, and what can they learn from this experience?
There are three things: first of all, to see the curiosity as a positive thing and not a negative — there’s research that shows that a lot of us see it as a negative, attention-seeking behaviour or stalling tactic — see it for what it is, which is a natural scientific exploration of the world. Understand, by the way, that the research also shows that if you want to quiet the child, they are just looking for an answer that satisfies them. They will stop asking you why if you give them an answer that’s satisfactory. And the third piece, I would say, — and this is something my older sister told me because she had kids before I did, and it’s invaluable — if you get to a question you either can’t answer, or don’t want to answer, don’t shut the conversation down, but turn it back to the child by way of saying, “What do you think? Let’s talk about that a little more.” And that way, it’s still a conversation, you’re not closing it down, you’re not creating a negative atmosphere around this, but you’re actually asking them to let their minds stretch a bit.

During an interview with Peter Mansbridge, you mentioned that you wrote this book with your sister in mind. Can you elaborate on that?
My twin sister is a partner in a law firm, and she’s very bright, she’s a super capable person, but she’s not always interested in macro economics or the stuff that she would label ‘boring’ and that she doesn’t want to know more about. So I wanted to write a book that she would find interesting. In other words, not a business book, but a book that somebody smart but not necessarily turned on by economics would pick up and find interesting and find worthy. So she was the person that I kept in mind.

Why did you write The Power of Why?
I wrote the book because I’m really passionate about Canada, and because our biggest problem is our productivity problem, and when I realized that innovation is the solution, and specifically that innovation is something everybody can do, then I got kind of excited, and it seemed like a message that was worth sharing because it literally can make people’s lives better. The innovators that I profile in the book — when I think of what they have in common — is that they’re happy people. They like what they do, every single day, because they’re so engaged with their own lives, and to me, that’s a really compelling message to share.

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