Discernment and Curiosity

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How Discernment and Curiosity Propel Technical Expertise

Building a base of expertise is critical for job success. It runs the gamut from informally doing a good job to a more formal level of a credential or test for mastery.

Yet stripped away from  knowledge and experience are two critical attributes that   drive expertise in two opposing, yet related, directions – discernment and curiosity.

One judges, one questions. One pushes ,the other pulls.  One itches, the other soothes.


The Power of Discernment

At one level, discernment is analytical thinking. It’s the ability to apply logic and reason to solving problems. It’s understanding what’s inside the box and how the pieces fit together.

One of the more common illustrations of analytical thinking is the use of the scientific method, a specific set of interrelated steps to define the problem, create a hypothesis, collect data, test the hypothesis, and draw conclusions.

What makes the scientific method work is the use of a consistent methodology based on structure, logic, and analytical thinking. It has rigor and discipline. The analytical thought process scales. We use it to think through a variety of situations from geometry to history, weather forecasting to party planning, landscaping the front yard to fixing cars.

Additionally, it has the potential to construct, destruct, and reconstruct the elements of a problem and to search for solutions that are not readily apparent.

As an individual moves through the leadership development process, the ability to make connections and see relationships broadens in scope across people, organizations, and the outside world.

Discernment as Insight and Meaning

At a deeper level, analytical thinking is about sharpening one’s intellectual capacity. A part of this process is the ability to make informed judgments.

This is discernment, the ability to see and understand situations clearly and intelligently.

Consistently solving problems creates a good batting average. But to hit home runs takes insight, which is the ability to discern meaning and figure things out at a deeper level.

 What is important is not simply the pursuit of understanding, but the ability to step back and get perspective on the situation:

  • What’s going on here?
  • What do I “see”?
  • What does this mean?
  • What might I be missing?
  • If I were to change places and look from another angle, what might be different?
  • What am I learning?

Discernment is learning from the situation, zooming in to understand causation, and zooming out to understand context and meaning.


Curiosity and the Power of What If?


What discernment is to thinking logically, curiosity is to thinking creatively.


Curiosity has two sides. One side accepts, meaning it embraces new ideas and diverse perspectives.

The other side confronts. It questions authority, takes risks, and challenges perceived constraints.

Curiosity is an itch that must be scratched. And when curiosity is unleashed, it has the power to create scientific breakthroughs and artistic triumphs. It is reason, and it is passion. For all these reasons, it is a critical competency needed for leadership.

What makes curiosity important  in building expertise is its natural inquisitiveness with questions that come in all shapes and sizes. For certain they include what and how.

But what curiosity fuels most is an insatiable need to go beyond why to contemplate, what if …?

  •  Sometimes it’s illuminating, and sometimes it’s edgy.
  • Sometimes it leads to understanding; sometimes, it leads to confusion.
  • Curiosity is nothing if not relentless.It is not bound by logic.


The Forces that Make You Smarter

The relationship of curiosity and discernment—inquisitiveness and judgment—creates a unique dynamic. They are a bit like the odd couple.

One is convergent—analyzing clues, making judgments, drawing conclusions—all neat and tidy. The other is divergent—asking questions, looking for options, wondering what if—messy and scattered. But they have figured out how to live together. Independently, each is important, but together they create a disciplined yet flexible way of thinking that is conducive to building a solid base of expertise.

Building a base of expertise is not about being smart, it’s about getting smart – all the time.

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