Seth Goldenberg believes that humankind is experiencing a massive operating-system update and reboot combination, using a technical metaphor for a turning point in history. “We’re at a unique time. Some of the symptoms were seen long before it arrived. The legacy narratives of the past are slowly waning, new disruptive narratives are emerging. It’s a baton pass between two eras, and the irony is it’s a multi-decade transition, and right at the crux of it, we experienced the pandemic,” said Goldenberg, the author of the new book Radical Curiosity: Questioning Commonly Held Beliefs to Imagine Flourishing Futures.
Goldenberg, a painter, designer, curator, and entrepreneur who has counted Apple and American Express among his clients, spoke about his new book in a fireside chat with reporter Megan Ulu-lani Boyanton of the Denver Post as part of From Day One’s Aug. 10 virtual conference on offering workers dignity, purpose and fulfillment.
His book Radical Curiosity explores how the spirit of inquiry is at the center of leading creative thinkers, a realization stemming from his own experience. “Whether you’re a fine artist or a designer, our operating system is based on asking questions,” he said. “That natural curiosity is the persona of the artist in society. I was born radically curious, I just didn’t have the words yet.”
His book is broken into seven key narratives that make up the human condition, from nature to youth to learning, each divided into micro-chapters, short essays that bring the building blocks of the seven narratives to life. “We’ve been studying this idea of third places. First place is the home, the second is work; the third is social centers where social capital is exchanged,” he said. “In the book I propose a fourth place: In this time of paralysis, how do we, as a community, co-author the future? We’re facing a complexity of challenges that require more than just bridging. What comes next? Now we have the opportunity to actually design our future.”
Goldenberg’s central thesis is that curiosity might be an endangered feature of our species, due to societal conditioning. “I think it’s easy to fall into the comfort of inhabiting what you know. We’re creatures of comfort, and when we really embrace curiosity, it’s about embracing what we don’t know. It’s a new domain.” He uses the “MBA industrial complex” as an example. “We’re taught a set of predetermined solutions, the deployment and execution of a history of solutions, but we now need to make new knowledge. One of the most surprising interactions is the speed to get the answers. We don’t slow down to even articulate the questions we’re asked to solve”
And while our industry is dominated by leaders with outsized personalities and personal mythologies, he’s quick to point out that not all innovators are radically curious. He singles out the chef José Andrés as someone who fully embraced a curiosity and questions-oriented mindset and modus operandi. “He’s asking what’s molecular gastronomy cooking, what is food, what are we assuming about food?” Goldenberg explained. “He’s using science-play to really challenge and deconstruct the experience of food, but he has become a major world leader to transform food as a source of philanthropy. Who would have thought a Spanish immigrant coming to America would feed more mouths than the Red Cross?”
Yet everyone can live by radical curiosity, including From Day One’s audience of leaders in HR and related fields. In fact, Goldenberg believes that HR is wildly misunderstood. “One of my mentors was the chief HR officer at Apple. He really imagined that HR was the most innovative function in the entire organization: not the product, service, or brand. HR was the source of all innovation.” Given that hardware and software are inert without human curiosity driving them, he has a point.
“The economics of labor are changing radically and we are finding evidence of that showing up in direct and indirect ways. The margins are smaller, the value is a saturated marketplace,” he said. “Those new frontiers are about the human experience. I don’t think anyone is gonna become a billionaire on an app anymore–we don’t realize how crowded and noisy the space is. The question is what’s worth doing at all: future of water, food, housing? Those happen to be billion, no, trillion-dollar industries. And human beings, as the most important resource, are not just a service function, they’re catalysts to all the other creations.”
So, how is an organization to make a dent in the universe? Forget the five-year plans. Goldenberg advocates for a “50- to 100-year plan.”
Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.