Curiosity is a mental tool you want to keep sharp and never get rusty. Curiosity can help you find valuable, interesting information in nooks, crannies and obituaries.
The New York Times has a series called “Overlooked” that mines stories from old death notices about women of note who were ignored. Its latest “uncovery” is Ruth Wakefield, the inventor of the chocolate chip cookie in the 1930s. Her original creation was named the Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookie, a paean to the restaurant she and her husband ran in eastern Massachusetts.
Like many inventions, Wakefield was trying to create something else – a variation of a thin butterscotch nut cookie served with ice cream. As related in the “Overlooked” story, Wakefield wanted to melt squares of chocolate to add to the butterscotch batter, but only had a Nestlé chocolate bar. Without enough time to melt the bar, she wielded an ice pick to create bits of chocolate that she poured into the dough. The chunks of chocolate didn’t melt and the chocolate chip cookie was born.
The author of a book about chocolate chip cookies casts doubt on the “dumb luck” version of their creation, claiming Wakefield was too much of a perfectionist to produce something so yummy by accident. Inadvertent or not, Wakefield gave the world a “revolutionary” mouth-watering taste treat.
Perhaps knowing the history of the chocolate chip cookie won’t solve any of your everyday problems, but it should kindle your sense of curiosity, the foundation for research.
Research is far more than telephone surveys or focus groups. Research also includes talking to people, listening, asking questions and being open to new information and information channels. Research can involve actively exploring what competitors or opponents are saying and doing, and where they are saying and doing it. Research can mean treating the world around you like a library with accumulated knowledge waiting to be discovered. Actually the library of the world is at your fingertips on a laptop or mobile device.
Curiosity may seem like a random way to search for what you need to know. However, curious people have a sharpened sense of where relevant information can be found or reliable sources you can point to where the information exists. In that sense, curious people are like scouts who pay attention to minute details of their surroundings to chart a path forward.
Too often, we fail to scour the past for information. The “Overlooked” series reminds us that history can be one of the best teachers. Did Wakefield accidentally discover the chocolate chip cookie or did she land on it after purposeful trial and error? It is more than a trivial historical question; it is the start of a conversation about our own search for the “next big thing.”
As a cub reporter on a small daily newspaper in Port Angeles, Washington, one of my first assignments was to write obituaries using notes from funeral homes. It occurred to me, this could be a lot more than a rote assignment. I started calling funeral home directors and asking for more details. That led me to contact family members and ask them to reminisce. What they told me turned death notices into front-page feature stories, describing the lives of men and women who in their own way shaped the community in which they lived and died.
Even though I only worked in Port Angeles for three years, I knew more about what made it tick than I did my own home town where I grew up. My job in Port Angeles gave me a license to be curious. It’s a license I’ve tried to avoid allowing to lapse.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.