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Face Uncertainty with Curiosity

Dec 18, 2020

U.S. Engineering

By Tyler Nottberg
CEO & Chief Optimist

CEO Tyler Nottberg

A few weeks ago, my friend David and I were reminiscing about moments in the distant past when we each thought we’d discovered answers to life’s most important questions. Most answers were flawed and all were fleeting. David described being out late one evening with some friends, one of whom claimed he knew what needed to be done to make the world a better place. His friend, who went on to become a professor at Oxford, scribbled his inebriated thoughts on a napkin before passing out near the couch. The next morning, David looked at the napkin: “More holes in bigger cheese.”

In my case, it was winter break during my freshman year in college. I had been away from home, reading big books about big ideas. Studying all these books made me feel brilliant. And since I didn’t want to deprive my friends and family of my brilliance, I liberally shared my thoughts on morality, politics, and the human condition. “Unimpressed” doesn’t fully capture my Dad’s mood one evening when I argued that we should embrace Socrates’ concept of Philosopher-Kings for our system of government. He looked at me and paraphrased Winston Churchill’s quip about Clement Attlee: “You’re a modest young man who still has much to be modest about.”

All these years later, I still think about my 18-year-old self. Was it arrogance or just naiveté? It was probably both. Then again, maybe I’m just as arrogant and naïve as I was back then, even if I’ve learned a bit more about the importance of humility.

In my position, I’m privileged to be able to meet with a lot of young students who are getting ready to enter the work force. Maybe they want career advice. Maybe they want a job. Maybe they just aren’t sure what they want. And for a long time, when I would agree to get together for breakfast or lunch, I’d lead with a litany of questions about where they grew up, what they studied, and whether they had charted a career path. 

After hundreds of these meetings, I noticed I was getting bored. I’m sure the students noticed it as well. One evening, I was complaining about my dilemma to a friend who teaches classes on leadership. She listened for a bit, then said, “Tyler, stop your complaining. The problem isn’t the students. The problem is you. You’re just going through the motions. Be more curious.”

Her advice was sound, so I began challenging myself to take a new approach. It wasn’t easy. I tried asking better questions, weirder questions, and even switching up the venues where we would meet. None of it was effective. I needed to work smarter, not harder.

Prior to my next meeting, I sent an e-mail to the young engineering student who I would be interviewing, explaining that I wanted him to spend the first fifteen minutes of our conversation teaching me something he was passionate about. He could pick the topic and teach it to me however he wanted. Everything else was up to him.

The morning of our breakfast, I showed up and he said, “I know I’m in engineering, but my real passion is botany.” He talked about losing his mother when he was still in high school, then recounted how he would work alongside her in their garden when he was younger, tending to flowers and exotic types of fungus. I was enthralled. He brought pictures, a couple of books, and even a letter he wrote to The American Journal of Botany. Since then, I’ve had people teach me about everything from “The West Coast Offense” to “The Art of Taxidermy” and even had a Zoom presentation on “How to Restore Classic Corvettes.” It’s now the only way I conduct these types of meetings. I look forward to every one of them.

If there is one thing this year has reminded me, it’s that I still have a lot to learn. It’s also reminded me that very little is in my control, but the things that are—my emotions, actions, and reactions—are where I should focus my energy. I can choose to speak or stay silent. I can pretend to be interested or actually be interested. And above all else, I can be more curious.

Uncertainty can be paralyzing, but it can also be galvanizing—being curious in the face of uncertainty opens up a world of opportunity. If there are many potential outcomes, we can experiment with many potential courses of action. I’m deeply thankful that uncertainty doesn’t intimidate U.S. Engineering. In fact, I would argue that uncertainty fuels our organization. In other words, nobody here thinks that “More holes in bigger cheese” is The Answer.

Our Field and Office team members deal with uncertainty every day. Our corporate superpower is asking good questions and creating space to learn. I see it here every single day. We learn from our customers, trade partners, each other, and the amazing people who might even show up across the table from us at a (socially distanced) breakfast.

During this holiday season, what would it look like if we were more curious? Maybe it’s a book you’ve meant to read. Maybe it’s a project you’ve meant to begin. Or maybe it’s a simple experiment like, “What would happen if I shut off my phone for three days?” Whatever it is, embrace it in the face of uncertainty.

Here’s to going into an uncertain, potentially difficult, holiday season with a sense of curiosity. And may being curious allow us to explore emotions and solutions to challenges that will carry us through to better times.


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