Cultivating Curiosity Is What Drives Innovation
Hypergiant founder and CEO Ben Lamm has embraced a boundless desire for knowledge as the key to his business success.
Curiosity drives innovation. It is an impulse to pursue a thought, find a solution, seek new possibilities or keep on a path to see what’s around the next bend. Driven largely by Elon Musk’s relentless pursuit of curiosity, SpaceX just became the first private company to send people in a spacecraft to the International Space Station and is on a path to making space tourism a reality in our lifetimes.
According to Mario Livio, an astrophysicist, and author of the book Why? there are two types of curiosity. During a 2017 podcast appearance for Knowledge@Wharton, Livio stated, “There is perceptual curiosity. That’s the curiosity we feel when something surprises us or when something doesn’t agree with what we know or think we know. That is felt as an unpleasant state.... On the other hand, there is epistemic curiosity, which is a pleasurable state associated with an anticipation of reward. That’s our level of knowledge. That’s what drives all scientific research. It drives many artworks. It drives education and things like that.”
No less than Albert Einstein once similarly, succinctly remarked, "I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious."
Curiosity and Entrepreneurship
Curiosity has been a driving force for Ben Lamm, CEO and founder of Hypergiant, throughout his career, leading to massive success across multiple diverse disciplines.
As a child, Lamm traveled frequently to Africa with his family, and at an early age, he saw the stark contrast between life on that continent versus suburban Texas, where he grew up. He saw that the world operated in a multitude of ways and that within those differences, opportunities lay. This led him to question things that most people accepted, even his own thoughts and assumptions.
Self-exploration and questioning are part of perceptual curiosity, something many of us lose as we grow more stable and confident with our life decisions. Yet for Lamm, that self-exploration led to early successes in the form of personal growth. He became a better student, a better friend and a better hustler.
Now, five companies in, Lamm is on to his most ambitious startup yet with Hypergiant, a modern-day Stark Industries servicing the space-company industry with advanced AI, autonomous satellite command and control systems, Intergalactic internet, an Iron Man-inspired space helmet, an AI-powered bioreactor that converts CO2 into algae and more.
For most people, these innovations sound straight out of a sci-fi movie, but with a tagline like “Tomorrowing Today" and a leader like Lamm at the helm, these innovations are natural outcomes that come from a culture that encourages a passionate pursuit of curiosity in all areas of life and work.
The Beginner’s Mind
Shoshin, also known as “beginner’s mind,” is a concept that comes from Zen Buddhism and refers to having a lack of preconceptions about a subject. That openness to new concepts is something children have naturally. Children exude curiosity in everything they do; they are the perfect embodiment of beginner’s mind because they are not yet corrupted with prejudice, assumptions or a historical framework that dilutes what they are observing.
Practicing beginner’s mind also means that even when we know enough on a topic to be considered an expert, we are constantly learning new things, and at any point, those learnings could create a tidal shift in what we believe.
Lamm practices Shoshin with all the subjects he pursues, learning by being as deeply curious as a wayward child, asking, “Why?” The question of why is always a focus, whether that is why a business decision makes sense, why there isn’t a regulation in place or why is there a need for a certain tool. Asking those questions is one of Lamm’s keys to cultivating an attitude of beginning over and over.
Born to Be an Entrepreneur
Experiencing a vast array of cultures and customs around the world gave Lamm the gift of seeing things differently from the rest and an instinctual ability to spot market opportunities. Lamm believes it is important to look at diverse customs, cultures and ideas in order to ensure you are seeing multiple sides to every situation and spotting opportunities where others have not.
As someone with a natural inclination to question the norm, entrepreneurship for Lamm was not just a path, it was his destiny. As he puts it, “I truly believe entrepreneurs are born and not made. I was always destined to be an entrepreneur.” Lamm was fired from every job he had in high school and launched his first company with his college professor as a junior in college. Now on his fifth startup following four successful exits with three of those companies being sold to publicly traded companies, it’s safe to say entrepreneurship is in Lamm’s blood.
Beginning Again and Again
While Lamm’s career path may look erratic, his commitment to a path of curiosity and fluid thinking means he is constantly shifting his observations about the world and how he works in it. “Every time I create my career anew," he explains, "I’m doing it as someone who is peering out to the world as a beginner and again asking how I want to see the world. I often say one of my superpowers is admitting what I don't know, which is weird in this world. I am fine with saying I don't know or don't understand something with the goal to be open and continue to learn.”
That vulnerability allows Lamm to be open to new insights and to be taught by his peers, employees, experts, friends and the world on a variety of topics. Lamm practices being a beginner by never being afraid to begin again, and with an openness to being shown other ways. This manifests itself through another tenet of Buddhism that Lamm embodies, which is the lack of a possessive attachment to any of his ideas.
He recalls a line from the movie Heat, which he saw as a kid, in which Robert De Niro waxes poetic about what to do when the pressure gets too hot: “You should be able to walk away from anything in less than 30 seconds if you feel the heat coming on.”
Lamm’s not running from the law, and the mafia isn’t turning the heat up on him, but his practice of non-attachment by way of not forming ties too deeply with any idea means that he can shift his thinking when presented with overwhelming evidence that contradicts what he believes to be true. The ability to accept one’s own fallibility that comes with a curious mind also propagates a spirit of courage and fearlessness.
Fearlessness Through curiosity
With age and wisdom comes a belief of having figured things out. That sense of security tends to reduce our curiosity about how things work. Curiosity is in part a biological response to fear. Having a willingness to ask about things you don’t know or fully understand can be an act of courage. For Lamm, that fear drives him to look deeper for answers, to push into those areas of discomfort and willingly engage in difficult conversations.
“To cultivate a curious mindset is to live with a comfortable amount of fear," he offers. "I believe curiosity lives somewhere between fear and wonder.”
Lamm’s ability to live in fear and wonder and balance his perceptual and epistemic curiosity is a a powerful tool for an entrepreneur, and he credits it as being the single most important aspect of his career success.
Nothing Is Off-Limits
Lamm can dive deep into ancient aliens one day and into cutting-edge nanoscience research the next. He’ll spend an entire day learning about NASA’s plans for lunar living and the next day all about rewilding theory in Scotland. Knowing a lot about a lot of subjects helps to spike his curiosity further. He can then ask questions like: How can we cultivate within lunar bases a sense of the wild worlds around us? How can we use nanotechnology to challenge the idea of ancient aliens?
His insatiable curiosity means he never stops learning and consuming new ideas. Lamm believes you should pull inspiration from as many sources as you can. His search for knowledge never satisfied, he avidly consumes documentaries, science fiction movies and non-fiction as well as art, philosophy, music and pop culture. Some of the visionaries Lamm is particularly drawn to include people like Matti Suuronen, who built the Futuro houses, and photographers like David Yarrow, who creates intricate worlds.
“I’m really drawn to an aesthetic perspective," Lamm confirms. I find Kanye [West]’s work to be interesting and astounding in its diversity and drive. And, yet, I also am really drawn to the work of people like Livio. who is examining how and why humanity works.”
Encouraging Curious Minds
While there is no doubt that curiosity is a driving force for Lamm, he clearly knows he can not come up with all the ideas needed to build a successful company. For Lamm, cultivating curiosity in the workplace is the most important thing. He relies on a team of people around him who are also smart, curious people capable of bringing new insights to the world. To cultivate that curiosity, Lamm actively encourages people to engage in and pursue outside passions. Hypergiant frequently brings in a lot of speakers, thinkers and activities into the workplace and doubles down on culture. The idea is to create a soup of ideas, stories, beliefs and insights that will naturally spur people to be curious about why and how these ideas impact their work. Creating an “open-floor plan” for ideas, the company pushes a variety of things into the ether of its culture, with the knowledge that the intersection of those ideas will result in novelty.
Lamm's lifetime of curiosity and openness to receiving inspiration and new ideas from any source, along with the ability to be a vulnerable and empathetic leader, has fueld his success in bringing the future to today. Where will your curiosity take you?
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor