I recently participated in a team-building exercise at work.
The experience was led by my co-worker, Aniruddha Kadam, who’s known for his great workshop leadership skills. On large sheets of whiteboard paper, participants were instructed to draw a self-portrait and choose one word or title to describe ourselves.
I chose “Explorer”—and was not the only person who gave myself this title. In a room of twenty people, without any prompts, there were three or four other people who also described themselves as explorers. I’m in a design leadership role at LinkedIn, and yet other people in very different roles here used the same word to describe the essence of who they are—meaning we share something deeper in common, even if our job titles and day-to-day responsibilities are different.
What are the underlying qualities of an explorer?
“Explorer” can of course be applied to a wide range of personalities and professions. Some personality tests use words like “flexible” and “enthusiastic” to describe an explorer’s natural state.
With roots in both the tech industry and the contemporary art industry, I’ve found the explorer mindset exists across a spectrum of creative work. For years, I ran a gallery in New York City with locations in SoHo and Brooklyn, and built a community among artists who were infinitely curious about how to give an idea an appropriate expression. Just as the design-explorers in our team-building exercise were navigating innovation in the tech landscape, the artist-explorers I worked with in the gallery were making their marks across the real world through street art, installation, and mixed media work.
As I’ve reflected upon the “Explorer” mindset more, these are some shared qualities I’ve observed:
Explorers embrace ambiguity.
An explorer is intrinsically motivated by curiosity.
Curiosity isn’t necessarily wandering for the sake of wandering. Curiosity for an explorer means beginning the journey knowing an end or transition exists, and being excited by the opacity of the road ahead. In management-speak, we refer to this as the ability to “embrace ambiguity”—to be open to a range of outcomes, knowing one has or can find the tools, people, and vision to arrive at any one of them.
A groundbreaking artist in Brooklyn, New York, who’s a wonderful example of what it means to follow your unique, innate curiosity is Caledonia Curry. As we became friends in the New York art scene, I began to know her as someone who lived, breathed, and expressed the importance of trusting the path—even if you aren’t completely sure where things will end up. Case in point, her Swimming Cities of Serenissima project had artist-friends and co-conspirators joining forces to build boats out of scrap metals and thrown-away goods while simultaneously sailing them from the coast of Slovenia into the heart of Venice.
Granted, in most (if not all) cases, it’s a much more physically risky and adrenaline-producing experience to float in open water on a raft powered by salvaged engine parts than it is to design software. But the spark of curiosity is there nonetheless.
Even the digital explorers digging through code and testing ideas are in it for the ride—and they too start the journey with limited resources and requirements. Over time, they also must inspire a community to join forces and come along for the ride. They, too, need to build the boat while piloting it.
Explorers balance experimentation with craftsmanship.
It’s only through focus that a discovery can be made—a focus on craftsmanship. Each step, whether it’s forward or backward or from side to side, should advance the way you work. Each iteration will become better than the last, and the tools you have today will evolve with you. Interestingly, the practice of staying both curious and focused can become a sort of discipline that’s both rigorous and flexible.
I love the way tech ethnographer Tricia Wang describes her practice: “I am obsessed with discovering the unknown.”
Early in her career, Tricia discovered that technology programs often aren’t enough when working to support underserved communities. She’s since lived and worked within communities ranging from Chinese migrants to street vendors to young New York hip-hop artists and—more recently—Fortune 500 companies and global NGOs. Underscoring her work, however, is deep curiosity in the “thick data” that emerges when we gather insights from actual people, humanizing the numbers that guide business decisions.
She has a remarkable TED talk on this subject—and her advice is, “Go to the edge to discover what’s really happening.” In other words, be curious and experiment with the journey as you improve your practice by giving shape to the insights you bring back.
Explorers develop (and trust) their instincts.
One of the most challenging activities for an explorer, especially in the context of business, is to spend time (and resources) moving in an unproven direction based on intuition.
Steve Duncan, an explorer, urban historian and photographer, offers this advice: “Find something that piques your interest, and then try to follow it, wherever it leads!”
Anyone who has met Steve instantly recognizes his pure love of the unknown—and his unstoppable curiosity. What’s important to remember about his adventures, though, is that it’s taken years for him to develop the instinct to know where and when he can travel safely.
At Linkedin, one of our core values is to “take intelligent risks” and this is how I’d characterize the way Steve operates. While it might look like he’s just popping a manhole cover and jumping in, he actually has a massive amount of data guiding his actions. Does he discover something incredible every time? Maybe not. But does he learn and continue to find new entry points to explore? Yes.
Every space is as open to creative risk-taking as you are open to exploring it.
All environments (work-related or otherwise) can be approached with a creative process where we start by getting curious—by asking questions—about how we might create value. “Explorers” then determine how to arrive at that value through embracing ambiguity, balancing experimentation with craftsmanship and trusting their gut along the way as they pursue each new path.
If the term “explorer” resonates with you, regardless of your profession, then I invite you to consider the ways in which you’ve constructed your own exploration framework. How do you move from point A to point B? What’s your method for determining the next step, even if your final destination is still a vague construct?