You could spend all day listing what Thomas Jefferson is famous for.
So let's keep it short: He was the third president of the United States. He was the main author of the Declaration of Independence. And--in an achievement that could only get overlooked on a C.V. like Jefferson's--he was also the founder of the University of Virginia (UVA).
Earlier this week, Jefferson's ties to UVA were back in the news. Specifically, the Founding Father was linked to a discovery in UVA's famous Rotunda, a gorgeous, historic building on campus which is closed for renovations until the summer of 2016.
Matt Scheidt, a project manager for John G. Waite Associates, is overseeing the renovation. He wanted to learn how thick the walls were. That's when curiosity got the best of him. You never know what you'll discover if, like a dog, you just follow your nose, the way Scheidt did, when he crawled through the hole.
"I was laying on my back looking up inside this little space. I saw that there was a piece of cut stone which is very unusual to have in this location," he tells the Charlottesville Newsplex.
So Scheidt crawled through a hole in the Rotunda wall to check out the stone. And as it turned out, he discovered a slice of Americana: an early science classroom--known as a chemical hearth--which Jefferson had helped to equip. Matt Kelly describes it in UVA Today:
Two small fireboxes of the hearth were uncovered in a 1970s renovation, but the hearth itself remained hidden until the current round of renovations... John Emmet, the first professor of natural history, who collaborated with University founder Thomas Jefferson to equip the space, taught the classes... Two fireboxes provided heat (one burning wood for fuel, the other burning coal), underground brick tunnels fed fresh air to fireboxes and workstations, and flues carried away the fumes and smoke. Students worked at five workstations cut into stone countertops.
Leaving aside how fascinating this is in and of itself, you can extract plenty of lessons from it about the power of curiosity. The business world is replete with examples of why curiosity is a crucial trait for leaders. Recently, as my colleague Will Yakowicz reported, the 2015 PwC survey of more than 1,000 CEOs designated curiosity as one of the most valuable tools a leader can have.
"With curiosity comes learning and new ideas. If you're not doing that, you're going to have a real problem," noted legendary entrepreneur Michael Dell in his survey response.
Dell, of course, made bigger news last week, for Dell's $67-Billion acquisition of EMC. Reactions to the deal have varied, but one thing you have to say about Dell is that he's unafraid to try new approaches and learn from them.
At the 2014 Inc. 5000 conference, an interviewer asked Dell if his company had "missed the boat" on the mobile revolution. Dell's answer was a compelling no. He acknowledged that mobile was a massive space. But he said it was still just a small, consumer-centric portion of the $3.5-trillion IT industry. And Dell, he said, was focused on the "80-plus percent" chunk of that $3.5-trillion space: businesses. Small- and medium-sized businesses in particular.
"You don't have to be in every space," he concluded. "[Mobile has] been a tumultuous space. The leader of that space has changed every three years." He listed Nokia, Motorola, and BlackBerry. Then he said: "I guess all those guys missed it too."
The point is, Dell is unafraid to follow his nose--even if it bucks conventional wisdom.
"As Dell noted, curiosity can inspire leaders to continually seek out the fresh ideas and approaches needed to keep pace with change and stay ahead of competitors," observed Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, commenting on the PwC survey in the Harvard Business Review.
For his book, Berger sought out leaders who'd demonstrated the power of curiosity in their approaches. For example, he notes, Twitter's Jack Dorsey came up with the idea for payments company Square after seeing a friend lose a big sale because he wasn't able to accept credit cards.
The story of Square is well known. But sometimes its main point gets lost. In a world obsessed with finding and vetting the next great business idea, Dorsey began to explore what proved to be a massive opportunity--all because his curiosity was piqued.