I wish someone told me how hard it would be to be a social entrepreneur, owning and running a business — compounded by the deep sense of responsibility to care for all of the direct and indirect stakeholders interdependent on its success. It is a great love, but also a tremendous burden.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing author and inquiry designer Seth Goldenberg.
Seth Goldenberg is a designer, curator, and entrepreneur who harnesses the power of questioning to catalyze innovation and cultural change. He is the founder and CEO of Curiosity & Co., a one-of-a-kind bookstore, experience laboratory, and design-ventures studio, and the creator of the Ideas Salons, invitational thought-leader retreats that tackle the essential questions of our time.
Blending diverse practices of philosophy, experience design, storytelling, and public engagement, he’s developed a signature inquiry-based methodology that challenges commonly held beliefs to imagine flourishing futures. In August 2022, he will publish Radical Curiosity with Penguin Random House, articulating his strategic framework as a practice for individuals, businesses, and communities to thrive during a time of significant reinvention.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
What a delicious question! In fact, one of the 7-narratives comprising the book is “Youth”. Youth as mental model for unpacking insights and design principles for Radical Curiosity.
My youth was spent growing up in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. A 6-million-acre forest, my upbringing was immersed in nature and extremely rural. I attended public school in Peru, NY — an apple orchard and farming community that served a geography of 168 square miles and still I graduated with less than 200 students. My father was a philosopher + social worker and my mother was a schoolteacher who built a library for her district. As a Jewish youth I traveled to Israel for a summer immersion, stamping a deep sense of ethics and civic responsibility into my character. I also had a unique experience of being a child prodigy artist, presenting my artworks in professional galleries by the time I was 12 years of age. These became patterns and themes grounding my childhood.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
Great question! In my undergraduate experience I read Paulo Freire and bell hooks. Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Freire and Teaching to Transgress by hooks, were big influences. I spent most of my undergraduate experience in a series of service-learning programs volunteering and collaboratively making artwork with youth from housing authority communities, after-school education programs, hospitals, libraries, and orphanages. I became very interested in ways to invert power hierarchies in community-based settings. Using the arts to propel the voices who we often don’t hear from.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
What a playful question! I have found myself in a series of unexpected situations that. are a countless source of humor. I am not sure they are mistakes as much as radical experiments. We tend, in my design studio practice, seek out the radioactive challenges that place me and our practice at the convergence of extraordinary circumstances. One that was entirely unexpected was I was asked by the Governor of the State of Rhode Island to temporarily serve as the Chief Marketing Officer for the State. The previous CMO was fired as she launched a terrible new logo, slogan, and brand for the state that included b-roll of kids skateboarding in Reykjavík, Iceland meant to display life in Rhode Island. The uproar of the mistake led to her ousting and my 100. day hold as crisis management as the State gained 1 billion social media hits for how not to tell the story of a place.
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book, Radical Curiosity?
Radical Curiosity is a kind of manifesto for championing inquiry. But not merely questions — radical questions that get to the roots of things. It aspires to help model how to question commonly held beliefs to imagine flourishing futures. It was inspired by a belief that we are living through a significant redesign of all of public life. Our social systems are going through an operating systems reboot. To lead, to thrive, to navigate this uncertainty requires challenging fundamental assumptions about how we will live, learn, work, play, and sustain ourselves in the next century. Today, social impact requires new languages and courage to challenge the very roots of our human condition. It is my hope that the book codifies useful stories, insights, and frameworks that I have spent my life experimenting with to further develop the vernacular needed to move the field forward.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
There are too many!
- What I learned about design by working with Oprah Winfrey
- What I learned forged trust with First Nations leaders: a walkabout
- What I learned from Disney Imagineers: molecular gastronomy
- What I learned about the future of work by collaborating with the Chief Talent Officer of Apple Stores
- What I learned about Afrofuturism by working with the architect of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History
- What I learned about democracy by working on the 2008 Democratic National Convention
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
My studio, Epic Decade, was approaching its 10-year anniversary; I was reflecting on what I had learned and how compressed my life experiences have been as I turned 40 after 20-years of troublemaking. In 2016 in the heat of the Trump / Clinton election I held a 3-day retreat with some influential thought leaders and proposed that Trump could actually win and we may need to launch a new political party. Three years later I was a co-chair helping to launch Andrew Yang the Universal Basic Income candidate. A year after that the pandemic emerged and there was nowhere left to hide. Our country’s social systems began collapsing like multi-organ failure. It felt like mapping out a framework for radical curiosity was a natural form of protest.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Some years back the studio was engaged with a Fortune 500 company to help them navigate and manage significant change. My team and I curated a 3-day summit for 400 members of their organization. This convening, named Change by Design, featured a talk by Sir Ken Robinson on the importance of creativity which he and I planned and framed together. The finale concluded with an evening at the Art Institute of Chicago Museum where docents took all 400 guests on guided tours of modern and contemporary. As they then sat for dinner each participant was gifted an original work of art. One of the guests approached me at the event and explained this was the first time he ever visited a museum as well as his first original work of art. Months after the event I learned he became a member of a museum in his home community. I think of this as a case study in seeing someone who is awakened by bringing wonder, imagination, and curiosity into the culture of business.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
I’ll give you two juicy ones 😉
- Politicians: Imagine running for office not based on a fixed platform position on an issue, but on the proposal of a process of inquiry to explore and develop new models with the public. We don’t need quick fix answers, we need civic imagination for cooperatively asking questions about the future we want to live. Maybe its time for a “Curiosity Party”.
- Community: In our studio we are beginning to develop and pioneer a concept adapting from the history of Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) and repointing it to mean a new kind of CSA: Community Supported Aliveness. Communities hold great power to rewrite policies, programs, and social systems that re-embrace curiosity as central to the experience of social cohesion. We will be launching frameworks and invitations for collaborative design-builds for establishing curiosity communities and curiosity centers in 2023.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
For me, leadership is in large part about curating the conditions for awe. There is a lot of noise out there. We need to breakthrough and discern what matters. Leadership that is guided by a North Star to make a real dent in the universe requires awe as a strategy to call beloved truths into question and adjust our mental models to allow for the acquisition and assimilation of new profound ideas that break our traditions, conventions, and expectations.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- I wish someone told me how hard it would be to be a social entrepreneur, owning and running a business — compounded by the deep sense of responsibility to care for all of the direct and indirect stakeholders interdependent on its success. It is a great love, but also a tremendous burden.
- I wish someone told me how critical technology, digital media, and data would be to scale for impact. Social impact requires, like any business or cultural enterprise, the capability complexity of a Fortune 500 business. The orchestration of designing systems and technologies that point those systems can be what makes or breaks successful impact.
- I wish someone told me how the stakes would get increasingly higher in our public sphere so we could design courageous risk taking earlier in the process as preventative counter measures. If activism is a DNA, like any craft or expertise, the tools for catalyzing change need their own r&d to keep up with the shifting landscape.
- I wish someone told me how critical documentation can be to telling a story, building a brand, and conveying to audiences the impact of what we do. When the process is the project it requires alternative kinds of metrics that are narrative-based, visually rich, and human-centered case studies.
- I wish someone told me that where I lived had a much greater role in shaping the potential of my impact than anticipated. While we can fly anywhere, and have, the daily rituals, routines, and ecosystems of an anchored local culture have exponential implications to the talent and team, the access to resources, the conditions of family life, and model of wellbeing.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The power to question is the basis of all human progress.”
– Indira Gandhi, the first prime minister of India
It is the thesis of the book. My fear is that curiosity is an endangered species and without it we cannot move forward. We face existential questions across every domain of life. We will need to unlearn much of what we believed to be unquestionable.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Amanda Gorman. She, for me, represents the possibility of the next generation.
Janelle Monae. She, for me, represents the possibility of this generation.
Jose Andres. He, for me, represents a commitment to repair a legacy of a previous generation.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.
Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Seth Goldenberg Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.