Seth Goldenberg is a designer, activist, and social entrepreneur who harnesses the power of questioning to catalyze innovation and cultural change. He is the founder and CEO of Curiosity & Co., and his work has been featured in The New York Times, Wired, and Fast Company. His new book, Radical Curiosity: Questioning Commonly Held Beliefs to Imagine Flourishing Futures (Amazon, Bookshop) hit shelves this week.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Seth about happiness, habits, and creativity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Seth: Drawing. I began my path as an artist, exhibiting my paintings in galleries by the age of eleven. Drawing was a way of seeing, of listening and making sense of the world. In my youth drawing became a ritual as central as breathing. In fact, in a chapter called “May We Never Grow Up” I describe drawing as a ritual for creative wandering and thinking. Today I use drawing as a visual language to develop new ideas, find ways to communicate mental models and experiment with strategies for change. Drawing never ceases to give me a ritualistic pleasure as an artist and an entrepreneur.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
When I was 18 years old I was attending the Rhode Island School of Design. A creative education there felt surprisingly isolating. The Bauhaus model of making was private and production oriented. I now know about myself that I am lit up by collaborating with others. A social connectedness with an ensemble team is where I thrive. And more than this, I feel fulfilled by a sense of purpose. I feel a deep responsibility to meaningfully contribute to the world. I find personal happiness cooperatively working with others on thorny, wicked challenges, that have a shot at making extraordinary contributions to civic society.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?
I don’t practice academic or traditional research. But I view the practice of Radical Curiosity as itself a lifestyle of active research. I like to think about research as the pursuit of new knowledge or the creation of new wisdom. To conduct breakthroughs, we need to question everything. Likely in ways that will make us uncomfortable. When things have gotten this wobbly in the world it’s time to question the very roots of our assumptions. This can upend core beliefs and challenge our very values. Radical Curiosity codifies how I and my design studio have made a life of questioning. What has surprised me is how rare radical questioning is amongst leaders, across every industry. It is what has compelled me to write the book.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I took the quiz and the result was an Obliger. I would have envisioned some hybrid across Questioner (just sayin’), a Rebel (as my work is to upend models as a kind of activist) – but I also understand that there is a difference between how I see my work and its objectives versus my tendencies in behavior, as a leader in daily practice. I am deeply social and care for people, champion them, and fall intellectually in love with their stories. Obliger likely rises to the top as a social-emotional intelligence representing my care for others above all else. A delight to go through the experience of the quiz, thank you!
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?
As an entrepreneur who founded a complex business, my day is never done. The tasks are non-linear and diverse. Often my life is unpredictable, moving across an extraordinary range of activities from mentoring a team member to balancing a budget to envisioning new models for public health for tens of millions across dozens of countries to collaboratively inventing a new transformative travel startup venture – all in the same day. Oddly, this kind of life nourishes me and keeps me in a kind of flow as a thinker and creative problem solver in ways I cherish but may also come at a cost of healthy habits. It begs the question – what is a healthy habit? I wonder how we might redefine the relationship between healthy habits and happiness? This is likely some of the thesis of your work, which is inspiring. I likely have habits that I might not even identify as habits that bring me health or happiness. Maybe, for me, actively identifying habits that yield happiness is itself a kind of design project. Like the decision to fill my studio with bright pink cards to ideate on as we push pin concepts on the wall brings me deep joy – excavating this as a habitual behavior to understand why it yields pleasure might help me know what “interferes” vs “accelerates” my interpretation of health.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
Yes! I have recently been diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes discovered as the result of a hospitalization. It was a big health scare. I am figuring out how to own the diagnosis, understand the sources of this condition for me specifically, and look at ways to change my lifestyle. In particular I have zeroed in on food. Seeking out a kind of food literacy that can inform how I move forward. Ironically, food is a big part of my life. I think it is and can be even more central to all of our lives. My studio has activated food as means to bring communities together, construct social cohesion to take on more than we could alone, and to heighten a multi-sensory experience as a celebration of aliveness. My lightning bolt has led to exploring the development of a new business focused on food that retains that aliveness but does so in service to health. It’s a grand experiment, and I am learning so much along the way. And finding that many beyond me seek food security, food literacy, and food as a cultural tradition that celebrates life.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
Slow down in order to speed up.
Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?
Artists monographs, highly visual collections of the bodies of work of prolific artists such as Egon Schiele, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Julie Mehretu have changed my life. The combination of the visual storytelling and cultural context is blended combination that has propelled my work and my imagination. I think the essence of their impact could be boiled down to permission. These books were treasures for me growing up in a mostly removed, rural, pre-internet reality where they broke apart the inherited languages that I assumed were the only ones I could speak through. They gave me permission to find my own authentic alternate voice that I was not seeing around me.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
My work is often misunderstood in the space of Design Thinking. Which is a practice I have great respect for and do borrow from. Certainly, my time as a leader at Bruce Mau Design, often considered one of the godfathers of the field, helps condition my appreciation for this space. But I’ve also been a critic of the limits of design thinking. I believe that the challenges we face today are wildly complex, entangled, integrated, and deeply imprinted into culture.
Radical Curiosity (Amazon, Bookshop) is an opportunity for me to both show my deep appreciation of many disciplines, practices, mental models, and professions – as well as challenge and create a new lexicon for how to remix and blend ways of working that are appropriate for the moment we are in.
As Audre Lorde says: There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.
Author photo credit: Stephanie Alvarez Ewens