Lessons in curiosity from a naked hiker

by | Oct 17, 2022 | Leadership

One day back in the summer, I was walking up a quiet path in nearby woodland, when I saw something that made me do a double-take.

Coming along the path I was about to join was a naked man wearing nothing but a backpack. I was approaching side-on so, thankfully, I didn’t get a full frontal. As soon as he clocked me, he whipped on some shorts that he had draped over his shoulder.

I’m going to stop there to check in with you. What’s your immediate reaction to what I’ve shared?

Are you feeling outraged, thinking, “How dare he walk around naked? It’s offensive and it must be illegal”? Or does the thought of being alone in a wood with a naked man instil fear, particularly if you’re a woman? Or maybe you’re thinking, “Good on him!”

Looking back, I think my body-brain had a brief wobble where it was worried if it was safe or not, but then pretty quickly took in the information that he’d been pretty speedy putting his shorts on and that he was just another hiker, albeit naked.

As I approached him, he waited for me at a respectful distance and apologised if he’d offended me. He could have just walked off so I thought this was very polite of him.

He then asked me if what he was doing was illegal. Do you know the answer to this, or do you just think you do?

I thought I did but I was wrong : this chap informed me that it’s not illegal to be naked in a public place unless you expose your genitals intending that someone will see them and be caused alarm or distress.

Does that surprise you?

If you thought you knew the answer and, like me, you now find yourself to be wrong, how does that feel? 

I’ve recently come across a superb book called Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps : How to thrive in complexity by leadership expert Jennifer Garvey Berger.

If you read my blogs regularly, you’ll be familiar with the concept that our evolution has a lot to answer for. Our ancestors needed to be on the alert for threats to survive – think tigers, or possible tigers, in the bushes.

Our brain hasn’t changed that much in the 200,000 years since our ancestors roamed the plains and so, although we’re unlikely to be at risk of being eaten by wild animals these days, our body-brain reacts to perceived threats like presenting to the board or dealing with a challenging colleague with the same old fight/flight/freeze response it did when faced with a sabre-toothed tiger.

Garvey Berger’s thesis is that the fact that the world is so complex nowadays feels threatening in itself and our body-brain responds with shortcuts which she calls mindtraps. These mindtraps make us feel safer but have the downside of closing down possibilities and limiting our ability get to the best outcome. She’s produced a super little 6 minute video if you want a quick summary.

One of the five mindtraps she talks about is “rightness”, holding firm to what we think is right without questioning it.

This makes sense in the context of our early human ancestors, as she describes in her book : “You can imagine two of our forebears, wandering through the jungle and hearing a crackling noise. One thinks, “That’s a dangerous animal – I should run!” and she runs. The other thinks, “That sounds like a big dangerous animal, but it could be just about anything, really, I don’t know, I’m never sure about these things and don’t want to leap to conclusions,” and she might be lunch.”

The first person may have been wrong but they acted on their opinion and lived to tell the tale. The second wasn’t sure they were right which could have led them to exploring further and finding something fascinating. However, the cost of their curiosity could well have been death.

In other words, in situations where there was a potential threat, our forebears were better off having the conviction that they were right than embracing uncertainty and getting curious.

The legacy is that we tend to think we’re right most of the time even though – wait for it – psychologists have discovered that our sense of being right about something isn’t rational : it’s an emotion :“your sense of being right about something, the sparkling clarity of certainty, is not a thought process, not a reasoning process, but an emotion that has nothing to do with whether you are right or not”.

What’s more, the reasons we give to explain our actions are mostly “post-decision justifications” because we just felt we knew the right thing to do.

The upshot is that we often think – or feel – we’re right even when we’re not, which gets in the way of us being open to data that might prove us wrong and lead to a better outcome.

So how can we escape when we find ourselves trapped by rightness?

Garvey Berger suggests we need to ask ourselves two questions : What do we believe? and How could we be wrong?

And this means changing the way we listen from listening to fix a problem or win an argument to listening to learn, something that I certainly can’t claim to be good at with my other half!

What I learned from meeting the naked hiker

It was clear the hiker and I were walking the same way. He offered to wait until I’d gone ahead but I felt safe and I suggested we continue together.

As we walked, I found out more about why he liked hanging out, so to speak, in the buff and he found out more about why some people might find it uncomfortable.

Meeting the naked hiker really made me question what I believe. If I’m really honest with myself, I’m not keen on people walking around naked in public. But what’s that about? A result of my upbringing, what society considers acceptable?

And, importantly,  just because I feel uncomfortable with something, it doesn’t make it wrong.

What about you?

Where do you find yourself holding on tight to what you think is right in your life and work? How is this working for you? Could you open yourself to asking yourself how you could be wrong, and being more curious even though it feels uncomfortable?

Garvey Berger quotes Kathryn Schultz, author of Being Wrong : Adventures in the margin of error – she’s also done a TED talk :

“We are wrong about what it means to be wrong. Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition….Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world.” 

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps senior managers and directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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