Curiosity matters to our society. When we look to improve our lives, curiosity compels us to overcome inertia and to seek something better. But the big question is: why are we curious at all?

Last week I spoke with Mario Livio, an astrophysicist who lives in the DC region. Recently, he immersed himself in learning about curiosity and just released a book on the topic.

Why would an astrophysicist study curiosity? Livio explained that by examining his life and interests more closely, he realized that he had come a long way from being a scientist involved in the Hubble Telescope project to being someone with an eclectic range of interests, including art and music.

As he looked at his diverse interests and the happiness he got from pursuing them, he found himself asking, “Wait a second, what do we actually know about curiosity?”

Through reading on his own and by talking with scientific experts, Livio learned that there are two main types of curiosity.

The first is perceptual curiosity. Perceptual curiosity causes a person to seek to learn something to solve an immediate problem, like finding food, combating bad breath or trying to remember the name of the wonderful actor in that otherwise awful horror movie. Perceptual curiosity is primal and exists on a continuum between fear and satisfaction. Broadly speaking, the fear of a negative outcome motivates us to act. This means that the role of fear in our behavior is double edged: one level of fear motivates us to be curious, but too much fear causes us to shut down.

Perceptual curiosity is also driven by novelty. This is true regardless of our age, although the bar for finding things that are novel gets higher as we get older. 

These attributes of perceptual curiosity may explain why as people get older they tend to favor the status quo, why a boring job tends to wear people down and why we ask fewer questions when we are frightened.

The second type of curiosity is epistemic curiosity. This curiosity is much less driven by external events and emotion than is perceptual curiosity. It is based on the process of satisfying a curiosity for the pleasure that comes from mastery. Epistemic curiosity is the desire for knowledge in its own right. This is the curiosity that drives scientific discovery, philosophy and people asking big questions that shape the fabric of our society. It is a cooler, more rational curiosity, but one that is deeply rewarding and pleasurable for those who satisfy it.

Livio believes that these two types of curiosity are essential to our ability to have happy and productive lives. We need both, he adds, because “love of knowledge does create a reward for its own sake, but you want to feel results.”

His conclusion? “Curiosity is a human condition. Something that we cannot avoid.”

Implicit in all of this is an important thread: to satisfy curiosity you must have agency. Curiosity is thwarted without a way to apply it. Whether we are talking about a homeless person wondering where to find a meal, a futurist looking for a great science fiction novel in a book store, or a scientist pondering the origin of the universe, people are driven forward by the belief that their curiosity will be rewarded . Without a framework that rewords and encourages curiosity, we will lose the very trait that is essential to our future.

As I ended my conversation with Livio, I asked him if he had a final thought on the matter. He answered: “Curiosity is one of the purest forms of freedom.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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When a company’s ownership is dominated by a small number of stockholders related by blood, it is often hard to distinguish between what is good for the business and what is good for the family.

This blurring can be a positive thing. As someone who grew up in two family businesses, I saw both the positive and negative: the satisfaction my parents gained from having autonomy and getting a new order from a customer but also the long hours and unpredictability of entrepreneurship.

When dinner conversation at home is as likely to be about whether the family business will be able to make payroll as what the children did at school that day, it does leave an impression.

One of the biggest determinants of whether someone will be an entrepreneur is if they were exposed to it as a child. For those who grew up around it, starting a business is much more natural and therefore likely. For good or for ill, children surrounded by a family business know what they are getting into by choosing entrepreneurship in adulthood.

However, there is also a potential down side to a family business. To understand this better, I reached out to David Pellegrini, a psychologist who specializes in family business matters. He pointed out that unlike a “normal” company, the CEO in a family-run business is usually both the generational and professional leader. This can be challenging because, as he puts it, “being the boss of one’s own children tends to lead to an expectation of fealty, loyalty and appreciation from the children.”When this happens, the offspring who are not in charge tend to be deferential.

In my consulting business, I have often seen this pattern of behavior to be very damaging. The head of a family-owned company who does not exercise care can become convinced that there is no need for outside viewpoints, particularly if things are profitable.

Pellegrini notes that this stifles the leaders’ personal growth, because “they have less need to develop skills of persuasion, consensus-building, or true engagement.” It also puts the business at risk if unexpected challenges arise, since it will not have the benefit of a broader experience base to draw from, or lessons to be learned.

Another downside is that viewpoints of non-family members are often treated with suspicion, if not contempt. The entity becomes a self-referential echo chamber, with the business leader in the middle of a sycophantic group offering only news he or she wants to hear. This issue cannot be solved through marriage; often, those who marry into a family are still treated as second-class citizens, since they are not blood relatives.

So, what can break this toxic dynamic? In my experience, the only remedy is for the family head to consciously separate family dynamics from the business, involve professional management and entertain contrary views.

Without making these changes, a family business leader may succeed for a time, but long-term success is highly unlikely.

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A sure-fire way to commercial success is giving people something new they truly and desperately want. Innovation — the connection of something novel with a need — has become a heady concoction that a growing number of organizations pursue.

The Pentagon continues accelerating its effort to source innovation from more places — for instance, it opened its latest innovation-focused office in Austin, Tex. last week as it has done in both Silicon Valley and Boston. CEOs of large businesses and heads of not-for-profit organizations often tell me about their need for innovation.

Many ask whether large organizations can learn to pivot, and embrace innovative change the way smaller companies and individuals seem to be able to.

Let’s look at what innovation means. Some describe it as the process of combining entrepreneurship and technology to create something new, but that definition shortchanges the fresh ideas that don’t

necessarily use technology. It would also imply that large organizations probably couldn’t be innovative, since entrepreneurs generally do not like working in large organizations.

Others tie innovation to commercial outcome, but this devalues the multitude of opportunities for innovation to positively change an organization without necessarily turning a profit. Innovating for social benefit is not profitable in a monetary way.

Instead, innovation is the conversion of a creation into something that satisfies a need. This is an important nuance. Creativity on its own doesn’t need to influence or sway others; it’s a human behavior. Innovation, however, makes users respond and act in a new way, see things differently, feel differently — and, to want to feel that way again.

So innovation can be large or small, broad or narrow in focus and application. Innovation is a naturally occurring phenomenon when people are given an opportunity to be creative and then share their new ideas.

The first trick is establishing conditions for people to dream, to wonder and ponder. This “fuzzy thinking” is the process of gathering information and considering alternatives in a somewhat wandering, less directed path.

The second challenge is…

Read entire column at

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I am currently working with Washington Business Journal on video interviews with leading Washington executives. Along with Executive Producer Tracey Madigan, I spent the summer conducting the interviews as an offshoot of my research for The 2030 Group, the organization of local business leaders working to shore up Greater Washington’s economic future. You can catch the first Profiles in Innovation video, with Honest Tea’s Seth Goldman discussing what makes D.C. an “ideas region,” above, and watch for the next installment featuring TrackMaven CEO Allen Gannett coming next week.

Watch now: Interview with Seth Goldman of Honest Tea.

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SMITH BRAIN TRUST — A recent White House memorandum to heads of federal departments and agencies outlining a policy toward “ensuring Government-wide reuse rights for custom code that is developed using Federal funds” could be problematic for vendors that customize software for individual federal agencies, says entrepreneurship lecturer Jonathan Aberman at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and founder of TandemNSI, a firm whose mission is to “connect agile innovators to government agencies.

The new Federal Source Code, also dubbed the “People’s Code,” also calls for at least 20 percent of these software projects to be accessible to the public without any additional payment to the developer through the “open sourcing” of their work. Aberman expresses caution in reviewing these changes. “Taken together, these policy steps could be a problem for software entrepreneurs,” he says. “As is often the case with announcements like these, the devil is in the details.”

A key issue is the juxtaposition of “government rights” and open sourcing of software products. “A government agency often acquires the right to use a software product specially written for it — and unless the developer specially limits this in their contract with the government, the government will have the right to share it throughout the government without further payment. That is not a new thing,” Aberman says. “You see this most often in research and development or prototyping. And, the government quite literally has rights to thousands of software projects that are completed and not used, or are only used by the agency to which they are delivered. Trying to figure out how to cause them to have more utility is a great idea for taxpayers.”

But the challenge, Aberman says, is whether the new government policy would…

Read entire post at the Robert H. Smith School of Business site.

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On May 12, 2016, the D.C.-based 2030 Group — a coalition of influential, local business leaders exploring the potential for growth in the D.C.region — released a detailed, 53-page report about how the D.C.-area can evolve into a strong economic hub for innovative businesses. While progress has been made, the report describes that there is a significant amount of work left to secure the area’s status as a top destination for business, commerce and innovation.

Headed up by Amplifier Ventures’ Jonathan Aberman, the report makes some interesting and important points about how far the D.C. tech scene has come and also what needs to be done so that it succeeds in the future. Alongside this narrative is a methodical series of recommendations poised by the group, which may be applicable to both business owners and policy makers in the region.

Watch highlights of the report’s findings here.

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On Thursday, the D.C.-based 2030 Group—a coalition of influential, local business leaders exploring the potential for growth in the D.C.-area—released a detailed, 53-page report about how the D.C.-area can evolve into a strong economic hub for innovative businesses. While progress has been made, the report describes that there is a significant amount of work left to secure the area’s status as a top destination for business, commerce and innovation.

Headed up by Amplifier Ventures’ Jonathan Aberman, the report makes some interesting and important points about how far the D.C. tech scene has come and also what needs to be done so that it succeeds in the future. Alongside this narrative is a methodical series of recommendations poised by the group, which may be applicable to both business owners and policy makers in the region.

In order to construct this report, more than 120 individuals from the local entrepreneurial community were interviewed.

Read the whole article at DCInno.

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For the past six months, I have been working with a multi-disciplinary team to use research and data to paint an accurate picture of innovation in our region.

It turns out that the months of digging and analysis have proven at least three things: the Greater Washington Region is way more entrepreneurial than we think it is, there is a unique, wildly successful “DC Model of Entrepreneurship” and … we are at risk of losing out if we don’t make swift changes to how we capitalize on what the region has to offer.

Please read the findings here.

I am looking forward to hearing from the Greater Washington Community on ways to use the newly-compiled data to secure a strong innovative entrepreneurial community that will attract and keep high-paying jobs.

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The Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland is recognized as one of the top research institutions in the world, but it is also a place where students can learn from some of the best teachers in a highly supportive community.

At the end of each academic year, the school honors its outstanding faculty and staff members with awards of excellence. The awards were presented at the School Assembly on May 6, 2016.

Assembly-06May16-40“It’s a pleasure to work in an environment where there is so much talent and positive energy,” said Alex Triantis, dean of the Smith School.

“I’d like to extend my heartfelt congratulations and thanks to all of the faculty and staff members at Smith who received awards this year for teaching and service excellence.”

Read details at the Robert H. Smith School of Business website.

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