Troubleshooting favors the curious. A burning desire to learn and ask questions is a natural complement to fixing things. Don’t mistake the pressure to fix a problem for curiosity: this is separate from job responsibilities and the frustrated energy created when a breakdown blocks your way. Foster your sense of curiosity as a virtue in its own right, especially apart from your work. Asking “Why?” and following the answer wherever it leads, will spill over to your troubleshooting. Probing deeper won’t seem like a chore, because it’ll be in your nature to want to go beyond the surface level. When you do, you’ll find that the world is an interesting place when you peel back its layers. My philosophy of “Cleaning Up” stems from this inquisitive mindset: for the curious, the problem and immediate solution are just the beginning.

Curiosity Made The Cat Into—A Great Troubleshooter!

Were you that kid that liked to take things apart just to see how they worked? If so, you might not have always been able to put it back together again. Curiosity can get you in trouble—and that can be a good thing—assuming you live to tell the tale! I remember messing around with the family computer when I was growing up. What does this file do? What would happen if I edited it or moved it? The family computer was the most expensive thing we owned (besides our house and cars). It was spoken about in hushed voices and wrecking it would be a Bad Thing. But wreck it I did and most of the time I was able to put it back together again.

Curiosity will lead you to situations that are over your head. I mucked around, made mistakes, and had to recover. This made me stronger. I‘m not saying you have to flirt with disaster to be a competent troubleshooter. While the super inquisitive make great fixers, I just want your average troubleshooter to be a little more curious.

Just over the horizon
Let your curiosity take you beyond the horizon, to that place just out of view…
(image: NASA Goddard Space Flight CenterCC BY 2.0)

Exercise That Muscle

Don’t consider yourself naturally curious? That’s okay, I think it’s something that can be cultivated. Try this fun exercise:

The first week: every day, choose something in your non-work life and decide to learn just a little more about it. Take a business, organization, or government entity that you know or interact with and look them up online (this can be fascinating, especially if they are prone to saucy scandals!). You probably come into contact with lots of people who do things for you: butchers, taxi drivers, auto mechanics, doctors, store clerks, baristas, etc. Why not ask them how business is going or about an aspect of their job? There are lots of things we rely upon in our modern lives, but it’s amazing how we take them for granted. Do you know how electricity works or how an internal combustion engine operates? Who invented the Internet? What’s in a Twinkie? If you’re truly stuck and need inspiration for a topic, dive into a random Wikipedia article.

The second week: every day, choose something from your work life and use that as a basis to dig a little deeper. The tools you use, processes you manage, the people you work with, your organization, your industry: these are all fertile ground for asking questions. Who makes your favorite tools and what else do they offer that might be useful? Who invented the key technologies in your industry? What’s the background of your co-workers? Who stocks the vending machines in the cafeteria? What does your company’s latest annual report and balance sheet say about the future of your job?

I guarantee that, at least once during these 2 weeks of curiosity, your mind will be expanded with an amazing fact, a fascinating but hidden connection, or a supremely useful nugget o’ knowledge that will make your life better.

After that: Keep a running list of things that you want to learn more about. I keep a list like this on my phone and I add to it whenever I come across something that deserves follow-up. The upside? I’m never bored as there’s always something interesting on the list to learn more about.

Fake It Till You Make It (But Don’t Go Too Far)

If you don’t consider yourself a curious person, just try pretending you are one when troubleshooting. Think: what would a curious person do. I can just see the “WWCPD?” bumper stickers, coffee mugs, and t-shirts being printed in mass quantities—I’ll be glad to take the credit for that when it happens. Especially look for moments where inquiry has stopped and a “first-level” response or solution is being accepted. The curious person isn’t satisfied with the surface, they’re eager to plumb the depths.

When can curiosity get in the way? I mentioned that the Virtues of the Troubleshooter need to be balanced amongst each other and practiced in moderation. As surprising as it might seem, curiosity should probably take a back seat to the other virtues when actually troubleshooting. Curiosity really shines as a virtue before and after fixing something. Before, it’s great for accumulating knowledge about the world in preparation for troubleshooting (especially if you’re curious about your tools, systems, organization, and industry). After everything’s back up and running, curiosity is great for pushing to fully understand what happened and make long-term improvements (i.e., in the “Cleaning Up” phase).

While troubleshooting, however, curiosity must be tempered by the other virtues. The knowledge gained from being curious has a cost in terms of time and resources. As noted before, sometimes it simply doesn’t pay to know why a failure occurred. The impact of downtime should lead the troubleshooting process: if lives or livelihoods are on the line, the focus should be on getting back to normal. Save your wide-eyed curiosity for when the pressure is off. Lastly, the troubleshooter should always keep an eye on safety. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but don’t let it harm you!


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