Curiosity Conversations: A New Way for Teens to Find Clarity and Direction

Do you know any teens or college students who wonder what they want to do with their life? For many teens (and, frankly, adults), finding a sense of direction is a big, stressful question. We’ve been exploring ways to reduce that stress and increase clarity. We’ve discovered a simple technique, curiosity conversations, that takes 30 minutes. Early research suggests it has promising potential as a psychological intervention to help teens gain path clarity and find a sense of direction. Here’s how it works. 

The curiosity conversation technique

TLDR: Teens talk to people with firsthand experience to learn more about any career paths they find intriguing. 

A curiosity conversation is much like an informational interview but they are more fun. It’s a low-stakes chat with no agenda other than learning more about someone, the work they do, and the questions that interest them. 

The idea of curiosity conversations comes from Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer. Whenever he can, he seeks out people who fascinate him — everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Dr. Dre. He asks questions about their childhood, their fears, their hobbies, and their day-to-day life. He lets the conversation flow, so long as he learns what makes them tick. Grazer considers curiosity conversations a form of research. He gets a personal, firsthand account of a person's emotions, psyche, and life story, which help him tell better stories.

For teens, curiosity conversations are a form of research into their own futures. They get a personal, firsthand account into a person's career path, helping them picture what that experience would be like (and whether they'd enjoy it).

Imagine a teen who says she wants to "help people" or "work in social justice," for example. She can set up a curiosity conversation with a community organizer in her town to learn more. The interview can clarify what life as a community organizer looks like and the steps it takes to get there. It might inspire her to volunteer or look for a related summer program. It might also help her realize she’s actually drawn to social work, not community organizing. Either way, she will likely walk away with a greater understanding of her options.

The power of human connection: Early research behind curiosity conversations and path clarity

Lisa Yang, a graduate of University of Pennsylvania, studied curiosity conversations for her senior psychology thesis under the supervision of Angela Duckworth. The study, entitled “The Power of Human Connection,” suggests that curiosity conversations are much more effective than internet searches for young people trying to find a sense of direction.

At the beginning of the study, Yang asked a group of undergraduate students to identify a path they might like to pursue. One student, for example, was interested in becoming a chef. Another wanted to get a PhD in Economics to become a professor. The students were also asked to rate how well they understood the steps it would take to achieve that aspiration. Yang calls this “path clarity.”

Yang instructed half of the students, assigned at random, to spend 30 minutes researching their chosen path on the internet. She told the rest of the students to find someone with experience and expertise in that path and hold a 30-minute curiosity conversation with them instead. Both sets of students were given the same set of questions to drive their search:

  1. How do people get into this profession/area of expertise?
  2. What advice is available on achieving this path?
  3. What is the most challenging part of the profession/area of expertise?
  4. What tradeoffs would you have to make to pursue your path?
  5. How much will you enjoy doing (your path)?

Students from both groups reported similar levels of information gain. In other words, they both learned the basics of what that career requires, like the necessary education and qualifications. But students who held curiosity conversations reported consistently higher levels of path clarity. They walked away from the experience with a better sense for what the career path is like and whether they were just as, more, or less likely to pursue it.

Yang credits this to the power of human connection, or surrogate learning. Real human beings with firsthand experience can provide knowledge that's more specific, useful, and inspiring than independent research. Plus, because it’s a back-and-forth conversation (rather than a one-way search), the information gained is more personal and custom. To put it plainly, when you’re trying to make decisions about your future path, it’s really helpful to talk to someone who’s walked it.

Curiosity conversations in action

Grazer’s model and Yang’s research were so compelling that the Rise team decided to launch a curiosity conversation challenge on Hello World. They invite teens to reach out to interesting people in their communities, hold curiosity conversations, and share what they learned on the platform.

So far, teens from over 150 countries are uploading videos about the curiosity conversations they’ve had. We’ve heard from teens who have spoken to genetic scientists, city officials, law school graduates, and more. Some expressed enthusiasm about following in the footsteps of the interviewee, and others discovered that the path they thought they wanted isn’t as compelling as they’d imagined. Either way, it encourages teens to step out of their comfort zones, learn more about their career options, and chip away at uncertainty about their futures.

We love that Rise included learning opportunities like curiosity conversations in their application experience! If you know of a teen who could benefit from this, then encourage them to download Hello World to see curiosity conversations in action. Also, Rise has been a great partner in reimagining less stressful, more authentic applications for youth. Teens between the ages of 15-17 years everywhere are invited to apply to get a lifetime of scholarships, mentorships, and funding to start social enterprises. The deadline is January 29th and you can learn more about their opportunity here

If you, too, think it’s important to empower teens to find their passion and pursue their calling, please say hello! We’re looking for partners to help us imagine new ways to discover and develop the potential of teens from around the world.