Stay Curious

by Kunal Tandon April 2nd, 2021

My partner, Stew has previously written about how busy we’ve become busier as more time has passed in our journey building El Cap. It has become common for us to feel nostalgic for our youth, where we had more free time, and the ability to get lost down any rabbit hole that piqued our interest. I’m a believer that college is wasted on the youth. Instead, I wish I had the ability to spend four years in my thirties taking interesting courses, having time to spend in the library, all while being surrounded by others on their own intellectual pursuits. But I, like most humans, make the mistake of romanticizing the past. When I step back, I remember that I grew up tolerating school, doing just enough to be a “good student.” No more. No less. But I do love learning. It’s why I feel incredibly fortunate to do this job. When I think about this seeming contradiction, I think I finally have figured out where the disconnect for my love of learning and my contempt for school comes from. In most schools around the country we are taught things, forced to memorize them, and then regurgitate what we remember on exams to demonstrate how well we understand the material. I’m skeptical that this is the most effective way to gauge understanding. I’m even more confident that this system is not the best way to encourage children to fall in love with the act of learning.

Most kids are curious. They are often discovering things for the first time. They ask why. A lot. Somewhere along the way, many have this curiosity slowly chipped away at. When learning is not guided by curiosity and it’s not intrinsically motivated it is harder so sustain. The pursuit of some other goal, whether it is a good grade on an exam or nailing a job interview might motivate someone to learn, but it will never be an equal substitute for genuine curiosity. Wanting to learn because you’re interested in something will always be the best driver, because you will always want to go deeper to really understand something new.

As a generalist investment firm, we’re not deep experts on any particular area. We have frameworks, ideas, and theses on what we think the future might look like, and how different products can play a role in building that future. We are always looking to get smarter. Our curiosity leads us to whitepapers, blog posts, podcasts, books, and conversations with smarter people than us who are kind enough to give us some of their time. Some of this pursuit of learning is reactive. We are diving into a particular area for potential investment, or trying to get smarter around a particular business topic. Often, our curiosity is proactive. We’re learning about things not directly related to our jobs. I believe this learning is what actually makes us better investors. We’re able to connect dots, develop new ways of thinking about problems, and have a unique prism to look at the world.

Curiosity drives a lot of our work at El Cap. It’s also one of the most important qualities we look for when evaluating founding teams. So much of building a company and being an effective leader is how much can you learn, and how quickly can you learn it. You need to be driven by the pursuit of getting a grasp on new concepts and building new skills, and doing both quickly. This is especially true for first time founders. In my experience, the highest performing founders are learning machines. They aren’t deterred by not knowing, rather they are energized by the challenge of getting smart about something new. Understanding what people are excited about and how they are learning new things outside of work, unrelated to their jobs is often a great signal to how effective they will be out being learning machines on the job.

In a world that is being rapidly shaped at an unprecedented rate, the half-life of knowledge has never been shorter. The only way to remain relevant is to commit to a life of learning, exposing oneself to new ideas, and fresh ways of thinking. I believe the best learners are not those who engage in learning because of obligation, rather, people who are driven by curiosity that leads them down the next rabbit hole.

- @kunaltandon

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