The Art and Science of Success: Developing Critical Skills for Work and Life
Recently I was asked - would I rather have someone skilled in the 'art' or the 'science' in a given field? This question comes up often in the context of specific roles - should your marketer be more of an “artist” in developing creative concepts or a “scientist” in understanding consumer data? Should your merchant have more creative flair or analytical precision? But the question has broader implications that extend beyond professional domains. What are the most critical skills and mindsets needed not just to succeed in a job, but to thrive in life?
In pondering this question, I’ve come to believe that regardless of whether someone leans more towards art or science, the reality is that for a team to be successful, it needs to be made up those who excel in either and can complement each other. That said, from an individual perspective, there are three vital capacities that enable success regardless of one's leaning towards 'art' or 'science', those being: curiosity, empathy, and decisiveness. These are traits that allow us to connect with others, understand diverse perspectives, make tough choices, and move forward with intention. While simple in concept, living these qualities takes practice and self-awareness. Let’s explore each one.
Curiosity is the seed of learning and growth. It allows us to approach the world with an open mind, seeking truth and understanding. Ted Lasso, the fictitious soccer coach of the AFC Richmond Greyhounds, quoted Walt Whitman, “Be curious, not judgmental", when being second guessed and underestimated. I've noticed how quick judgments have at times limited my ability to truly understand a situation from diverse perspectives. Recently, when a colleague made a decision I disagreed with, I tried to get curious about their rationale rather than judge their motives. This opened up a productive dialogue. Curiosity withholds quick judgments and creates space for better decision making.
A six hour flight to Iceland affords me the time to catch up on reading, my latest book being "Turn the Ship Around!" by former Navy Captain David Marquet. He contrasts curiosity with questioning from his learnings as a leader. Questioning assumes you already know the answer and are quizzing others. Passing judgment. Curiosity is anchored in not having the answers and instead relying on others’ insights. Even if you think you already know the answer, the approach is more empowering for the person at the other end, and often times you realize what you didn't know. In the traditional leadership model, I've often taken more of a questioning approach with my team, testing their knowledge against my own. Now I work to be more genuinely curious, creating an environment where we all learn together. Approach life curiously, not questioningly. (For those who I work with, I try, I don't always succeed!)
Curiosity also propels innovation. Adam Grant in "Originals" observes that original thinkers are distinguished by their high curiosity quotient. They explore widely, make broad connections, and generate novel ideas. Daily curiosity expands our perspectives and possibilities. We can cultivate curiosity by embracing beginner’s mind, or “shoshin” - a Zen concept referring to having an attitude of openness, lack of preconceptions and eagerness to learn. This means staying humble, asking sincere questions, and recognizing how much we have yet to understand. Curiosity opens us up to awe and wonder at the amazing world around us.
Empathy means imagining yourself in another person’s situation - seeing through their eyes, walking in their shoes. It enables us to connect with others at a deeper level. Social scientist Brené Brown calls empathy “a sacred space when someone’s in a deep hole and they shout out from the bottom and say, ‘I’m stuck. It’s dark. I’m overwhelmed.’ And we look and we say, ‘I’ve been there too. You’re not alone.’” This connection can be powerful.
However, assuming that you have been in that same deep hole can be limiting. It can lead to you assuming you know how the other person is feeling and worse, to your trying to solve a problem for that person from your perspective, not theirs. Several years ago, a senior leader known for his even keel temperament came into my office to tell me about a problem. Within thirty seconds, I attempted to connect and solve, only to have him slam his hands on my desk and loudly exclaim "I came in to run my solution past you, not ask for you to solve my problem!" Lesson learned.
True empathy requires vulnerability and letting go of assumptions. It can be challenging when we disagree with someone’s views or actions. But empathy provides insight into why people make certain choices. It dissolves polarization when we recognize shared struggles. Empathy is respectful. It gives space for others to have their own experiences. Resist trying to “fix” people or immediately fill silences. As leadership expert Marilyn Paul says, “The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.”
There are small but meaningful ways we can practice empathy every day - making eye contact, fully listening without interrupting, validating emotions, and extending compassion. Brené Brown says, “What we don’t need in this world is more advice. What we need is more compassion and connection.” I’ve noticed how easy it is to try to problem - solve for others when listening would better serve the relationship. I’m working on really hearing people before moving into solutions.
Making Decisive Choices
In a world of complexity and uncertainty, another critical skill is the ability to make decisions. Many people struggle with indecision and get paralyzed weighing options. But avoiding choices is itself a choice. As psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote, “Indecision is debilitating. It feeds on itself; it is, in the end, a decision not to decide.”
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell advised being comfortable making decisions with 40-70% of the information you wish you had. We must act before we have complete data or certainty. Of course we shouldn’t leap before looking. We should gather enough solid information to make reasoned judgments. But waiting for 100% confidence means missed opportunities.
Decisions require courage. Once we make a choice, we must have the fortitude to follow through while remaining open to new data. Changing course at the first sign of conflict shows lack of conviction. But refusing to incorporate feedback and admit mistakes is dangerously rigid. In past roles, I've struggled with indecision out of fear of choosing the wrong path. Through that experience, I learned the importance of gathering input then making a firm choice and seeing it through. We lead through decisions animated by purpose. Our choices move us forward.
Living with Courage
The French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men and women to gather wood, give orders, and divide the work. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Curiosity, empathy and decisiveness - simple concepts but daily practices requiring awareness and courage. It takes strength to stay open, connect with humility, and act with intention.
Each day offers chances to be curious about someone different from us, extend empathy to an enemy, or take responsibility for a hard choice. Small acts of courage compound. Before long, we realize these traits have become rooted. There is no formula. Each situation calls for balancing these qualities. When overwhelmed, we anchor in empathy. When complacent, curiosity reigns. And when avoiding, we find decisiveness. Together they produce meaningful lives of learning, compassion and purpose.
So in answer to that initial question - in the end, it is less about “art” vs. “science” and more about the spirit we bring. We need whole people who stay curious, empathic and decisive. With these strengths, I believe we can achieve their highest human potential.