Staying Spacious: Remain Open and Curious … or Get Stale, Predictable and Boring

In his early 30s, Frank Oppenheimer, the experimental physicist and educator (and brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father the atomic bomb”), discovered the process for isolating and harvesting the weapons-grade uranium isotopes needed to build the first successful atom bomb.

Oppenheimer’s fateful atomic research was fueled by the same ceaseless curiosity and wonder for the world around him that he had displayed as a child. He nurtured and exhibited a sense of discovery, and the desire to light that fire in others, until his death from lymphoma at the age of 72. And we’ve all benefited from Oppenheimer’s childlike wonderment.

As a youngster, Oppenheimer had an insatiable appetite for taking apart mechanical things to see how they worked – and for putting them back together. A childhood friend recalls in a biography of Oppenheimer how he climbed up into large trees during thunderstorms to more closely observe lightning.

That kind of curiosity and wonderment was part of what fueled and inspired Frank in the late 1960s to create the Exploratorium, the hands-on natural science museum in San Francisco that became the new standard for similar museums worldwide. According to his biographer, K.C. Cole, Frank thought of the Exploratorium as a place where visitors could “walk through a kind of woods of natural phenomena.”

My former mother-in-law was Frank’s second wife. I have this wonderful memory of Frank two months before his death in their home in Sausalito, dressed as always in slacks, a white shirt and sportcoat. One day, he showed my then 2-year-old daughter how the air moved through the holes in a small ocarina. Another day, I watched him observing with wonder the patterns made by dozens of small ants moving through some of the sticky morphine solution that had dripped from its bottle on his nightstand to the floor beside his bed.

The best efforts in marketing certainly include an awareness of the givens, of the lessons learned from those who have gone before – knowing, for example, what makes a graphic design work or what the framework is for market segmentation. But the best efforts in marketing neither start nor stop there.

The best efforts begin with a childlike curiosity, with wonderment and the question, “What if …” Questions of “how” and “when” are for later. They don’t matter unless you first ask, “why” and “what if.” They don’t matter if you’re not going beyond listening to your clients, but instead when you’re really hearing your clients, paying attention to what isn’t said as much as what is said.

Step back. Be spacious. Wonder what is happening that you’re not seeing, that you’re not considering. What’s behind the curtain? Question your perceptions of reality. Is that really what the client said? Is there another interpretation for what they said – what they meant? What did you hear? What did you see? Ask what if. Ask why.

That’s what Frank Oppenheimer did. And look at the world he created.