Balancing Curiosity and Caution

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Publication date:

March 19, 2021

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We have all had what I call “cuca” moments in our lives; i.e., moments when we are really curious and would like to dig deeper but when the gravity force of caution holds us back. We are dying to find out but we don’t want to die finding out!

Given what I have been able to do in my career, I have  had quite a few of these cuca moments. In some instances, my curiosity got the upper hand and led me on incredible journeys of discovery and learning. I just jumped off a cliff without much of a parachute strapped to my back! Perhaps there is a lesson in this, but I always landed on my feet (although some might debate that). On other occasions, I fell prey to caution but often with a nagging regret not having jumped.

One of my cuca moments occurred when I was the founding co-dean of MSM SKOLKOVO in Moscow. The attraction of curiosity and the gravity of caution can engage into quite powerful quarrels. On this particular occas, they sure did and caution won the argument. Till this day, I wonder what might have happened if I had followed my curiosity and shoved caution to the side. What did I miss out on?

I am a bit of a news junky so I am generally quite aware of what is happening around the world. In fact, I feel uneasy when I don’t. This might be the result of teaching for so many years. Walking into a classroom and being able to connect the knowledge one is about to convey with what might be occupying the minds of those in the audience establishes instant credibility and gets those minds on the learning wavelength quickly. I have found that it always helped to enter the world of learning from the audience’s mindset. But one can take that too far. I discovered that when I was teaching in Beijing when the city was under martial law in late May of 1989. But that is a story for another time. My quintessential cuca moment came much later at MSM SKOLKOVO in Moscow.

I always liked to walk around the wonderful SKOLKOVO building. The many open spaces inside the building enable students, staff and faculty to meet and mingle. The interior layout of the building was designed to encourage such informal interaction.

As I walked around one morning, I saw people chatting in groups here and there. There was nothing unusual about that. But in one group, one person caught my eye: a fashionably-dressed, attractive red-haired woman who looked familiar but whose face I could not immediately place. It took me a few seconds before I realized who she was and I stopped in my tracks. I wasn’t sure it was her as I thought it quite unlikely that she would mull around the SKOLKOVO business school.

Here was Anna Chapman, looking to become a student at SKOLKOVO. She was talking to my colleagues about how to enter the MBA program and it was clear that one had told her who I was as I came around the corner. As I was pretty sure that it was her, I was immediately on guard but also curious to talk to her. I didn’t have much time to contemplate the dilemma as she walked straight up to me.

It has been a few years and the name Anna Chapman might no longer ring a bell. She has been off the radar for a while but in 2010, she was a big flashing dot both is Russia and in the US. Some of you might have read the book or seen the movie based on the book, Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews. Here walked up in the flesh what US intelligence agents were convinced was a red sparrow. Earlier in the year, she had been arrested in the US as a Russian agent and had subsequently been deported. Here she was back in Russia looking to become a student in my school!

A lot of emotions and thoughts converge at such a moment. First, I wasn’t 100% convinced it was her; the person who walked up to me looked very much like her but the likelihood of her coming to SKOLKOVO and apply to become a student seemed so remote to me that I suspected I was mistaken. Second, if it was her, I was extremely curious to talk to her; when do you ever have a chance to talk to a trained spy? Third, I had seen too many James Bond movies not to slip into a macho cameo role. Finally, I was the dean of the school and had the obligation to talk to applicants; there was nothing out of the ordinary in this encounter. Well, sort of.

We had had other colorful characters apply to the school. I distinctly recall a discussion with the school’s chairman about two applicants to our EMBA program. On paper, the two did not look that much different from any other applicant and I had not sensed anything unusual about them in the personal interviews I had with each of them. When we were processing the applications, the chairman turned to me and told me that each of them was a member of notorious Russian crime families. He had a bit of a devious smile on his face when he said this as he knew that this piece of information would put me off balance.

I must admit that I was a bit apprehensive. You cannot but let your mind wonder over what could happen with such characters in the program. The chairman could see my unease and seemed to relish in it. He told me that this was part of the reality that we prepared our students for; and, he said, the worst that could happen was that we did not change them in any way. Having read too many books and seen too many movies, I could think of many things much worse! We did admit them but whenever I was close to these students, I always felt an unease and I still do till this day even though nothing bad happened (as far as I know, that is).

With Anna Chapman approaching, I was going into a sharp turn with my right foot on both the brake and the gas pedals simultaneously. She was pleasant and behaved like any applicant would. I explained her the application process and what she needed to do. I tried very hard not to reveal that I knew who she was but I assume that she knew exactly where my mind was. I was trying to be a cool cucumber and she knew it.

The whole conversation with her did not last for more than 15 minutes. As I walked back to my office, my Russian communications director pulled me aside and said : “Forget it, Wilfried. No way!”. I guess that a sparkle of excitement must have been all over my face. With that, my cuca moment came to sudden halt.  I never saw an application from Anna Chapman, and she and her appearance at the school were never discussed. When I looked into the stern eyes of my communications director that morning, I knew that I shouldn’t ask any more questions and just let it go.

Letting go is easier said than done. The whole reaction to wrap this encounter up as if it had never happened just magnified my curiosity. Nothing gets me going more than somebody telling me not to ask questions. In that way, part of me is wired to get me intro trouble (and it has). To this day, I still wonder about that cuca moment. The curiosity to know more never ebbed. What did I miss out on?

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