What Matters to Seth Goldenberg

Posted inWhat Matters


Seth Goldenberg is a designer, curator, and entrepreneur who harnesses inquisitiveness to catalyze innovation and cultural change. He is the founder and CEO of Curiosity & Co., a company that uses various approaches to explore and build flourishing futures.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

Travel. Hands down. Experiences are profound instructors. Experiencing knowledge, out in the world, is my most effective classroom. To travel, both literally and metaphorically. Yet the majority of us rarely travel far from what we know. We spend lifetimes within places, institutions, and cultures— in the real world and online— that reinforce our own worldviews, not expand them. We don’t genuinely have exposure to what the rest of the world believes or practices. The world is exponentially more diverse than we know. Travel, in this context, is not about luxury. Travel as a form of exposure becomes the most significant form of learning, because it is the primary source of lived knowledge. Aside from the learning benefits, I fear the dangerous echo chamber of not extending a radius of exposure to the full extraordinary capacity of the world. Exposing ourselves to diverse environments, situations, and untrained arenas converts the unknown from friction to adventure, welcoming the invitation for us to be changed along the way. By extending our geographic radius, we extend the radius of our worldview. With every mile we travel, we overturn our assumptions and question the false constraints holding us back. Miguel de Unamuno, the author of Tragic Sense of Life and a rector of the University of Salamanca, the third-oldest university still operating today, famously proposed in the early 1900s:

Fascism is cured by reading, and racism is cured by traveling.

Today, having children has only enriched the urgency and joy of this commitment. For parenting to have become, in large part, the responsibility and delight to curate the radius of their world. It brings a special kind of reward to a parent to bear witness to their children witnessing wonder. To travel into newness of all kinds is a theater for genuine wonder.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

Drawing. When I was a child, my highly anticipated holiday gifts from Grandma Pearl were VHS tapes of Disney animated films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, and my favorite, Peter Pan.

They were mesmerizing; invitations to explore and invent new worlds. The films became my entry into a love of drawing at the early age of eight. I spent hours studying the characters, translating them into sketchbooks. Learning to see. Learning to draft. Practicing breaking
down the building blocks of shapes, spatial dynamics, and composition. Embracing drawing as a creative language for world-building.

In the quiet space of a rural childhood, drawing was a way of wandering, of thinking, of imagining, of traveling everywhere without going anywhere. Drawing became a ritual, like breathing; riding a bike— a physical rhythm that would center me; an activity that I now credit as a primary source of my mental health. The associated routine, right down to the smell of a #2 pencil, was a familiar comfort that represented, for me, Maya Angelou’s idea of a child’s relationship to home:

Home is that youthful region where a child is the only real living inhabitant. Parents, siblings, and neighbors, are mysterious apparitions, who come, go, and do strange unfathomable things in and around the child, the region’s only enfranchised citizen.

What is your biggest regret?

Time. It’s not that I regret time— in fact, I may not even have “regrets”— but the closest thing to regret is my consistent wrestling with how to spend the currency of time. Time is like a savings account we spend. It depletes. There are some ways to free it up, like a form of replenishing. But, in each of our lives, time is the most critical, non-renewable resource. My wrestling has to do with the complexities between the precious present moments of short time at an hour scale and the powerful ethical responsibility of long time at a century scale. Regret may come from the desire for more slow time, that quiet contemplative state where the smallest gestures amplify beauty, as well as a sense of urgency for accountability, for contributing to the world to enable a positive legacy over generational time. It’s not that the two cannot coexist, but seeking the mindset to be present for the mixture of these tenses is a consistent tension I experience.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

Work. Work is different than labor though. Work is about making meaning. For me, work is expressed in diverse forms: art, design, writing, reading, mentoring, collaborating, planning. One of the most consistent spaces meaning making takes place has been in a studio. The term studio is rooted in the concept of a place of study. It is also creatively generative and mentally regenerative. The studio as a ritual for meaningful work is a place of restoration and repair from heartbreak. It’s a bodily way to work things out, an intellectual way to think through ideas, and an emotional environment to resolve to act.

What makes you cry?

Aliveness. One of my addictions is the singing competition genre of television shows: American Idol, X Factor, America’s Got Talent, Britain’s Got Talent. I can’t get enough. These shows are stages for the ordinary to become extraordinary, for the democratization of talent; theaters for voices to be heard, in an era when we so rarely listen to one another.

It’s a master class in defying expectations. We do a double take when Susan Boyle stuns with her golden lungs that seem to not fit her persona. A real-time lesson in dismantling previously held assumptions. To watch these singing-competition programs is to bear witness to self-actualization. We come to know the people onstage, and find ourselves rooting for them, touched when we see them become everything they are capable of becoming. We have a front-row seat to the drama of ordinary people realizing their potential. It makes for compelling television, it makes for compelling storytelling, and it often compels everyone to cry: the performer, the family of the performer, the audience, the judges, and certainly the viewers at home. They are crying because the emotions are so intense, their body is literally overwhelmed by what Maslow called a peak experience— defined as “an altered state of consciousness characterized by euphoria, often achieved by self-actualizing individuals.”

Aliveness is when we experience the highest-order version of ourselves. To realize such a heightened state requires imagination. Tears are evidence of aliveness.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

Not long enough. I think the joy is in the doing. Accomplishment feels too much like awards. I am accomplished. We as a team are accomplishing significant milestones weekly, monthly. It’s been an epic decade. But there is a radical curiosity that propels me forward. Accomplishment feels historical. I think the zeitgeist and pleasure, experienced down to a physiologic level, is in the pursuit and discovery, which is always a future tense. I also have a terrible memory, so I have to constantly time stamp the accomplishments to remember the joy, likely an outcome of being so immersed in a flow state.

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

No. I remember being a young child on a walkabout with my Grandmother, asking her about this. I told her if there was no heaven or afterlife, I couldn’t imagine what “nothing” would feel like. If we visualize and speculate about diverse afterlife models, can we not also envision what the experience of nothing could be? As an experience designer, it’s a terribly important exercise to sense the absence of senses. How do we represent nothing to the human imagination?

What do you hate most about yourself?

Health. During the pandemic, I experienced a hospitalization event that led to a diagnosis of a chronic disease. I don’t hate myself. I hate the condition. The circumstances that led to the condition. Mostly I am frustrated by the state of health, nutritional, and wellbeing illiteracy. We do terrible things to ourselves. A recent Rockefeller Foundation study concluded that America spends $1.1 trillion on food, but yields more than $2.1 trillion in down-cycle costs, diet-related diseases, and climate change impact. We need new models for living systems health.

What do you love most about yourself?

The radioactive. Someone once described my businesses as being engaged with the “radio-active issues”— a reference reflecting my focus on the big, audacious, moral topics. I have been blessed to work on issues ranging from multi-stakeholder planning of natural resources, to equitable education in K-12 and higher ed, to global public health issues impacting a billion people, to small business advocacy, to the future of work. I love my commitment to an inquiry-based design practice, agnostic of industry or social system. It has afforded me a rich life, full of the most essential questions of our time.

What is your absolute favorite meal?

Molecular Gastronomy. My dream evening is at minibar in Washington, DC with Jose Andres.