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“I remember one summer we ate too many cherries from the orchard and were so sick,” says Teresa Collis. She never made that mistake again. Her childhood home was 30km from Melbourne, Australia, and lay nestled along a dirt track with only two other houses. She remembers playing in her friend’s cherry orchard (learning valuable lessons of self-control), and running through the bushland to her grandfather’s home. When she arrived, she’d sit with him in his library at the bottom of his garden, which was piled high with hundreds – if not thousands – of books.
This dream-like, Roald Dahl-esque scene was to shape Teresa, a polymath whose obsession with learning began several decades ago in this hidden corner of paradise.
Teresa’s grandfather George was the head teacher of her school on the outskirts of Croydon, a Melbourne suburb. The pair would whittle away hours in his book shack, its shelves buckling under the relentless weight of paper pages. Living just minutes away from her grandfather, she was never far from flicking through the chapters of her favourite books.
She remembers how her grandfather used to pile his books in his study, until her grandmother finally snapped, saying: “This is ridiculous! We can’t move in here, we have to do something with these books!” Unable to part with them, George had an ingenious idea. He simply had a library built in his garden; a decision that would prove the trigger for Teresa’s unbreakable love for learning. “He was amazing and taught me so many things,” she says, remembering her grandfather’s “kind and warm” face. “I remember when I was about six I could name the species of every single wattle tree in our bush. He taught me.”
Although the books in her grandfather’s library covered topics as diverse as her interests continue to be today, one story – one illustration – captured her imagination so intently she would return to it again and again. The illustration was by John Gould, an ornithologist and bird artist born in the UK in 1804. It showed a pair of vibrant green and yellow Night Parrots, birds so elusive they had not been seen alive since 1912. “It was thought to be extinct; I used to love looking at this picture – it was the most beautiful, beautiful book,” she says.
Jump ahead to 2013, she recalls the moment her father sent a text to say “her and her grandfather’s” bird had been spotted for the first time in more than 100 years. It ended decades of speculation that one of Australia’s rarest birds was in fact extinct, and naturally made her think of her grandfather – the man who sparked her curiosity for life.
Maybe we’re all born with a curiosity gene? I’m not sure. If I had one, it was nurtured by my grandfather.
Her thirst for learning was more than just a phase. Although most children spend their days dreaming of rushing out the classroom doors to freedom, Teresa was quite the opposite. Long before she reached school age, she’d slip into her grandfather’s classes to soak in as much information as she could. Naturally, to unlock the secrets hidden within his books, she had to learn to read; something she had already mastered by the time she started school.
Her grandfather passed away when she when she was 11, but he’d already begun a legacy of learning that Teresa has never been able to shake. “I’m not good at being bored,” she admits. Aged 12, she read “The Web Of Life”, a complex university-level textbook which challenges conventional views of evolution. “It absolutely fascinated me,” – a fascination so deep she considers it one of the reasons she decided to embark on a Medical Science degree aged 18. She was the first in her family to go to university.
No doubt, Teresa followed in her grandfather’s footsteps with her fascination for absorbing knowledge. She asks herself, “Maybe we’re all born with a curiosity gene? I’m not sure. If I had one, it was nurtured by my grandfather for sure.”
Talking to Teresa, it’s difficult to imagine her need for knowledge is not somehow hardwired into her psyche. She collects information like most people collect coins in a piggy-bank. But where most people spend those coins, she retains that information. Forty years later, she can still remember the name of every wattle tree growing in the area.
When it comes to her career, it’s clear Teresa has a lot to thank her grandfather for. Looking back, she says he’s the reason she had the confidence to take on jobs when she didn’t necessarily have the skills – she knew she would learn. This confidence helped Teresa to make her own way at work, refusing to follow one linear path.
Instead, her chosen route is filled with variety. Once she completed her degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (with Distinction), she spent 11 years as a Medical Scientist. Next, she moved into Sales, became a Product Manager, then began a career at Siemens where she’s worked for the last 10 years in eclectic roles.
Now, her professional role is Global Head of Recruitment Marketing & Competency Development, with responsibilities including human resources and recruitment. How has a Medical Scientist moved into human resources? “I think my curiosity is what has driven me to do all the different things. I just love to know a lot of stuff. Once I’ve learnt something, I want to know something else,” she says.
And does she think curiosity helps people to be more successful at work? She is cautious about answering this question (after all, you have to decide for yourself what success actually is). But, the short answer is yes. “If you can’t be internally curious, you won’t know yourself well, and I don’t believe you can be truly successful unless you know yourself well.
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