Think Like a Child: What We Lose with Age (and How to Get It Back)
You’ve heard about those amazingly fun offices where play is encouraged? They’re not just cubicle legend. Companies like Google 3M have crafted colorful, dynamic workspaces where employees play with toys and video games, take nap breaks and go outside for recess. If it sounds a little childish, that’s exactly the point.
Over the past couple of decades, industry leaders have tapped into an idea that philosophers like Nietzsche and scientists like Einstein have long-championed: that it is useful and sometimes even necessary for people to think like children to achieve success as adults.
People tend to get stuck in mental ruts, approaching everything from their jobs to their marriages from the same tired perspective. But taking cues from children can jolt us out of complacency and help us view the world from a whole-new angle—if only for moments at a time. Officials at Google and 3M found fashioning offices akin to kindergarten classrooms resulted in creative, energetic environments where innovative ideas were born every day.
“When people start to think like a child, they begin to see things from a fresh perspective,” says Jack Uldrich, global futurist, business speaker and best-selling author. “They learn to step back and view problems, people and things from a completely different point of view.”
What we lose with age
As we grow older, certain behaviors naturally abate. While we’re all glad our days of thumb-sucking and bed-wetting are behind us, positive traits such as limitless imagination and spontaneity also diminish. Remember how a couple of blankets and pillows could transform the living room sofa into a magical fort? Or how a humble bathroom towel could turn an average boy into a superhero?
Our ability to learn new things is another primary positive characteristic we lose over time, says Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. “Children are designed by evolution to be extremely good learners—to be able to learn about anything that’s interesting and important in the world around them,” she says. “When you look at their brains, they’re extremely flexible, so they can change what they think based on new evidence very quickly and easily.”
Gopnik explains that, over time, instead of being attracted to and exploring anything new and exciting in our environments, we begin to hone in on only the things that we know are relevant to us—thus narrowing our field of vision, making ourselves close-minded and decreasing the overall possibilities we see and follow.
“Those two ways of perceiving—some people in computer science talk about this as the difference between a system that explores and a system that exploits. So a system that exploits says, ‘Just pay attention to the things that are most relevant to your goals.’ A system that explores goes out and looks to find all kinds of information that might be relevant, but you don’t know yet if it’s going to be relevant.
“You really need both of those things to be a successful human being,” says Gopnik. “I say children are really the research and development division of the human species, and adults are production and marketing.”
Learning involves asking questions, and children are never shy about that. “They’re not afraid of their ignorance,” Uldrich says. “In fact, they embrace it. After a while, many adults don’t ask questions, or they lose their willingness to inquire because we’re concerned about how we might look.”
Which leads to another benefit of youth: “Children really aren’t conscious of what other people think of them,” Uldrich says. “This is a real strength.” This obliviousness encourages children to be free spirits, to say what they mean and mean what they say. Over time, failures dash our self-confidence, etiquette dictates our behavior, and it becomes more difficult for adults to be completely open and honest about what they think.
Uldrich also points to the tenacity of children—something he experiences when he visits a store with his two kids. “They’ll say, ‘Dad, can I have this? Dad, can I have this?’ They won’t take no for an answer. They do not give up. At some point in our adult lives, we start taking no for an answer and just accept it. Kids don’t do that. If they are forced to take it, they then begin plotting ways around it.”
The open-mindedness of children also helps them learn new things. “I think all of us adults—whether we’re viewing a person, an idea, a product—we come to it with our opinions already shaping who we are,” Uldrich says. “There’s an idea of just dropping your opinions of all of those things and getting back to the idea of trying to see things not as you see them, but maybe as they really are.”
In his consulting work, Uldrich uses optical illusions to illustrate this point. While children can easily point out the two sides of an illusion, adults typically see one or none—but rarely both. Once we have an idea fixed firmly in our brains, it’s difficult to see and accept anything to the contrary.
How to get it back
It’s never too late to reclaim those positive characteristics of youth and use them to augment the wisdom and experience acquired with age. That combination is the key.
“I think it’s important to say that if you really thought all the time like a child that you’d have to have somebody else trailing behind you, cleaning you up and tying your shoes for you,” Gopnik says. “For adults, it’s important to have a balance.”
There are many activities that can help. In his 2008 book, Jump the Curve: 50 Essential Strategies to Help Companies Deal with Emerging Technologies, Uldrich devotes a chapter to “The Power of Play.”
“It has been theorized by some that play is an integral form of learning,” he says. “It allows people to practice skills they might need later down the line. But play goes beyond such life skills. When we play, we gain practice manipulating things and controlling the outcome of events. We also devise new solutions for old problems and create new endings for our experiences.”
Furthermore, “play has consistently been found to reduce stress, increase energy levels, brighten people’s outlook, increase optimism and foster creativity,” he says.
So try learning a new instrument, joining a recreational athletic league or taking up a hobby—all of which exercise the mind.
Uldrich also likes the idea of mandatory recess. He says companies like 3M and Google actually give employees the freedom to spend 15 to 20% of their work time on products that interest them or benefit the company. “These companies continue to get a lot of their next-generation ideas and products from that very process,” he says.
Other suggestions include varying your reading material—science fiction, any kind of novels or plays—as well as role-playing in work situations. “Allow yourself to get outside of your shoes and act as if you are someone else, and feel free to do things from different perspectives, feel free to say outrageous things,” Uldrich says. “That’s where the innovative ideas are going to come from.”
Gopnik echoes those sentiments. “The kind of pretend and imaginary things we do as adults, such as reading novels and plays—things that don’t look as if they’re a part of your goals—are ways that we can get back to some of that childlike ‘what if?’”
She also says traveling to new destinations and exploring foreign cultures is great for the mind. “A lot of our preconceptions get changed because we’re just open to lots of new experiences,” she says.
Meditation can help achieve a childlike state of mind as well, Gopnik says, even if you do it for as little as 10 minutes a day. “Just stopping for some time during the day when you’re in the midst of all that planning and goal-direction, and just emptying out your mind and seeing what happens.”
The biggest obstacle to creative ideas is fear of failure, says Rich Lazzara, a self-described “Gen neXt entrepreneur,” pointing to the self-defeating statements we often repeat in our heads: “‘I’m not creative.’ ‘I can’t think of anything.’ You need to forget that attitude and allow yourself to open up to failure. When you sit down to create an idea, go into it with zero inhibition.”
Another key is to release restrictions, he says. “As you are preparing to come up with your ideas, it is important that you not set restrictions on yourself.” Factors such as time, money and resources—while important to consider—shouldn’t hinder your brainstorming.
“Allow yourself to think completely free,” he says.
Of course, one of the easiest ways to learn to think like a child is to spend time with one. “Just taking an hour a day to take a walk with a child or play with a child may be one of the best ways of opening up your mind to what it’s like to be a child,” Gopnik says.
Laura Lopez is a testament to that. A former vice president at Coca-Cola, she remembers being “a hard-nosed, results-at-all-costs type of executive”—until she met Leila, a child from Russia she adopted in 2005. “Having a child changed my viewpoint on leadership entirely,” she says. “I realized that softer, more receptive skills were necessary to motivate and inspire to achieve results. I saw a significant impact in the organization, both qualitatively and quantitatively, when I started to implement the insights I was drawing from parenting and from understanding childlike receptivity and openness.”
She even published a book, The Connected and Committed Leader, about her experience, which outlines the following insights: “Believe and let go,” “Be curious and see everyone,” “Be real and serve,” “Be receptive and yield,” “Be humble and keep your ego in check,” “Be consistent and clear to build trust,” and “Be vulnerable and give of yourself.”
But you don’t necessarily need a child to inspire you. Just consider the case of Dan Nainan, who changed his entire life by making a decision some might consider childish, even a bit foolish: He quit his job as a senior engineer with Intel to become a comedian.
“Although I enjoyed my job with Intel tremendously, I really felt constrained by the corporate world and wanted to get out and do something on my own,” he says. “I could have stuck to the safe, well-charted course, but I never would’ve been content doing so.”
Now, he travels the world with his clean-cut standup routine. In 2008, Nainan even performed at the Democratic National Convention and three inaugural events in Washington, D.C.
Even after seven years in the comedy business, Nainan couldn’t be happier with his choice. “My days are filled with new people, new places, new discoveries and simply exuberant, childlike joy all day, every day,” he said.
This article was published in November 2009 and has been updated. Photo by
Chelsea Greenwood has been contributing to print and online publications as an editor and writer for more than 10 years. A University of Florida graduate, she is the editor of a lifestyle magazine in South Florida.
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