Think Like a Child

heard about those amazingly
fun offices where play is encouraged? They’re not
just cubicle legend. Companies like Google and 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 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 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 are 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 bestselling
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 affi liate
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 fl exible,
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 closedminded
and decreasing the overall possibilities.

“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, who recently published her latest book, The
Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us about Love, Truth and
the Meaning of Life
. “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 recent book, Jump
the Curve: 50 Essential Strategies to Help Companies Deal with Emerging
, 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
out look, 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
10 to 25 percent of their work time on
products that just catch their fancy. “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
fi ction, 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.”

Rich Lazzara—a self-described “Gen neXt entrepreneur”
and vice president of the successful Lazzara Yachts company—
recently published a blog titled, “To be a successful entrepreneur,
think like a child.”

The biggest obstacle to creative
ideas is fear of failure, he says,
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 restrict
ions on yourself.” Factors
such as time, money and
resources—while important
to consider—shouldn’t hinder
your brainstorming. “Al low
yourself to think completely
free,” he says.

Life-Changing Choices

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,” Gopnick 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
t h e c a s e 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. Nainan even performed at the Democratic National
Convention and three inaugural events in Washington, D.C., last
year. In fact, you may recognize his face: Nainan recently starred in
a national commercial for Apple.

Today, even after seven years in the comedy business, Nainan
couldn’t be happier with his choice, he says: “My days are filled with
new people, new places, new discoveries and simply exuberant,
childlike joy all day, every day.”


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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