When we say a person acted “like a child”, we typically mean it in a derogatory manner.

When we snap at someone that they should “grow up”, we think of them as a petulant child that needs to learn a thing or two before we can have a proper conversation.

Nobody wants to be compared to a child.

Yet there is another side to this story. An unspoken longing, lurking beneath the surface of our adult scorn and sarcasm.

We feel it deep inside us when we watch children play – unbounded by corporate politics or other rules they haven’t written yet, free to explore endless options without worrying what others may think or say.

We have a similar sensation when kids keep asking us why things are the way they are, and we realize that not only do we lack some of the answers – we have stopped asking these questions ourselves.

In those moments, the expression “like a child” takes on a different meaning. It fills us with a different feeling.

We miss being a kid.

In children, we see hope without cynicism. Curiosity without constraints. Love without the fear of heartbreak. We see the things we have lost along the way in our own lives – things that slipped away from us slowly but steadily without us being fully aware of it in the moment.

There are two possible responses to this feeling. One is to wallow in nostalgia. The second is to learn from our younger selves.

What if we embraced our inner child more often?

There are three things we might start doing differently.

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1. Ask more questions – and don’t default to the most obvious answer

Pablo Picasso famously said: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

We are all born with boundless imagination and unquenchable curiosity. But as we grow older, we learn that not all dreams and ideas withstand the tests of life. We love and we get rejected. We reach for the moon, and, inevitably, at one point in our lives, we fall down – only to pull ourselves together again.

Through experience we evolve into wiser versions of ourselves. This generally serves us well in our work and in our relationships. Yet the wisdom of experience also comes at a price.

As we gain knowledge, we get entrenched in particular ways of seeing things. Our ability to come up with fresh and original ideas suffers accordingly. Our view of the world, once a limitless canvas of new impressions and opportunities, becomes restricted by the filters of our own thinking. We cease to question accepted wisdom. We fail to consider alternative options. We stop asking ’why’.

At the alter of adulthood, we sacrifice creativity for convenience and conformity.

"Our view of the world, once a limitless canvas of new impressions and opportunities, becomes restricted by the filters of our own thinking."

The consequences can be disconcerting. In a series of experiments, psychologists Alison Gopnik and Tom Griffiths found that adults are much more likely than children to stick with a plausible explanation for an event when clear counterevidence is presented. The children remained open to other possibilities. The adults settled for the initial explanation – which was in fact wrong.

Asking questions came naturally to us once. But over time, we unlearn this ability. In school, we spend most of our time learning the right answers to predefined questions – regurgitating facts rather than dreaming up the unimaginable. Later in life, as we develop into experts in our fields, we feel that others are looking to us for answers – not questions.

Yet it is asking the right questions that fuels innovation and sparks progress.

To escape the trenches of the adult mind, we need to get comfortable again with tapping into the curiosity of our inner child. Start asking ‘why’ again. Question the status quo. Seek out differences of opinion before making an important decision – especially when everyone seems to agree. Most probably, crucial information hasn’t been discussed yet, and alternative options are waiting to be discovered.

"To escape the trenches of the adult mind, we need to get comfortable again with tapping into the curiosity of our inner child."

2. Recognize your inner censor – you’ll regret it if you listen to it too often

As we age, not only do we tend to stop asking questions and cling to fixed perspectives, we also slip into another habit that curtails our creativity: we start censoring ourselves. As Adam Grant notes in his book Originals, “when it comes to the powerful ideas in our heads and the core values in our hearts, we censor ourselves.”

Through experience, we become more aware of how our words affect others, and how our actions can have unintended consequences. This serves a social purpose, in the sense that it makes us more responsible and empathetic. But it also makes us fearful.

More than anything else, growing up makes us want to belong and fit in. As adults, we often avoid risks because we fear rejection and ridicule more than anything else. We learn to hide our true thoughts and feelings behind carefully constructed words and phrases. New and potentially valuable ideas never get expressed, piling up in an inner wasteland of missed opportunities.

Tragically, relationships also have a tendency to break down over a lack of open and honest communication, not an excess of it. It’s rarely the big arguments that kill them. It’s the thousand little moments in which thoughts and feelings are left unspoken.

We let our inner censor get the upper hand, trading openness for the illusion of safety.

"It’s rarely the big arguments that kill relationships. It’s the thousand little moments in which thoughts and feelings are left unspoken."

We weren’t always this way.

Chilren speak their minds freely. They wear their hearts on their sleeves. They break rules because they have yet to discover them. And we forgive them – because we know they are not driven by ill intent.

We become much less forgiving of ourselves as we grow older. But we regret our cautiousness later. Research shows that when we look back on our lives, we regret the things we didn’t do or say much more than the follies we committed along the way. If we could live our life all over again, most of us would express ourselves more freely.

So next time your inner censor is about to take over, ask yourself whether it is really serving your best interests and those of the people around you. If you have something to say that others could benefit from, say it – don’t let fear hold you back. And if you have something to share with the people you care about, whether it is your deepest fear or your silliest dream, share it – your future self will thank you.

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3. Trust your intuition – there’s only so much that data will tell you

In this modern age, there’s a third ailment that has come to afflict us in adulthood: we have fallen out of love with intuition.

In our infatuation with everything that can be measured and displayed in a graph, we have somehow begun to dismiss our gut feelings as silly, inferior and less important.

Our inner child would not approve.

As kids, we connected freely to our intuition – it was the inner voice that urged us to explore and interact with our surroundings. We sought new options and tried new avenues, out of an eagerness to learn, not because a spreadsheet pointed us in a particular direction. We spoke in the language of the soul rather than in the language of numbers.

"As kids we sought new options and tried new avenues out of an eagerness to learn, not because a spreadsheet pointed us in a particular direction."

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we should abandon measurement in favor of fancy and speculation. In fact, I’m a sucker for statistics. We should be hungry for data and let them inform us. But there’s only so much that data will tell you.

As Tom Goodwin points out brilliantly in his book Digital Darwinism: “If we only ever built bridges where we could see people swimming across rivers, we would not have built many.”

To dream up new possibilities, we need to embrace our intuition and imagination, recognizing them for the compass they evolved to be.

And if that means being a bit more “like a child” – then maybe that’s something we could all aspire to a bit more often.

 

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. If the topic resonated with you, feel free to leave a comment below – I would love to learn from your perspective and experience.

Photos: Haeundae Beach, Busan, South Korea, 2017.

 

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