Unlocking Hidden Potential as Childlike Adults

Man in aquarium

March 22, 2023 • Cait Witherspoon • ECHO Digital, ECHO Digital

As children, play and the freedom from the fear of failure help us learn about the world and connect seemingly unrelated ideas. For some adults, however, those qualities slip away to be replaced by rigid social constructs in how we approach our work and personal lives. As professionals in an industry that encourages exploration to foster inspiration, we need to practice what we preach, encouraging a playful outlook and using divergent thinking to solve day-to-day issues. 

A special thank you to Dave Bindewald, Founder of the Center for Play & Exploration, for lending his expertise to the conversation.

Key Takeaways 

Reclaiming Our Childlikeness
In becoming more childlike, by no means are we advocating for a return to the ways of playground politics and immaturity. Rather, Dave Bindewald suggests adjusting our world-view to return to a previous state of daily engagement. As children, we tend to think about the world as an amazing place full of wonder and awe, where we constantly learn. As we age, we start to lose this sense of curiosity and the pressure to have the right answer begins to take over. Soon, the daily barrage of news articles, social media, and general “adulting” takes over. Bindewald suggests that through the practice of thinking about our thinking” we can start to remind ourselves that the world is still an inherently good place Innovation and working for the greater good are still worthwhile endeavors. This mindset can begin to inform how we move about each day and engage with the institutions we champion 

Flex Your Divergent Thinking Muscle 
The good news is that, like muscles in our body, we can train our brain to return to a state of “what if” where we look for unusual connections. Research shows that divergent thinking takes place in areas of the brain that correlate to spatial awareness, and for some, activation of those areas require “set-shifts”, or the removal of normal constraints.1 Bindewald likens the divergent thinking muscle to a switch that controls our fear of failure. The work then becomes turning off the switch that normally guides our ways of thinking.  By eliminating the possibility of being shamed for new or outrageous ideas, we can open ourselves up to more creative ways of collaboration.  

Taking The First Step
If we want our teams to think differently about their work, then as leaders we must build a culture of support. When new ideas come up – no matter how far from the norm – we must take the time to understand them fully and throw out the notion of “that will never work”. Add thinking games into team meetings, develop new uses for everyday objects, make up backstories for photos, or use improv techniques like “Yes, and…” to build on idea prompts. Once our teams become comfortable producing new ideas, and they see leaders doing the same, then divergent thinking can start to become the new normal.  

Build Daily Habits
Rekindling our childlike brains begins with good daily habitats. We can begin by listening to our internal monologue and making note of when that voice starts to overpower our creative thoughts. Each time that happens, take a step back and let your mind wander. As you practice, you will begin to understand the situations that turn on your brain’s governor and proactively counteract it.  

Bindewald also suggests making time to feel comfortable being wrong or not knowing the answer. On your own, try running a web search for English words that are no longer in use. Develop a definition for the new word and use it for a week. By incorporating multiple strategies as individuals and with our teams, we can start to create a more open work environment where new ideas are always welcome. As actor John Cleese said, “When you’re being creative, nothing is wrong.” 

1 O. Vartanian, Brain and Neuropsychology, Encyclopedia of Creativity (Second Edition), Academic Press, 2011, pages 165-169, ISBN 9780123750389, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780123750389000315