A clean slate. When we come into this world, we’re a blank canvas. There’s a little bit of “us” in there, but we become moulded by our experiences.
If you want to remember what it was like before you became crafted into who you are, look at a child.
Children are shiny and gold. That gold will become alloyed with their experiences, good and bad, of the adult world. And that gold alloy will tarnish over time.
I hope I can teach my little three-year-old how to be a good human, but here are four things I have learnt from her.
1. Making mistakes is the way we learn and develop.
The only way a child learns, at first, is by making mistakes. Children can be guided by adults, but when you’re learning to walk, you must make a thousand tiny mistakes before you learn the balance and coordination needed to put one foot in front of the other and not fall over.
When potty-training, children must unlearn everything they’ve known so far and re-learn how to tell when it’s time to go. We say they’ve had an “accident”, but it wasn’t an accident. It was just the way it was supposed to happen. Another step along the road to learning a complex skill.
Children learn to speak a new language in around 36 months. Well almost.
Me: “Amaya, I think it’s time for you to go to bed”
Amaya: “No, I not”
She doesn’t care that she hasn’t said the words quite correctly. She’s testing out her language.
Watching her butter her bread is more like watching someone taking a hammer to putty, but that’s ok – no one is born knowing how their bread is buttered.
Some things are just muscle memory, and there are no shortcuts. You have to do the work, do your ‘ten thousand hours’. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, you haven’t made a mistake; you just learned another way not to do something.
Making mistakes is looked at as failure rather than progress. Important progress. If you aren’t making mistakes, you’re standing still.
And sure, big mistakes can be hard to come back from. If you’re a doctor, a mistake can mean loss of life. When money is involved, making a mistake can have financial repercussions for yourself and maybe others.
Perhaps, though, you should be prepared to make less serious errors early on. Being vulnerable to saying you don’t understand and willing to admit that could prevent small misunderstandings from developing down the path to a big mistake.
When I was learning to fly, I had to fly round and round in the circuit until my instructor was confident—way past confident—that I could land the plane in any conditions, all alone. I spent days, weeks, and months just flying round and round, making mistakes.
But not making mistakes. Doing the work. Making progress. Learning the instincts of flying and adjusting.
The ego could have lost patience with the constant mistake makin, but to go it alone too early could have been catastrophic.
Lots of mistakes—hours of them—meant the big one never got made.
2. We should never forget the importance of play.
Everyone likes to have a good time. But when you’re a grown-up having a good time or playing is just something you do in your spare time. Something you do after work.
Play as a child can mean dressing up, playing with dolls and trucks, going to the park, messy play, and soft play.
As an adult, I’ve often thought play was a distraction. If you’re playing, you’re not working, and there’s so much to work to do. You can feel guilty if you’re having too much fun. You’re an adult; isn’t there something more serious you should be doing?
But play is how you learn, relax, get motivated, and develop your creativity. That doesn’t change because your number keeps increasing. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
Having no diversions begins to stress you out, makes you feel overloaded, and makes you go stir-crazy. You become more ineffective, not more effective.
Play is essential. In Greg McKeown’s book “Essentialism,” there is a whole section on play that was like a ‘lightbulb moment’ for me.
As an adult, play probably means something different than when you’re a child. Playing golf or tennis, going to the gym, baking or cooking if you find it fun, driving, reading, painting, sword-fighting, scuba diving
If you can combine play with learning, then you learn more deeply.
I also thought about the times when I’d been most inspired or when I’d felt most relaxed to create something new or solve a problem, and none of this ever happens when I’m working or concentrating on a task that is using all my mental load.
There isn’t space for inspiration during this time. Inspiration comes in your downtime when you’re not looking for it. To play is a verb, and the more you do it, the more your creativity evolves. Creativity can be learned and developed.
And you learn it through play.
Einstein: “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”
Ronald Dahl: “A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men.”
3. Curiosity did not kill the cat.
No. Curiosity did not kill the cat; it led us, humankind, to so far determine that there are 41 extant species in the Felidae, or cat family, and cats are not as old, biologically speaking, as jellyfish or lobsters.
There must have been a fair amount of curiosity between barely having language, not being able to stand upright, and being capable of making such classifications about the world around us.
Curiosity means not being scared to ask why. But more than that, keep asking why beyond the point of acceptability. Children love to ask why, and it can be challenging:
Amaya: “Why is the sky blue?”
Me: “Because the other colours of the spectrum from white sunlight get scattered, but blue gets scattered the most.”
Me: “Because particles in the atmosphere scatter the waves of sunlight when they enter the atmosphere, blue light gets scattered more because it has quite a short wavelength.“
Me: “Because when a wave hits a particle, it scatters in all directions, like a ball hitting a wall at different angles and speeds. All colours have different wavelengths, and blue is very short.
It’s important to keep asking why, not only about the world around us but also about the world inside us. Why do we want the things we want? Why do we feel the way we feel?
I hate the answer “because that’s the way it is” or “because that’s the way it’s always been”
Why? Is that really the best way? What would happen if we did things a different way?
In the pursuit of getting on with things or not asking the questions because we’re scared of the answers or not wanting to seem awkward, we can forget to be curious and be unsatisfied with the simple answers.
Curiosity is one of humankind’s greatest strengths, and we should embrace it as much as possible.
4. A little bit of candour can go a long way.
Amaya: “No, Daddy, I don’t want you to do my bath; I don’t like you!”
I don’t think that’s strictly true. Young children perhaps lack the empathy skills to realise that some of the things they say out loud can be hurtful or embarrassing.
Amaya (pointing and shouting): “Mummy, that man has a big bubble beard!” (He just had a regular beard.)
Amaya doesn’t see the need to sugarcoat anything she’s thinking. She will learn empathy and tact, but candour is a skill too often forgotten. Voicing concerns or double-checking can help combat ‘groupthink’.
Candour is essential when working as a team and to develop trust.
But candour and openness also help us to share the human experience and realise that we aren’t doing this alone. Mental health is much less of a stigma in 2023, particularly for men and boys, due to people’s willingness to be honest about the impact mental health has had on them.
There’s more acceptability surrounding saying I’m not doing ok, and I don’t know why.
Candour helps to break down stereotypes and show that the range of human experiences is vast and has unlimited combinations—not just the ones society puts on us.
It’s okay to be a girl who likes football. Or a girl who hates football and loves pink and pretty dresses. And Formula 1.
It’s ok to be a boy who hates sports but loves sewing, baking, and fixing cars.
The “Me Too” movement shook an industry and the world. Perhaps certain behaviour was just the way the industry had historically operated, but it took courage and candour to say, “This may be the way things are, but I don’t think that’s ok; in fact, I think it’s downright unacceptable and contemptible.”
So, these are four very valuable things that I wouldn’t have reflected on as much if I didn’t have a three-year-old to remind me of some of the things perhaps I’ve unlearnt or forgotten!
- Amaya needs to be resilient and shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes.
- She needs to always remember the joy of play and continue to seek it out and embrace it.
- She needs to remember not to be ashamed or embarrassed about asking questions
- She needs to learn to share her feelings, views, and experiences in a tactful manner.
She may lose a little of her shiny gold sheen. The world is presenting challenges that she and her generation will need to face.
If she can retain and embrace some of her childlike wonder in the face of climate change, widening inequality and polarisation, and the competition for meaningful work with the rise of artificial intelligence, then maybe she won’t become as tarnished as an adult.
Gold tarnishes because it typically gets alloyed with another metal. Isn’t this all adults? Our pure gold becomes alloyed with our experiences and the expectations placed on us.
We can all become a bit tarnished. If Amaya can remember some of her valuable lessons, perhaps she won’t become a gold alloy like me.
Perhaps she can still be 18 carat gold.
Note: Valuable lessons were reflected upon, thanks to Amaya.
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