We can learn a lot from a child. Plenty of adults engage in childish behavior, but not enough adults allow themselves to truly become childlike and exhibit an approach and display behaviors that exemplify the very best of what being a child is all about. Obviously, the point is not that we should become literally like children in every way—a group of 4-year olds is not going to build the next space shuttle or find a cure for an infectious disease this year. But as an exercise in personal growth, looking at the innocent nature of a small child offers illuminating and practical suggestions for changing our approach to life and work as "serious adults," including the work of presenting, facilitating, and teaching. You could probably come up with 100 things children do that you'd like to be able to still do today—here are just 13.
(1) Be completely present in the moment. In the words of David M. Bader: "Be here now. Be someplace else later. Is that so complicated?" We adults are often living in the past (or have our heads in the future). Many adults carry around preconceptions, prejudices, and even anger about something that happened years ago—even hundreds of years ago before anyone they even know was born. And yet, very young children do not worry and fret about the past or the future. What matters most is this moment. “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence," says Thich Nhat Hanh.
(2) Allow for spontaneity. We are often overly rigid and worry too much about what others may think or say, so we edit ourselves before we even try. I am not talking about anarchy, I am talking about bringing back some of that childlike behavior where you acted more on intuition and allowed your whims and momentary impulses to take you on all sorts of accidental discoveries. Our fear and our tendency to keep our minds fixed on the past and the future keeps us from being spontaneous in the moment.
(3) Move your body! To move is to live and to grow. When we were kids, no one had to tell us to get out of the house and exercise. We'd play football in the front yard until it got so dark we couldn't see the ball. Movement and exercise are how kids learn, and physical exercise improves cognition and memory for adults in both the short term and over the long term. Homo sapiens have evolved to move far more than your average person moves today. Moving is the most natural thing of all, certainly more natural than sitting on one's arse all day staring into a box or enduring lecture after lecture while remaining motionless on uncomfortable chairs. Move, and encourage others to do the same. "Our brains were built for walking—12 miles a day!" says Dr. John Medina.
(4) Play and be playful. To play is to explore and discover. Play helps us learn and discover new insights. You can be a "serious person" and play. NASA astronauts are serious, wickedly smart, and physically fit men and women of science. Yet, they're doing jobs they dreamed of as kids, and they are not above playfulness as Apollo 14 Commander Alan Shepard demonstrated by using his makeshift 6-iron to hit golf balls on the moon. Playfulness is a creative attitude that brings out the best in you and in others. Confucius said, "Find a job you love and you'll never work a day in your life."
(5 ) Make mistakes. Children make lots of "mistakes"—that's how they learn. Even though we are professionals, we can learn from mistakes as well, if we're willing to risk making them. Even experts make mistakes. An old Japanese proverb says "Even monkeys fall from trees." (Saru mo ki kara ochiru — 猿も木から落ちる.) Worry not about mistakes—learn from them. "Failure is the key to success." said The Great Teacher Morihei Ueshiba. "Each mistake teaches us something."
(6) Do not concern yourself with impressing people. Eventually peer pressure will set in, of course, but from what I have seen, very young children are naturally able to be in the moment and unafraid about what others may think of their "silly" behavior. "Do not try to make somebody believe you are smarter than you are," says writer Brenda Ueland. "What's the use? You can never be smarter than you are." In the words of Benjamin Zander, “This is the moment — this is the most important moment right now....It’s not about impressing people. It’s not about getting the next job. It’s about contributing something." When you are in the moment and truly engaged with your work and your ideas, the idea of trying to impress others is an uncomfortable distraction.
(7) Show your enthusiasm. "Mere enthusiasm is the All in All," says Brenda Ueland. You do not have to tell little children to be enthusiastic about just about anything (save broccoli, perhaps). Many years ago when I used to visit numerous schools in Japan, I noticed the elementary schools were abuzz with activity and filled with totally engaged, enthusiastic students. This would even carry on into the first weeks of Jr. High School, but the level of enthusiasm took a big hit as they progressed through the exam-driven system of secondary education. That energetic elementary student is still inside of you — imagine what could happen if you combined that child you used to be with the skilled, knowledgeable and wise person that you are today.
(8) Remain open to possibilities and "crazy" ideas. This is related to the idea of beginner's mind. Shunryu Suzuki famously said "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few." You may be an expert, but in order to learn, your cup must be empty. But for many adults, their cups runneth over with excuses and negative close mindedness disguised as skepticism. Healthy, unbiased skepticism is a good thing, but too many adults can tell you a million reasons why it can't be done or that has never been done. Curmudgeons abound, but life is too short to hang out with chronic sourpusses and others with closed minds.
(9) Be insanely curious, ask loads of questions. We think of formal education only as getting the answers, but questions are often more important. Knowledge is important, obviously, but "what if?" and "I wonder why?" is the stuff of imagination and engagement with the material. First come the questions, then begins the exploration and the discoveries—that is, the learning. Children are kind of like miniature scientists in the sense that they are naturally and unstoppably curious about the world around them. An adult with an insatiable curiosity will never stop learning and growing. It is curiosity that pushes us forward. Yet, as adults, we may have become complacent. The best teachers and the best presenters stimulate our natural curiosity. "You never learn a thing when you get the right answer, but are rewarded for doing so in schools," says TED founder Richard Saul Wurman.
(10) Know that you are a creative being. Ask any first grade class who among them is an artist, and watch every hand go up. By the time they are in college, you can barely get a single hand to go up in a class when you ask "who here considers themselves creative?" Is this because they've been educated out of their creativity as Sir Ken Robinson suggests? Regardless of your profession or education — whether you are an artist, design, teacher, or engineer — you are a supremely creative individual. If you doubt this, you rob the world and yourself of your true potential and a great contribution.
(11) Smile, laugh, enjoy. Take your work, very, very seriously, of course. But there is no reason to take yourself so seriously. The genuine enjoyment you project with your smiles and spontaneous laughter are infectious. Your dispassionate solemness is a mood that is also infectious. Which mood is more engaging? Which mood do you want to see reflected back at you? Laughter and a smile are gifts to yourself and to others.
(12) Slow down. Yes, of course focus is important, but not all distractions are a bad thing. Stop and notice the world around you. This stimulates your imagination. Says Brenda Ueland: "The imagination needs moodling — long inefficient, happy idling, dawdling, and puttering. People who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas...But they have no slow, big ideas." A small child walking on a path will stop and notice the novelty all around, while we impatient adults just want to get to our destination as soon as possible. Adults feel this way about happiness as well. Happiness is always in the future, over there, if I can just get "over there" to some place or situation in the future. This constant future-orientation causes many of us to step over the remarkable things in life that abound right here and now. Slow down and allow yourself to be distracted from time to time by the wonders of life around you.
(13) Encourage others. It is an amazing thing to see even very small children helping and encouraging others. Good teachers and good leaders inspire and encourage as well. Anatole France said "nine tenths of education is encouragement.” But what should you do when you yourself feel discouraged? An old Zen proverb has a simple answer: "Encourage others."
There are many more things we can learn from children, of course. Please feel free to share some of those here for others to see.