When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. -1 Corinthians 13
One of the unexpected pleasures of our trip has been three weeks of living in households with small children, as our last two hosts have both had two kids under the age of seven.
In Paris, we stayed with Alison Laborderie, who I first met when we were assigned adjacent desks in fifth grade. Alison met her husband, Gilles, while studying at the University of Michigan, and followed him back to Paris after graduation, where they live with their six and three year old. Rachel and I stayed six nights with the Laborderies, and when we returned from sightseeing, I often found myself building castles with their youngest, Nathan.
As someone who likes creating things, building with a boy too young to have tasted criticism and failure revealed how much those experiences shape the way I create, how conditioned I am to do things the “right” way, and how difficult it is, as an adult, to simply play.
It was hard for me to build without a goal - and every boy knows that the only goal worth pursuing with building blocks is to build the tallest tower possible. All my decisions were judged by their contribution towards that goal, which meant that there were a lot of blocks in the box that I simply had no use for. Every time Nathan placed a block, I fought the urge to straighten it to right angles. When he picked up a round or decorative piece, I wanted to quickly point out that it was the “wrong” piece, so that we could avoid wasting time figuring that out through experimentation.
Eventually, some part of the tower would fall, and demolition commenced. Nathan went for maximum destruction, with no care for how far he’d have to walk to clean up the mess. I, on the other hand, tried to keep the rubble contained within a radius of the length of my arms. Then we’d start building a new castle and, every single time, he’d say “This one will never fall down! This will be the tallest castle EVER!”
It was so cool to watch a kid play with no fear of failure, no concern that he would be chided for doing it the wrong way. Of the two of us, Nathan had more fun and built, by far, more interesting castles. There were no surprises about the castles I built. They were the same castle any adult male with an engineering background would have built - rectangular blocks and right angles.
Nathan’s towers weren’t always tall, but they were often taller than I thought they’d be. His looked different. They were organic. They had character. They varied from one to the next. They were the result of juking and jiving in mid-flight instead of trying to meet a pre-determined standard which instantly ruled out a bunch of options. Nathan came up with designs that I simply would not create, no matter how much time, because of my predisposition to judging my work. And that’s what astonished me the most - that this three year old kid was capable of creating things that I cannot.
I don’t mean to say that the kid’s doing it right and that we should all go back to our childish ways. We live in the real-world, with grown-up constraints. I have friends who define themselves an “artist” (“I just wanna create, man”) who make life more difficult than necessary by refusing to learn from failure. But, it’s useful to be aware of how our natural creative impulses are affected once we start adding expectations and something to lose.
It reminded me of the Marshmallow Challenge we did during our Table XI winter retreat last year. Watch this seven minute TED talk for the full story - especially if your work involves team problem solving - but the punchline is that it’s an engineering challenge in which Kindergardeners consistently outperform MBAs.
I often worry about how the Internet affects my ambition. For overachievers accustomed to measuring success by the gap between their own accomplishments and the top, the Internet might be the greatest soul crushing invention of all time. No matter what you do - entrepreneurship, gaming, artistry - there’s someone, somewhere, who is lightyears better at it than you are, and a quick Google search will tell you exactly who they are. If doing things right is defined by the way the best guy does it, then I’m guaranteed to be doing it wrong for the first few of decades of any new pursuit. As long as I’m afraid of getting it wrong, I’m likely never to start anything.
But Nathan didn’t worry about any of that. He never seemed to wonder what the tallest castle ever built looked like, or how big of castles the kid down the hall built. The fact that every other castle he built fell down didn’t deter him from building the next one. He just picked up a block, decided where to put it, and went on to the next.
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