Become a Child Again

To get ideas, think like a child

Pablo Picasso once said: "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist after he grows up." Many creative geniuses tend to return to the conceptual world of childhood as catalysts for either their work or their ideas.

Our ability to learn new things is a characteristic we lose over time, says Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. “Children are designed by evolution to be extremely good learners—to be able to learn about anything that’s interesting and important in the world around them,” she says. “When you look at their brains, they’re extremely flexible, so they can change what they think based on new evidence very quickly and easily.”

“There are children playing in the streets who could solve some of my top problems in physics, because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago.”... Robert Oppenheimer

The average adult never seems to question the mysteries of the universe. Instead of being attracted to and exploring anything new and exciting in our environments, the average adult begins to focus only on those things that are relevant to them. We become close-minded and oblivious to the possibilities that surround us. The mind becomes so set and so organized that we seem to lose the ability to create new ideas or even to recognize ideas developed by others. This is what Picasso meant when he described the problem as how to remain an artist after we grow up.

Picasso certainly had a point, and now researchers at North Dakota State University think they may have found an answer. Darya Zabelina and Michael Robinson, who carried out a US study into adult creativity have discovered that the more an adult acts and thinks like a child, the more imaginative he or she becomes. "Thinking like a child is entirely possible for adults," says Robinson. "And we found that doing so is beneficial for certain types of creative activities."

This exercise is designed to help you achieve a childlike state of mind even if you do it for as little as 10 minutes a day.

“It Takes a Lifetime to Paint Like a Child”…..Pablo Picasso

To get ideas, think like a kid. Get in touch with the child in you. Take a few moments, relax yourself as deeply as you can and perform the following exercise:

(1) Close your eyes and relax.

(2) Select the age that you think you were at your most creative. E.g., age 12.

(3) Regress yourself back to that age in phases. If you are 30 years of age, go back in time, skipping some years. E. g., 29, 25, 23, 17, 15, 12.

(4) Allow each phase to make its impression on your mind before going further back to your selected age. Allow your memory to deepen as you go back in time. Give yourself time to allow remembrances to come forth. Relax and enjoy your trip back in time.

(5) When you arrive at your age, reconstruct the details of that age as much as possible. Experience again the Christmas, July fourth, birthdays, vacations, friends, teachers, and school terms you experienced when you were 12. Feel as if you are back in time. Deepen the experience as much as you can. Remember "being in school" instead of "remembering being in school." Remember "playing with your best friend," instead of "remembering playing with your best friend."

(6) Think of your problem. How do you see the problem at age 12?

What questions would you ask? What solution would you propose?

“If you want to be creative, stay in part a child, with the creativity and invention that characterizes children before they are deformed by adult society”…..Jean Piaget

It has been theorized by some that play is an integral form of learning. It allows people to practice skills they might need later down the line. But play goes beyond such life skills. When we play, we gain practice manipulating things and controlling the outcome of events. We also devise new solutions for old problems and create new endings for our experiences. A good way to start thinking like a child is to abandon your judgment and knowledge of what is practical and start asking playful questions.

1. Try seeing and thinking about your problem as if it were alive. What would your problem be? (E.g., the problem of getting a promotion might appear as a small fish trying to avoid hungry predator).

2. Suppose problems were reincarnated as people or things. Think of the past reincarnations of your problem. What was it? (The problem of improving office morale reincarnated as Joseph Goebbels.)

3. What if your project were an animal? What would it look like? Draw an animal that metaphorically represents your problem.

4. Can you imagine the likely past and future of your problem?

5. Look at the problem as the top of something. Can you imagine what the underground portion looks like. Can you describe it?

6. View the world from the perspective of the problem. What does the world look like to the problem?

 7. Imagine your problem is a movie. Describe it? Is it a drama, thriller, comedy? What is the story line? Who are the actors? How would the movie be advertised and marketed?

8. If you were a hundred years in the future, how would you solve your problem? What if you were a caveman? Would the problem still exist? If it didn't, what would be a related problem?

9. If you were the problem's psychotherapist, what would the problem confide to you? What is the problem's biggest concern? What would be your counsel?

10. Can you draw or describe the house your problem would reside it if it were a living being?

Geniuses are childlike because they are able to wed a more advanced understanding of a subject with the kinds of questions, problems, issues and sensibilities that most characterize a wonder-filled child. Geniuses, like children, are willing to ask the obvious questions. An example is a recent conversation I had with Justin, a nine-year old neighbor. He asked me what was here before the world existed. I said, “Nothing.” “Nothing,” he said, “Where did the world come from?” I replied “Scientists say it was created by a Big Bang. A gigantic explosion.” “If there was nothing,” he said, “How can nothing cause an explosion? How can something come from nothing?” Can you answer that?

I can’t. Maybe that’s why Albert Einstein once said once said that the ordinary person could learn all the physics we will ever need to know if we could understand the mind of a three-year old child.


Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.

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