Innovation happens at the intersection of wonder and rigor — child mindset and adult mindset
Where do you think the most innovation is happening within a 20-mile radius of you?
If you’re now thinking something like “the university,” “our local startup accelerator,” or “my corporate innovation lab,” you are probably in good company. But even at the most forward-thinking institution, the scope of innovation is limited by funds, bureaucracy, risk aversion, or just plain lack of imagination.
There is, however, a place where innovation is truly boundless, often even bending or exceeding the laws of nature.
Somewhere near you is a playground.
Yes, a place with monkey bars, screaming kids, brilliant ideas, and anything-is-possible mindsets.
Remember the freedom, the inventions, the deep joy, and endless possibilities for adventure? Many of us have forgotten how it felt to race, whooping and hollering, into play. Luckily, it’s not too late to rediscover its importance.
On playgrounds, we can encounter profound wisdom.
And it doesn’t even have to be a literal playground. Give kids a few moments to spare, and they are transforming airport terminals, waiting rooms, and restaurants into laboratories, excavation sites, or space stations.
A playground is an environment for play — an essential context for imagination and exploration — and such an environment can exist anywhere. No jungle gym required. Just the right mindset.
Kids are clearly excellent at this and thrive in playful situations. But can we adults also benefit from creating this shift in our environment?
MoMA curator and author of “Century of the Child: Growing by Design,” Juliet Kinchin, expressed that “children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real.”
It is at this intersection of ideal and real where true innovation happens.
There certainly is a time and a place for holding on to our adult minds, but so much of our work deserves boundless creativity.
If each person in a meeting room (virtual or physical) brings their child’s mind to their creative work at least some of the time, they are better able to explore, tinker, and brainstorm without fear of sounding silly.
To make the most of our creativity, we need to unlock our sense of playfulness again.
Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, TED speaker, and best-selling author, is one of the leading researchers in developmental psychology.
She is particularly interested in the study of children’s learning and the question of how cognition develops in children.
In her book, “Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life,” she describes children as having a “lantern consciousness” with which they explore and model the world around them.
They take in their entire surroundings, like a lantern casting a soft and diffuse light in all directions.
Their lack of focus is purposeful and allows them to more easily be in a state of joy and possibility. Their lantern consciousness is how they eventually make sense of everything, from social encounters to the physics of walking.
Their mindset lights up everything around them. New connections are being made, and new corners are being turned.
Gopnik explains that the opposite of lantern consciousness is what we see in most adults, what she calls “spotlight consciousness.”
We adults are superb at lasering in on the task at hand — while missing out on a lot of exciting things going on around us. Like a spotlight, we fixate and illuminate only the things in our intended direction.
This kind of consciousness is useful, but it also limits us, especially when our goal is novel ideas and innovation.
Creativity is about connecting the dots, and playfulness allows us to zoom out, find patterns, and make new and interesting connections. Connecting dots and creative play, for both children and adults, is essential to problem-solving, as well as cultivating a sense of possibility.
As Gopnik notes, “a child’s brain is extremely plastic, good for learning, not accomplishing,” for “exploring, rather than exploiting.”
While our normal adult brain is an efficient decision-making machine relying on extensive experience, it often traps us in well-worn mental grooves and patterns and doesn’t allow for the same exploration of far-fetched solutions and unhindered perception of new ideas.
I have written about the creative process in other articles, such as this one on incubation and creative potential.
If you are interested in the details, I suggest having a look at these earlier articles. But to give just a very quick summary, the creative process can be broken down into four stages:
It is almost as if the adult’s mind is particularly suited to the conscious phases of initial preparation and ultimate verification, while a child’s mind is much better at the unconscious stages of incubation and illumination.
In her book, “The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation, and Intuition at Work,” speaker and creativity strategist Natalie Nixon describes creativity as the interplay between wonder and rigor, and our ability to effectively toggle between these two states.
Similarly, my friend John Fitch and I believe that productivity and creativity happen when you can balance and support your work ethic with a rest ethic.
Unfortunately, many of us are almost constantly stuck in a phase of rigor, unable to access wonder. We have a work ethic that’s completely overwhelming our underdeveloped rest ethic.
In Gopnik’s terms, we’re stuck in spotlight mode.
And not only is that sapping our joy, but it’s also making us less effective as knowledge workers.
Luckily, even as adults, we aren’t permanently stuck with a spotlight consciousness.
Regularly exposing ourselves to new and unfamiliar ideas and trying to see the world from someone else’s perspective (maybe even someone we disagree with) are great ways to temporarily flip into lantern mode.
Interestingly, lantern consciousness is also apparent in adults under the influence of psychedelics.
When Gopnik first saw the results of a recent wave of studies on psychedelics’ effects on the brain, she was astonished by just how similar the brain of a young child and an adult on LSD seemed to function: “The short summary is, babies and children are basically tripping all the time.”
I don’t suggest you immediately seek out psychedelics to “diffuse your mental light,” but it is certainly an interesting result.
Fortunately, there is a much easier, more accessible (and less legally problematic) way to truly cultivate an accessible lantern mindset that lasts: building noble leisure into our lives.
During many forms of rest and time off, our mind and perspective are more like a lantern.
We naturally become more playful and exercise our “what-if-muscle” when we are not weighed down by busyness and constant hustle, but instead engage in an activity that’s deeply meaningful to us.
Think of the last time you got lost in a hobby or passion project.
Didn’t the flow state you found yourself in remind you of the everlasting days you spent as a kid? Didn’t ideas — even seemingly crazy ones — just effortless enter your mind once it was unburdened from that constant critical voice searching for a utilitarian purpose of your activity or reminding you of the next meeting?
We (hopefully) all experience such moments from time to time, but they are far too infrequent and accidental.
And if we are not mindful of it, as soon as such a spontaneous moment of playfulness is over, we will burrow back into our familiar routines focused on schedules and deadlines, racing through our chosen mazes. We get cynical and serious.
But with some time and a good rest ethic, we can achieve more balance, an ability to switch at will between the different states, and cultivate a mindset that defaults to play at least as easily as it defaults to seriousness.
If we feel stuck, we just need to look at children for inspiration. As Gopnik says: “If you want to understand what an expanded consciousness looks like, all you have to do is have tea with a four-year-old.”
To be playful, our mind needs space. And if you give it that mental space, it will turn it into a playground of boundless ideas and creativity.