During the years I’ve been training hundreds of people from various companies I noticed a pattern that seems emerge every time when a group of 12 adults or more are brought together to learn something new, regardless of subject. People seem to have an urge to play that they fight very hard to keep under control, because apparently it’s not “professional”, but which seems to wait for just the right opportunity to manifest itself.

For example, I always give my seminar participants something to keep their hands busy while their minds are immersed in learning – an anti-stress ball or a funny pen, or, the star of the show – colored molding clay. The joy these small toys create and the creativity that is unleashed when given the opportunity to mold bear no connection with the status of the participants. People of all ages and professions seem to enjoy playing just the same – that is A LOT! I have proof of this in the form of two gorgeous cherries molded out of clay by a CFO, which sit proudly on my desk, alongside a cute green cappuccino cup created by a 20 something IT whizz.

So what if people like to play with molding clay? What’s the point in writing about this? – You might wonder just about now. Actually, the point is that this “hunger for play” and the extraordinary creativity people exhibit when given the chance might actually be harnessed for more “serious” and “business like” purposes. This whole thing got me thinking about all those childhood joys that we seem to lose somewhere on the way to becoming grown-ups and that we later in life reject as “not befitting an adult”. Maybe there is a reason why we behave a certain way when we are small and maybe, just maybe, it’s wrong to leave all that behind when we grow up. Is it possible that holding on to some of that “childish” stuff might actually have tangible benefits?

Learning from children

If it’s true that some childhood traits are worth holding on to in later age, then what are those? I’ve found a few that I think are worth mentioning and I’ll leave it up to you to add some more to the list.

1. Play

Since I’ve started this whole musing exercise by thinking about the value of “play”, it’s only natural to bring it up as a first thing to keep in your “childhood toolbox”. So why is “play” useful for grown-ups too?

Playing unleashes creativity and allows us to rid ourselves from the confines of convention. In play we censor ourselves less and thus make it easier to find out of the box ideas.

There are many business ideas that have harnessed the power of play for very serious purposes – like a video-game developed for children suffering from cancer, where the child’s mission is to use a spaceship to get rid of nasty alien invaders, thus unconsciously auto-stimulating his immune system to fight the disease. Another famous use of play to harness creativity can be seen in unconventional office space, created by companies like Google, EA Games or Pixar, where employees have countless opportunities for play at work (from basketball courts to igloo-like meeting rooms ) meant to bring out their ideas for the benefit of their employer.

What might you, in your own business and with your own team, do to harness the liberating and creativity stimulating power of play?

Maybe bouncing a ball around from one team member to another during brainstorm sessions, or using color to highlight different ideas in a presentation or maybe replacing a string of boring bullet-points in a PowerPoint with a funny cartoon expressing the same idea. Just food for thought…

2. Curiosity

We are all born explorers, and then we grow up and start taking things for granted.

Have you ever watched a small child exploring the world around her? That thirst for knowledge, that extraordinary drive to understand, that incessant asking “why” and “what” always leaves me in awe. We seem to come into the world with this curiosity as the driving force that makes us strive to understand who we are, where we are going and what the world around us means.

But then people grow up, and many start taking things for granted, building up preconceptions and ending up believing they hold the absolute truth – this leads to arrogance, dogmatism, rigidity and ultimately personal and organizational failure. When we cease questioning and get stuck in a fixed mindset we are bound to be left behind by an ever-changing world. Companies that have stopped being curious have also likely stopped listening to their clients, suppliers, competitors and, of course, to their employees. And that is the sure road to failure.

What might we do to keep that curious spirit alive at work and beyond?

First and foremost, never take things for granted. Always question everything and, when you don’t understand something, don’t be afraid to ask. If you are a manager, build a team of explorers – encourage them to experiment without fear of failure and to always ask “Why”. Do your best to come up with answers to their questions and don’t hesitate in challenging them too – “Why” might be a powerful coaching tool, when used wisely.

3. Courage

This is the third lesson we might learn from children – surely not the final one, but I’ll leave you to discover the rest.

What do I mean by “children being brave?” – well, anyone who ever watched their child learn a sport, like skiing, and then, after just a few lessons and without a hint of hesitation, fly down the slope and by the awe-struck parent, knows what children’s courage is all about. They seem to be blissfully unaware of danger, and, even though this may be a source of constant worry for parents, it may also be a reason of wonder and an opportunity to learn.

Why do we become so risk-averse once we grow up? You might say that we get wiser and gain a better understanding of what is safe and what isn’t. But isn’t it possible that we get too “wise” and that makes us stop trying to live our dreams; because all we see are potential risks?

How might children’s courage inspire  grown-up individuals, teams and companies?

When was the last time you took a risk in experimenting with a new business idea, even though you have no clue whether or not it’ll be successful? When did you last stand up for your beliefs and openly say your mind without fear you might upset someone? When did you last throw yourself on that metaphoric ski slope without being scared you might break your neck?

If the answer to all these questions is – “it’s been a while” – then maybe it’s time to gather up some of that “recklessness” you used to have as a child and put it to some good use. Try looking at the world with the fresh eyes of a child, seize opportunities when they present themselves, try out that business idea, get out of that dead-end job, start living in accordance with what you truly believe to be right! And stop trying to please everyone! …Oh, and have fun in the process!