Where Does Our Child-Like Wonder Go?
Jessica Gamache Ph.D.
“You have to say, ‘Wait a second. Why are we doing it this way? Could it be better? Could it be different?’ That kind of curiosity, that explorer’s mind, that child-like wonder – that’s what makes an inventor.”
-Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon (Soper, 2013)
“Now, we choose to be engineers, inventors, and creators because we’ve retained our childlike wonder and imagination.”
-Kazuo Hirai, President and CEO of Sony Corporation (Communications, 2014)
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Sony’s Kazuo Hirai carry with them similar Genius: keep your child-like wonder. Both Bezos and Hirai attribute their extraordinary performance, in part, to this continual exploration of new ideas and new territories. And what modern CEO wouldn’t love to take their company to similar heights and gain a similar reputation? In order to remain competitive in any industry, executives today must concern themselves with being innovative and flexible as they pursue the growth of the company. But how?
If we think back to our own childhoods, we all started off with curiosity and wonder, with the ability to invent new things and extend the use of already invented things with new functions in new arenas – remember how easily the sofa, with a little rearranging of cushions, became a pirate ship? This wonder, however, disappears quickly after the early years of life. Why is this? Perhaps we begin to prioritize other values over wonder. Maybe we learn how the world really works. Or maybe we are simply told to not wonder.
In a recent article in Cognition, Christopher Lucas and colleagues (Lucas, Bridgers, Griffiths, & Gopnik, 2014) from the University of Edinburgh and the University of California, Berkeley offer one possibility for what changes our relationship with wonder: experience. Our knowledge and our expertise in navigating the world are determined by our experience, and as they point out, this is a double-edged sword. While our immense prior experience as adults allows us to more efficiently maneuver both familiar and novel situations, it can also be a detriment when a situation could benefit from a little child-like wonder. As we all know, many great ideas never leave the gate because someone says, “We’ve tried that before. That will never work.”
In an experiment, Lucas and colleagues had two sets of participants come into the lab: college-aged adults and 5-year-old children. Already, some ideas come to mind about the types of tasks that children or adults are better at. Children, for example, are better at learning languages, learning to ski, and making friends. Adults, on the other hand, are better at things like math and reasoning. Right? Well, maybe.
Lucas and colleagues’ experiment tested the child and adult participants’ ability to recognize two different types of patterns: conjunctive causal relationships and disjunctive causal relationships. In conjunctive causal relationships two (or more) events must take place to cause a resulting event. For example, in order to turn on a computer you must both plug in the computer and press the ‘on’ button. In disjunctive causal relationships, either one of two events must take place to cause the resulting event. For example, in order to shut down a computer, you can either click the physical ‘off’ button or go through a series of menus to shut the computer down.
A natural inclination might be to think that the adults would perform better at recognizing and applying complex patterns – a reasoning task at its core. However, children did better. Adults, who most frequently come across disjunctive relationships outside of the lab, were biased to interpret both disjunctive and conjunctive relationships as being disjunctive That is, adults approached most of the relationships with a solution resembling “push the ‘off’ button OR find the ‘shut down’ command,” even though half of the items required an approach more similar to “plug in the computer AND press the ‘on’ button.” Children, on the other hand, were able to see the two types of relationships as distinct.
In other words, the adults had an expectation about the way something should work, while the children did not have experience telling them how to solve the problem. The result is that children are far more inquisitive in their study of possible solutions. You could say kids are actually “problem-solving” while adults are “solution-retrieving.”
Executives today face this challenge constantly. They want their businesses to grow and be known as truly innovative, but they are leading people who are informed and inhibited by their typically very useful brain patterns.
This study is just one piece of evidence supporting the idea that prior experience does not always serve you. In fact, there are many case studies where child-like wonder, the innocence to reconsider the already-known world, is what ultimately led to extraordinary outcomes.
Consider the way that we now consume media. It was unthinkable twenty years ago that we would want to read books on an electronic device, such as Amazon’s Kindle. As of January of this year approximately 28% of Americans alone use e-readers. To create this new reality, Bezos and his team needed to move into a completely new territory. They faced the absence of prior experience with this new product and possibly the history of other, failed innovations.
Bezos has aptly noted that innovation requires experimentation, and with more experimentation comes more failure. The Genius of Bezos, however, is that he views failure as a productive part of the innovation process, rather than a detriment to the process. This relationship to failure may be the key to Bezos fostering the spirit of child-like wonder in his organization; perhaps in the world of wonder, failure as we define it doesn’t even exist.
There is no denying the importance of balance when considering new ideas – in this case, using prior knowledge to inform decisions while not allowing this knowledge to limit future opportunities.
However, for the most part, producing new results requires thinking in new ways. And new thinking comes when we suspend the experience that hampers our ability to be creative. Maintaining child-like wonder, and choosing to evaluate a new product, a new person, or a new venue with the curiosity befitting a child opens up the possibility for a break from the norm, and in turn, great innovation.
You may be wondering how to foster a sense of child-like wonder in yourself and your organization. Perhaps as you read this, you imagined yourself bringing together some great minds from across your organization to look at an old issue or intractable challenge with a renewed sense of imagination, suspending any nay-saying or preconceived solutions. But who has the time? What about the resources necessary to deliver?
We must consider that the companies we admire most for their innovative cultures and competitive edge are the ones that invest in their own child-like wonder. The question then becomes: How can you afford not to?
Communications. (2014/01/07). 2014 CES Opening Keynote. Retrieved from https://blog.sony.com/press/sony-ces-2014-keynote-transcript/
Lucas, C. G., Bridgers, S., Griffiths, T. L., & Gopnik, A. (2014). When children are better (or at least more open-minded) learners than adults: Developmental differences in learning the forms of causal relationships. Cognition, 131(2), 284-299.
Soper, T. (2013). Amazon founder Jeff Bezos on the most important traits of innovators. Retrieved from http://www.geekwire.com/2013/bezos-amazon-hires/
About the Author
Dr. Jessica Gamache is a consultant at Gap International and is responsible for the design of research focused on the link between language use and cognition. Her research has been published in conference proceedings and academic journals over the past several years. She has also presented at various linguistics conferences, including the Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition meeting, the Chicago Linguistics Society Meeting, and the Manchester Phonology Meeting.