I was watching a cookery program with my younger daughter and her elder brother, whose feigned interest was so easy to see through. He was far more concerned with getting the latest premiership team news on his phone but I chose to ignore this and dragged him into our conversation anyway.
The host of the cookery program, a celebrated chef, was praising one of the junior “chefs” (a child who couldn’t have been more than 11 years old) that his pasta dish was one of the best he had ever tasted. Not one of the best made by a child but by anybody, even other chefs. This got me thinking. How did this child make a dish so much better than so-called experts? I turned to my children and asked them a question, which I know, has a very obvious answer. “What makes adult cooks better than young cooks?” At least generally. And of course they blurted out the obvious, which were all absolutely correct. Adult chefs have more know-how, as a result of age, experience and so on.
I then asked the question, which took us to where I actually wanted to go. “Why is it that at times, children cooks produce magically good dishes that blow seasoned chefs totally out of the water? What enables them to achieve this?” Thankfully, they both pretty much got it, so I didn’t have to spend the rest of the evening agonizing over why I’ve been spending quite so much on their school fees. Still, I tried to explain further and put it in my own words, just to give them greater clarity of understanding. Children are by nature less held captive by convention. They are more likely to try something that adults wouldn’t dare try – all because they (adults) have been taught over time, the things that work and those that supposedly don’t.
There’s no special place in history kept for those whose slogan is, “forget it, it can’t be done”, only for those who succeed in taking us beyond what we dared believe was possible
Sometimes, it even goes beyond what they’ve been told. Experience, which we place so much premium on, may have conditioned their minds to accept what works and what apparently doesn’t. Numerous failed attempts could have evaporated the last drop of adventure in them and whipped them into the line of conventional thinking. Children on the other hand are not constrained by such. To them, anything is possible once they can imagine it. Rather than waste time staring at a knotty issue and thinking of the pros and cons of taking this or that action, they just get on with it, without doubting that they will succeed. Unlike adults, they’re not hampered by 1001 reasons of why it won’t work. They just make it happen because they refuse to entertain the thought of it not working.
In that wonderful book, Nudge, by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, we learn that the authorities at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam came up with an ingenious strategy to tackle the problem of careless aiming into the urinals by male travellers who patronize their public lavatories. I want to believe they must have already trod the usual route of putting up notices and soliciting the cooperation of their patrons but hadn’t enjoyed much success. They therefore employed a method, which took everybody’s eyes off the problem they were trying to tackle but instead appealed to the little boy within all of us men, who don’t just love playing games but always wants to win.
A strategically positioned and very realistic image of a housefly was etched in each urinal and because boys will always be boys, irrespective of their age, their attention shifted to “aiming” at the fly as soon as it caught their eye. Little did they know that it was simply a nudge for them to aim correctly. Careless shooting which had always left the floor in a terrible mess was reduced by a staggering 80% and essentially became history from that point onwards. Clever, eh? Exasperated after having tried so many different strategies and failed, it was time to think out of the box. It was time to try a less frontal and less obvious approach. But was it simple? Very. It’s one of the many solutions we hear about that makes us ask, “why didn’t I think of that?”
Many a time, we’re better off keeping things simple. In the book, “Good To Great”, the author Professor Jim Collins, came to a conclusion after spending several years tediously researching businesses and trying to understand why some were able to make the leap from good to great. Supported by volumes of largely incontrovertible statistics, he affirmed that those who made the transition from good corporate entities to becoming great organizations were the ones who were wise enough to streamline their operations, narrow their ambitions and aim for simple goals. They identified what they could do better than everyone else while acknowledging and confronting the brutal facts. Those who had the amorphous ambition of becoming “the biggest and the best” never achieved either.
The great companies had succeeded in making their company goals simple by removing unnecessary complexities. They managed to focus the attention of their employees in a particular direction. Clear, precise and simple goals did the trick. Oh yes, there were a couple of other things too, especially one that Jim Collins himself identified as one of the most critical which is an ability to, “retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties”. He called this the Stockdale Paradox and it’s a notion that shouldn’t be mistaken with baseless optimism. It’s a sturdy belief in oneself even after taking all factors into consideration, that one will succeed.
To parents whose children are still young, my advice is that you allow them to remain in the naïveté that anything is possible for as long as you possibly can. There’s no special place in history kept for those whose slogan is, “forget it, it can’t be done”, only for those who succeed in taking us beyond what we dared believe was possible. It’s time many of us unlearn some of the “facts” that have held us back for so long and quickly acquaint ourselves with truths that can set us free to fly. Great men and women have always emerged from the company of those who said “Yes, I can”.
Changing the nation…one mind at a time.