Thursday, January 13, 2005

Recreating The Child-Like State

by Asim Jalis

Here are some reflections on how children differ from grown-ups. This is all speculation. I am just thinking out aloud. Maybe something here will stick. PARADISE LOST There is an idea that childhood is a perfect state and then somehow we eat the forbidden fruit and thrust out of paradise. I just want to call that out. This is not to invalidate the idea. In fact the appeal of the story of Genesis might be precisely that it is a metaphor for what happens when we grow up. CONSTANT PLAY Regarding children, it is true that they live in a kind of perfect world. They can play for hours with action figures and toys, lost in their own world. I remember doing this myself. I was never bored as a child, except when I had to sit properly because we were visiting someone. ABUNDANCE OF TIME One of the things that enables children to play, and to be so good at playing, is that they have tons of time. Even when I was in elementary school, I played between classes, sometimes just doodling on paper. As an adult I spend 9-10 hours per day at work. So that's a big drain on my idle time. I spend my weekends worrying about all the little errands I have to run. PARENTING THE SELF Perhaps it's that I have so much more control now. As a child I played because someone else was in control. Now I am in control. I can make myself work harder. I imagine I can achieve goals. In some ways I have internalized how I imagine my ideal parents should have been, and now I parent myself. I have become a parent to myself. Except it is much worse, because I have much more power over myself than my parents ever did. It no longer even makes sense to rebel or to hold a grudge. How can I rebel against myself? REFACTORING BACK THE CHILD Also kids have problems. For example, kids care a lot more about what people think. They care about their peer group. High school is awful if you don't fit in. But as a grown-up I care a lot less. I have removed a lot of illusions that I had as a kid which were harmful. I can see through them now. The stereotype of a child is a strong N. What about S children. I know children whose life revolves around just beating up everyone else. They are little animals. Maybe the problem is that as we grow up we add more and more code to our behavior. And over time this gets crufty and some of the original functionality is lost. The solution is not to throw out all the code that has been added, but rather to figure out how to retain the new features, while cleaning up the code to make sure the old stuff still works. WHAT MAKES CHILDREN DIFFERENT What makes children different. The underlying assumptions children make about reality might be much simpler than the ones we make. E.g. we plan too much. Children have no concept of planning or goals or consequences. We know too much. Children know little. It's much easier for them to throw caution to the wind and gamble big. A child will approach another at a playground, smile, and they'll become best friends. As grown-ups we know better than to talk to strangers. Children don't understand or care about money. They don't see the chains of cause-and-effect that money creates in our lives. Money is a kind of a spell. Once we become ensnared by it we spend our lives thinking about ways of acquiring it. We give up the child-like pursuits that do not bring us closer to money. RECREATING THE CHILD STATE Here are some thoughts on how to recreate some of the child state. Earlier when we were talking about playing and games (a few months ago) one of the thoughts was to use scores to turn work into play. E.g. I used a stopwatch to time how long it takes to pay a bill -- this turns it into a game. On the other hand, while the stopwatch is a fun toy and can sometimes make tasks more interesting, it does not really turn us into children. UNSTRUCTURED PLAYING A lot of playing that children do is unstructured. E.g. I see my own children spending hours with action figures. The figures interact with each other in evolving plots. I remember when I was small I spent a lot of time with planes and space crafts. The crafts would fly to distant planets, on rescue missions, or just explore world. Or they would just fly, for no reason. It was all play. STORIES VERSUS FACTS As a child I loved stories. When I grew up I moved away from fiction. It seemed like a waste of time. My thinking was: "It's all made up stuff. It's not real like the non-fiction books. The non-fiction books are filled with facts about reality. I could learn something from them." And yet as I reflect on this now, this sounds like complete nonsense. Perhaps this obsession with utilitarianism is part of the problem. Facts are boring and in the end pointless. They don't define goals or motivate. To get motivated and excited we need made up stuff. We need to weave the context that make the facts become important. Science fiction motivates engagement with science non-fiction. One of my coworkers is obsessed with Final Fantasy. I tried to understand why he loves this game so much. It's not the scores. It's not the individual challenges. In the end it's really about creating a different reality. He is able to live and play in this alternate reality, which is a lot more imaginative than the real world. SUMMARY How can we apply all this to our lives. Here are some concrete ideas: Imagine. Visualize and imagine desirable states to motivate behavior. While no child ever does this, and this is a terrible hijacking of the child-like gift of imagination, to do mundane work, it can be used to make the work more enjoyable and playful. Unstructured Play. Engage in unstructured play at work and at home. Unstructured means there are no rules. Buy some toys, action figures, air planes, and try to make up stuff. See what happens. Read Stories. Go to the bookstore and stay away from the computer and the business sections. Instead head over to fantasy and other kinds of fiction. Avoid literary classics unless they are goofy enough to be amusing to a child. Avoid literature on serious or important topics. Read Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, and other books that are ridiculously playful.