Sunday, 13 April 2014

Returning to childish enthusiasm

A child views the world with a sense of awe - a sense that there is so much to do, experience, accomplish, see, hear, taste, smell, interact with, join in with, and love that the eyes grow wide with wonder whenever anything new is presented.

They also know the secret that the great thinkers and achievers in our histories knew - that their mindset can change their world around them.

But as most of us 'mature', we become jaded and worked to the ground, we let life control us rather than control life. But look at the younger ones amongst us: children are always striving, or indeed battling, to gain control over their life - and we call them peevish, uncontrollable, out of order, unruly, or whatever epithet that basically says to them: kid, you can't have control over your life, because we don't - so knuckle down, tow the line, don't rock the boat, do as we do, and basically shut up and put up.

Let's look at it differently. Our children have something deep to teach us - that we can return to that innate curiosity and excitement and wonder the child naturally possesses.

The most wonderful aspect of being human is our deep curious instinct. We seek to learn - and indeed  cannot help learning and improving: within the first three years of our lives, we learn about how this world works, we learn how to walk, and we even master our home language. Our learning curve is intense - and we do not give up. We continue to press on with our learning and we slowly gain mastery over many aspects of life so we can eventually stand by ourselves, hold a conversation, express our feelings, walk, run, dress ourselves ... continually we are striving to better ourselves.The child's appetite for learning is insatiable.

To the adult mind, however, what children learn is childish - simple stuff that we have long learned and passed by, something necessary to learn but too simplistic to repeat; so we make the mistake of looking down upon our children as young apprentices having to go through the routine modes of learning to turn over, sit up, crawl, to pick things up, taste them, grasp and touch things, through to gabble talk, recognition and responses, through to toys and play. We miss the bigger picture that our children are driven by their curiosity and their intention to improve their lives - to gain mastery over their circle of influence (parents and toys included!).

And much of children's learning takes place through play. Play is horrendously underestimated as a tool for learning. When flying to another country, we are often asked: "are you entering the country for reasons of pleasure or work?" Is there a difference? Shouldn't our work be pleasurable? And sometimes we may have to work at our pleasure to get more out of it. Yet we create a dichotomy and condition ourselves and our children to think of work as work (i.e., something painful and best avoided) and play as play.

In a sense, I am playing at writing - I love writing and creating a flow of words in front of my eyes; a concert pianist plays the notes...a trader plays at the stock market, a lawyer plays at being the lawyer. Sure, there's professionalism in the exercise and the execution of the performance or duties, because playing does not imply random, whimsical movements: children's games often converge onto specific modes of playing with strict rules, just as an adult's professional game involves sticking to strictly defined rules and strategies ... but with a great deal of adaptation too.

Children are getting their best education when they are at play - with one another and by themselves in their own creative worlds. When we look upon work as drudgery, we are certainly missing something. Many people do not like their work for a variety of reasons - according to an international Gallup survey, 14% of Europeans feel satisfied or engaged with their work: so 86% are not content.

What went wrong? Perhaps much of it has to do with the imposed division between work and play:  we in the West are keen to create binary debates (nature versus nurture, men versus women, work versus play) when the reality is much more complex. But by imposing a view that there is either work or play, we are conditioning a belief system that work cannot be play. We also are thusly conditioned to believe that learning must be a form of work - surely, learning cannot be enjoyable? When we learn or work with humour or through having fun, people often frown or make sardonic comments - reflecting perhaps a deep seated belief that learning cannot be enjoyable because it wasn't for them.

Why wasn't it?

Arguably, because we are taught to learn things that are not part of our interests or which we are not ready for. I meet many pupils of all ages and abilities who have been burned by being taught too much too soon, or forced to do subjects when they have no interest in them. Our politicians (and of course self-interested educational groups) want our children to learn even more at even earlier ages, thereby refusing to understand the surveys that point to English children being amongst the unhappiest in Europe. Dutch children, in contrast, have no exam pressures under the age of 11 - they go to school to enjoy learning...there are other variables, but I seriously wonder about our advisers' motives when they ignore other countries' children excelling and being happier when they don't attend school so early or when they do not have scholarly pressures to prove something to someone else at such a young age.

When I investigate why a particular averagely intelligent pupil is disengaged at school, I often find that it relates to academic pressures foisted on them at an early age. X hated writing - when was he forced to start? At the age of three! Y hates reading - "why do I need to read?" His parents encouraged his reading through bribery and force: you must do your reading! Z gets incredibly nervous doing maths - his school has knock out mental maths tests in which the children stand up and have a few seconds to answer a question. Stress causes our brains not to work well and we are then left with a bad taste of perennial failure. (When parents express concern over their child's ability to do these humiliating tests, we often quickly ask the parent what is the answer to "Times 6 by 7 divide by 2 and add three to your answer...come on!" They usually crumble and get the point.)

In dividing play from learning - we simultaneously separate play from work. Is it any surprise that so many adults just consider their profession or work "as a job." Something to do to pay the bills. One of my oldest friends, Huw, was stuck in a supermarket "job", not going anywhere and not really excited about it (which is not to say that you can't excited about a supermarket job of course, but for him, it wasn't right). When I asked him what he really wanted to do, his answer presented a very different vision: he wanted to sing opera. Well, why not take some lessons, I asked? So he did, and that led to acting and that led to a role in a soap opera and other performances around the country's theatres. Much happier bunny!

Other times, the conversation has revolved more around the skill set that the pupil is offering. Against academic pressures "to do well" or "to go to university", the pupil seems thoroughly turned off learning at the level required - they hate revision and exams with a passion. Other passions are there though - and by allowing them to surface and discussed openly, I've enjoyed seeing quite a few students find a more rewarding path, and hopefully enjoy their profession or work and be more authentic people.

Some clients I've met (i.e., parents), are unhappy in their work and express it. "I don't know anyone who likes their job," said one executive to my wife and I once. We both responded at the same time, "I do!" You should have seen his face. As a friend commented, he looked as if he was chewing a wasp all the time. Great phrase! Reading between the lines for many older people though, the thought of giving up their profession is countered by the thought of the money that they are earning: some are explicit about it, such as a Head of department where I once worked who expressed his "jealousy" that I was heading off to work for myself, as he was "tied to his job because of the pension rights..."

On his death bed, would he lie pleased with the extra years he worked in a job he no longer enjoyed?

My work is very satisfying. I get to learn new things each week and apply skills I've picked up in new and interesting situations (new pupils, new challenges): I am and enjoy being thoroughly and authentically engaged with the pupil and there are so many rewards to seeing young people develop. And as we're going along, I explain that school and work need not be tedious or laborious and that it's highly advisable to work at something they enjoy; sure there are always some chores to do but when they are viewed in the bigger scheme of things, exams and book-keeping or whatnot become an essential part of the whole - and it is to the whole that we should always turn and keep focused on - our primer aims and passions!

When we end up doing things we do not like, our passion begins to diminish and we forget what we were supposed to be doing all along: we become another employed zombie just going through the routine of daily living.

When people find work a chore - a drudgery - what message are they telling themselves? That they are not worth better? That their passions or interests do not matter? That earning money is more important than being happy? (Funnily enough, research indicates that happier people tend to earn more money...) That who they are is of no importance? And what message do they then give their children - work hard at school, do well in exams, knuckle down and put up with the tests...because then you too can have a job like mine and be as miserable and frustrated.

I've forged a profession suitable to my interests and passions - learning and passing on that learning; my children know that I enjoy my work - they see a happy daddy, a daddy who gives his clients full attention, as I in turn give my children full attention and share knowledge with them. I know that I am in a privileged position relative to the 86% who are unhappy at work. But you know - it's not luck, it's how I view my work: at times I am like a kid constantly desiring to learn more and to share that learning widely. I retain an open, curious mind to new knowledge (and that, the psychologists tell us keeps us mentally and physically younger!). I shudder at St Paul's comment that he "put away childish things" (Corinthians 1:13) when he became an adult - he must have become a bore thereafter! On the other hand, in the Christian tradition - which still underpins much of our culture -  Christ said "Let the children alone, and let them come to me..." and "unless you change and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven..." (Matt 19:14; Matt, 18:13) There's a powerful message therein. For heaven read heaven or happiness...according to your beliefs.

Being an adult brings with it responsibilities - but even those need not depress us or be such a burden as to wipe the smile from our face. By prioritising what must be done with respect to what we'd like to do and keeping a tab on what we actually do, we can see where we may be going wrong and thereby improve how we work - there may be aspects of our work that are enjoyable and satisfying. I love the Zig Ziglar story of a surly waiter attending on him with very poor service. "You don't like your job, do you?" he asked the young man. "No, I hate it," was the reply. "Well, that's okay, because you won't have it for much longer." He then relates that the young man went back into the kitchens and returned with a very different demeanour and a smile!

When we change our perspective, we can begin to enjoy what we see as burdensome or painful.

When we shed the binary characterisations of life - that it's work or play, we can review our life through a different window: we can see our chores as enjoyable elements to see through and finish (daily in terms of washing, weekly in terms of cleaning the house, say, annually in paying taxes due...). But we can also review where we are with regards to what we really want.

When I watch my elder boy, I see the intent focus that he gives his play: for him, it is seriously enjoyable ...  or enjoyably serious. The focus is enviable - nothing else matters, the entire world is his and controlled by him and his mind. Therein lies the secret that Napoleon Hill uncovered in his research on successful people: "Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve."

It is vision - and enthusiasm for that vision - that propels the great, that lifts the mediocre out of their rut, that gets people out of poverty and hardship; it is that childishness that once fired our dreams and obsessions and the belief that anything is possible. The jaded adult shrugs bitterly, reflecting on his or her lost dreams and returns to the mantra passed down the generations that childish dreams are not meant to be taken seriously. But we have the power to block the naysayer, the doom merchant, the despondent and pathetic and rekindle the fire that once lit our bellies with passion. We have the right to listen to our dreams and we have the right to strive for them. Oliver Wendell Holmes said that the greatest tragedy is that most people go to their grave with their music still in them.


Let's listen to our music again - let's find out what we were really were about once upon a time.

Write down ten things you want to do or see or achieve.

Then write down how and when you're going to do them.

Create a vision board of your future - with the primary value centred or arching over the top as the most important purpose you have.

Then act upon those dreams and live your authentic life...

No comments:

Post a Comment