Creative lessons from a toddler

Mar 1st, 2016

Today is my son’s 2nd birthday and I’m having trouble believing two whole years have passed since I first held him. He was tiny, helpless and awesome. Now towering a meter tall – and weighing what feels like the equivalent of a washing machine – he’s lightning fast, has a never-ending supply of energy and is even more awesome. It’s obvious and clichéd to say this, but he’s changed my life; not just my personal life but how I work as a designer too. He’s a shining example of how to make progress, learn things and grow. Bruce (that’s his name, by the way) is my ultimate creative inspiration.

When he draws, paints, colours-in, sings, climbs, builds… basically, whenever he does anything, he does so without restraint. He doesn’t second-guess or doubt his ability and he isn’t scared of what people will think or how they’ll react. I envy this most in him. It’s obvious that fewer things will happen when there’s a lack of confidence, and they tend to happen a lot slower too. I have regular flutters of self-doubt – as I’m sure most people do from time-to-time – and generally try to compensate for that with a kind of “not giving a shit” perspective on most obstacles. Whilst this tactic allows me to progress through problems with momentum and a great degree of freedom, it’s still lacking the focus that comes with confidence. When it comes to decision-making, doubting your strengths and knowledge will hinder progress not to mention your ability to effectively collaborate with others. Trust your gut, forget your ego and just get on with it.

I think as designers we don’t always fully explore well-trodden paths due to a misknowledge that what we’re looking for isn’t down there. Or that we dismiss options or ideas too quickly because we think we know how they’ll play out already. This makes perfect sense, of course, as with experience you learn what’s working, familiarise yourself with patterns and become more efficient in finding solutions. But coming from a place where everything is new and you have no preconceptions will lead to some pretty random things. And from these unpredictable explorations comes opportunity for interesting discoveries. So while I think it’s important to identify successful, fruitful routes through problem-solving, it’s also important to spend some time with totally fresh eyes and forget that you know everything already.

If Bruce wants to find out what it’s like to sit inside the tumble-dryer then that’s just what he’s going to go ahead and do. And he did. See something interesting? Look into it more. Can’t figure out how something works? Tear it apart. Fancy making something? Give it a go. Bruce’s biggest strength is probably his curiosity and it’s benefitting him greatly. This is the easiest one for anyone really creative as it’s just a natural part of our whole mindset (although I know designers who operate quite differently and this in itself is something that I want – out of curiosity – to explore and understand). People can succeed doing what they do – if they’re good at what they do – and never have to stray from the safety of their own bubble. I would argue, however, that they can never truly grow creatively without a good dose of inquisitive thinking and a thirst to learn.

This week I came across one of those terrible-looking ‘inspirational/motivational’ memes, reading, When a child learns to walk and falls down 50 times, he never thinks to himself: “maybe this isn’t for me?” And without giving it too much thought I smiled and agreed entirely with the sentiment. I loved watching Bruce start to walk and marvelled at his perseverance. Sure, learning to walk is maybe not something that can be directly compared to types of challenges this quote is intending to help people overcome. But then maybe it can – or at least, maybe that sense of determination or ambition or whatever you choose to take from the message actually can be applied to that new skill you want to learn. In reality, I’ve even found myself defeated by the sheer doubt of success and avoided countless endeavors without ever even giving them a go. I’m determined to try more things regardless of how unlikely my success though I probably won’t persevere with everything to the same extent as learning to walk.

These are just a few things we can learn from toddlers (as well as tasting more things we find on the ground; becoming a dead weight when someone tries to lift you and you don’t want them to; and being the sole decider of when a book has been read enough times before bed). In short, you should have more confidence in yourself and your abilities; chances are you’re better than you know. Approach things with enough innocence that you don’t let past experiences get in the way of surprising discoveries. Get curious and investigate, fail, break, try, explore… ask questions. Finally, start things, but more importantly, finish things (or at least, give it a damn good shot).

Good at creative solutions, collaborating and thinking of a third thing he's good at.