Think like a child to boost your creativity.
The writer John McPhee was handed the script for his whole life as a 10-year-old boy, only he didn't know it. McPhee, who just turned 88, calculated recently that at least 90 per cent of the magazine stories he has done for The New Yorker are based on interests he developed during idyllic childhood summers in Ontario. On Lake Temagami, he learned to fish and swim and paddle a canoe. To McPhee, Camp Keewaydin was paradise. So he found a way to live there forever.
The term "inner child" got kicked to the curb sometime around the turn of the millennium. But folks, I don't know how else to say this: grab a shovel. It's time to resurrect that inner child. Because the stifled voice of the kid in you - specifically, the 10-year-old kid in you - has never more needed to be heard.
Social science tells us there's something special about age 10. It's a developmental sweet spot; at 10 you're old enough to know what lights you up, yet not so old that well-meaning adults have extinguished that fire by dumping more practical and 'realistic' options on it. Age 10 contains, in a sense, our source code. Now that as many as 85 per cent of North Americans fail to find much meaning in their jobs, and the charged firehose of the Internet makes sure we drink before we're thirsty (or maybe more accurately, before we've decided what we're thirsty for) the most reliable signal of what might actually fulfil us is getting lost in the noise. If you really listen, though, you can hear it. The call is coming from inside the house. Here's what the science says is going on in the brain of 10-year-olds:
They are about to experience the biggest surge of intellectual horsepower in their lifetimes - as measured by gains in 'executive function'. At the same time, 10-year-olds are emerging from the period of wildly 'divergent thinking', before a dip in originality that Harvard psychologist Jeanne Chall called 'the fourth-grade slump," when creativity gives way to practicality and logic takes over. Ten-year-olds are transitioning, in other words, from dreamers to lawyers.
But here's the thing - this whole project of recovering the inner kid is complicated. Not just because most of us haven't seen that kid in a long time. (Unlike John McPhee, we didn't spend our whole lives on Lake Temagami, even figuratively. We "put the ways of childhood behind us," meandering so far from those old enthusiasms that we forgot them entirely.) And even if we were to perfectly remember what lit us up at 10, there's still the matter of how to . scale that feeling to the adult world of today. How to age our childhood gifts, as the podcaster James Altucher recently put it, to give them value in our lives right now.
"I knew when I was about eight years old that I loved writing and books and I wanted to be a writer," author Robert Greene said, "but I could never figure out what to write. I started off with journalism. Then I tried to write novels and plays. Then I got into Hollywood and I wrote screenplays. I could basically say I was a failure in all of those different arenas - because they weren't connecting to who I really was. Finally, in 1996, I met a man who produces books, and he said, 'Robert, why don't you write a book? A nonfiction book.' Lightbulb. I thought, goddamn it, yes. This takes all of my interests and all of my experiences and funnels them into something that fits me. So the lesson is, I kept trying my hand at things that excited me but weren't quite right, until I found the right thing."
That's the trouble with the "right thing": it's only obvious in retrospect. And even if you ripped the page out of your age-10 diary that explicitly stated your deepest desire, it'd be hard to take that to the bank today. "I love to cut" could be the source code of a surgeon or a dressmaker or a killer.
When I was 10 I wanted to be in advertising. My wife might have preferred it if I'd stuck to those marching orders; we might be living in a house with an actual yard. Then again, I'd be hawking wrinkle cream. So I guess the recipe is, you take that 10-year-old voice, run it through the filter of what you can live with, and make peace with the result.
Bruce Grierson is a social-science writer based in British Columbia
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