How to Be Childlike

“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” – Pablo Picasso

Sometimes I lounge lazily in bed, in the middle of the day, with a couple of my kids and just abandon my worldly concerns, and just play.

Or I’ll sit and just watch them play, pretending they’re superheros or princesses or playing house or shooting each other with stick guns.

It never fails to leave me with a sense of wonder, of pure joy, of a return to innocence and a simpler time.

As grown ups, we’ve lost this childlike sense of life. And that’s actually a sad thing.

It’s not just about happiness and innocence either — being more childlike also helps us to be more creative, more imaginative, more innovative and open to worlds of possibilities.

Consider: as children, we are naturally imaginative, curious, able to play without a worry in our minds. Some qualities of young children that happen naturally:

  • they live in the present
  • they have no concerns about money, productivity, or being cool
  • there are no limits to their imagination, except what they’ve been exposed to
  • they play and lose themselves in play
  • they create with abandon
  • they are endlessly curious, and ask questions … without end
  • they love showing off to their parents

We could learn a lot from children. Sure, they have qualities we might not want, but in my eyes, they are already perfect. We don’t need to mold them into people, we need to be more like them.

We lose this childlike nature, the nature we’re born with, because of society — it has certain institutions and systems in place that beat childishness out of us, so we can be more productive citizens and consumers. I think it’s unfortunate.

We shouldn’t abandon all responsibilities, but we can learn a lot from children and be more like them in some ways.

How to be childlike
We must first acknowledge that no change is instantaneous, that any change worth keeping takes time. But you can start today.

Start by deciding to abandon caution and to give this a try. Start by identifying the qualities of children you’d like to emulate: curiosity, play, living in the moment, abandoning worries, imagination, creativity, pure joy.

Observe children. Watch how they play, how they live, how they create, how they ask questions. Sure, sometimes they do dumb things like throw tantrums, but even in that you can see their pure abandonment of everything but what is happening to them right now. Watch and learn.

Play with children. If you have some of your own, great. If not, play with children of friends and family. Lose yourself in the play. Be a dinosaur, or a gorilla, or a villain. Have a joyous time. Make them squeal in delight, and feel free to do the same yourself.

Talk with children. Ask them questions. Answer theirs. Don’t talk down to them with baby talk, but don’t be too grownup either.

Play by yourself. Go outside and run around, jump, slide, kick a ball around, pretend. Forget about who might be watching.

Create like a child. Don’t be constrained with what people expect, what you’re used to. Be wild and have fun. Imagine that things can be different, that there are no limitations, and see what happens. Most of your childlike drawings will be tossed in the trash, but some might be put up on the fridge.

Be curious like a child. Look at things with a child’s eye, and ask questions you’ve never asked before, explore with a beginner’s mind. Don’t be afraid to ask why, and what if, and why not?

Live in the moment. Forget about all you have to do. Forget about what happened yesterday, or that conversation you had. Forget about that meeting that’s coming up, or those deadlines. Just do, and be.

See the world with new eyes. It is a wondrous place, a miracle happening every second, a source of immense fascination that can knock you on your ass if you let it. You are a miracle, and every moment you have is a gift. What will you do with that gift?

And last, if you have children, let them be childlike. Stop trying to make them grow up. Stop trying to shape them, criticize them, make them your own piece of clay, as Marvin Gaye said. Let them be, and enjoy the beautiful way they already are.

“Adults are always asking little kids what they want to be when they grow up because they’re looking for ideas.” – Paula Poundstone

How to Be Childlike was originally posted on Zen Habits on 9/16/09.

The Comparison Trap

I love reading about other people’s work setups, I really do. It’s one of my guilty pleasures.

I’ll read about another blogger’s computer setup, or what kind of notebook and pen he uses, or how he works standing up or on a treadmill or while doing handstand pushups and growing a vegetable garden.

And when I read about some cool setup someone else has, some cool new way of working, I inevitably want to try it. I’m only human.

You’ve done this too, probably. You might read a review of some new software that will help you create, or a new fashion style or some cool shoes or beautiful furniture or the newest iPad, or the latest iPhone app. Or maybe you’re a minimalist and read someone’s barefoot running article, or how they’re living out of a backpack, and want to try that.

It’s a trap.

We’re endlessly looking at how others do things, for inspiration and ideas … but we end up wanting to try those things too. That sounds harmless until you realize that you’ll buy almost anything because someone wrote about it and made it sound amazing. You’ll live a life of an endless series of purchases because of what other people are doing. And it never ends.

Even if you don’t buy stuff, you’ll change your life endlessly, based on what others are doing. You’ll give up your couch, you’ll stop buying Ikea furniture, then give up your cell phone, then give up your computer, then start doing yoga, then become a Zen monk, then create a tech startup. Those things are amazing, sure … but when does it ever end?

When do we ever feel content with the life we’re living?

If you look to the lives of others,
you’ll always find yourself lacking.

Look instead at what you have,
and be grateful.

Reduce your needs,
and be content.

And your life of striving
for perfection, for the future,
will become a life of balance,
of the moment, of inner peace.

The Comparison Trap was originally posted on Zen Habits on 6/1/11.

The Art of Handling Criticism Gracefully

‘Conventional people are roused to fury by departure from convention, largely because they regard such departure as a criticism of themselves.’ ~Bertrand Russell

If you’re going to do anything interesting in the world, criticism is an unavoidable fact.

You’ll be criticized, because you’ll make mistakes, because some will be jealous, because people have opinions about anything interesting, because people want to help you, because some want to drag down those doing anything different.

The trick to navigating the icebergs of criticism is to figure out which are helpful, and steer clear of those that aren’t.

And above all, do it with grace.

Criticism on Zen Habits

Once Zen Habits started to take off — I had 26K subscribers at the end of my first year in 2007 — I received all kinds of criticism. Many of them were from new readers, who were mostly incredibly positive and encouraging, but who sometimes would leave scathing comments on a post.

I learned a tactic that worked extremely well. If a comment was mean, I’d take a minute to calm myself down, and then ask, “Does this person have a point (despite their rude tone)?”

Then I would respond and thank the commenter for his criticism. I’d acknowledge their point without being defensive. I’d respond with my reasoning, if I felt I had a point, or if the critic was right I would agree and let them know I was going to change things. Either way, I was grateful for their criticism.

This had a startling effect: the commenter would often respond very positively. Thanking the commenter and acknowledging their point is disarming. People who leave rude comments don’t expect you to listen to them, much less be grateful and empathetic. I had many of my critics become friends after doing that — I’ve never seen a tactic have better results.

I’d also get criticism from other sites. My usual response has been to ask myself (again, after calming down), “Does this person have a point?” If they do, I’ll see what I can do to change. If not, I’ll move on.

I’ve learned that criticism is a fact of the game. I can respond with anger, or let it stop me from doing things, or I can let it help me. Or accept that it’s there and move on. I choose the last two.

How Not To Handle Criticism

Criticism can bring you down if you let it. People get discouraged when faced with criticism, and just give up. That can be understandable, but why let the words of someone having a bad day (or month) stop you from doing something great? What would have happened if Shakespeare had stopped writing the first time an audience member jeered one of his lines? Or if Gandhi had given up just because the Brits weren’t happy with his ways?

Often people will instead respond to criticism with anger. They’ll lash out, attack, become defensive and aggressive.

If you haven’t read this now-infamous comment thread for a review of an indie book, I highly recommend it. The review is fine, but the comments left by the author of the book are simply incredible. She’s a train wreck that you can’t look away from.

This is how not to respond to criticism. It was the worst way to react. If you’re angry, you do not tell people to fuck off. You do not attack them, blame them for your mistakes, deny that you made any mistakes, and feed fuel to the fire by compounding your mistakes with more mistakes. It would be so much better just to stay silent.

Do Amazing Things

Don’t let criticism stop you from doing anything. If someone tells you that your writing sucks, keep doing it. Make it better. Study people who do it well and rip them off, then make it your own and let your voice infuse what you do. Be great by being honest, by seeking the truth and telling that truth when no one else will.

Create amazing things. Contribute to the world, make the version of the world you want to see.

Go out and do something different. Don’t do things just because everyone else does it. Here’s a secret:

If you find yourself swimming along with all the other fishes, swim the other way. They don’t know where they’re going either.

Do something amazing, and share it with the world. Criticism can be necessary, but often it is just dragging down the people trying to do amazing things. Don’t let it stop you.

How to Handle It Gracefully

Calm yourself down before responding. Always. Responding to a critic in anger is never, ever, ever a good idea. In case I didn’t make that clear: don’t ever ever ever respond in anger.

Ask yourself why the criticism was made. Is the person trying to help, to make things better, to help you avoid making mistakes, to suggest positive improvements? Is the person just in a cranky rude mood, having a bad day? Is the person just mean, or jealous? Is there good reason for the criticism?

Regardless of the motivation, ask yourself if there is validity in the criticism. Sometimes there really is, but instead of letting that get you down, let it help you improve. Admit that you’re not perfect at what you do (though you are perfect), and that not everything you do is exactly right, and that you want to improve. I, for one, certainly make mistakes all the time and have a lot I can improve.

Thank the person offering the criticism. Sometimes they’re coming from a place of wanting to help you. That takes courage, and is a very generous thing. Be grateful for that. Even when they’re not trying to be helpful, they’ve taken the time to respond to you — and trust me, getting a response is better than absolute silence. Provoking a reaction means you’ve done something interesting — and for that, you should be thankful. Either way, thanking the critic will help lead to a positive exchange.

Respond rationally and calmly. Instead of being defensive, be honest. Share your reasons, acknowledge the other person’s points if there’s any validity, and come to a rational conclusion rather than jealously guarding your way of doing things.

Or stay silent. If you can’t respond with grace, then just don’t respond. Silence is a much better response than anger or defensiveness or quitting.

Carry on. You’ve responded gracefully, now get back to doing your amazing things.

The Art of Handling Criticism Gracefully was originally posted on Zen Habits on 3/31/11.