Hola rethinkers …* Elsa here, back from my camino! Had a truly splendid time and made it all the way to Santiago. Walking 800 km has given me plenty of time to think (a really really good combination and ancient tradition this walking and thinking business). I’m excited to share with you some of the insights and discoveries I made on my trip but as I’ve only just got back and barely had time to digest my experience, I’m going to write about something completely unrelated which happened this past weekend: I got to hang out with a six-year-old—correction, a six-and-a-half-year-old— and I was struck by how much adults, especially those interested in challenging the status quo and developing their capacity for empathy, stand to learn from young children.
MEET MY NEW FRIEND MATHIEU & HIS LEGO HERO FACTORY TOYS–BULK & STORMER
I met Mathieu at his parents’ house where I was having a long Sunday lunch. He sat at the table with us to eat a bit and then disappeared around the garden to play. When dessert was served, Mathieu came back for some ice cream, holding in his hand a Christmas catalogue. I asked him if he had started making his list for Santa and if he’d show me what it was he wanted. We went over the catalogue together and he explained the various delights of each toy he had circled. I then asked him what was the one toy he most hoped Santa would bring him, to which he answered Lego’s Hero Factory before disappearing to his room to bring back two specimens.
I spent over an hour talking with Mathieu about his Lego Hero Factory toys and playing with him. I could hardly say which of us had the most fun. But the reason I wanted to write about my encounter with Mathieu, goes beyond wanting to brag about my awesome new tiny friend or my love of all things Lego. Having no children of my own, I rarely get the chance to hang out with the six-and-a-half-year-old crowd and that’s a real shame. I’m passionate about storytelling, empathy and the architecture of change and as my time with Mathieu showed me, we (the part of the population who no longer values half years in our age) have much to learn in all three of these interrelated domains from children.
STORYTELLING 101 – WHY THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A CANNIBALISTIC JUMPER & CANNIBALISTIC COCOON MATTERS
What quickly became apparent to me as Mathieu and I played with Bulk and Stormer is that the toys were artifacts from an incredibly rich imaginary world, one which Mathieu inhabits very comfortably. Mathieu painstakingly explained the origin story of the Hero Factory world, the main hero, (Evo, for the uninitiated) the good guys and the bad. When I tried to rephrase what he had said to make sure I had understood, I confused the cocoons and the planters several times and each time, Mathieu patiently corrected me. Once I had gotten the full back story, we started playing and caught up in the excitement of the game, I started making what can best be described as attack noises – “Grrrrrrrrr,” “pooowww,” “watch out!” Mathieu looked at me a bit embarrassed and then said, as nicely as he could, “It’s a machine, it doesn’t talk.”
I think the fact that Mathieu corrected me each time I confused the cocoons and the jumpers or when I got carried away with battle sounds was critically important. He sensed my genuine interest in entering the Lego Hero Factory world and took it upon himself to guide me in. Each imaginary world operates according to a specific set of rules (so while vegetal cocoons attack robots in the Hero Factory world, machines do not speak or make battle calls) and it is these shared laws that keep the world bounded together and allow it to be a shared imaginary space
. Creating these rules and then exploring the possibilities of the worlds created within them is what fiction writers, dreamers, and rethinkers …*
of all type do. It is no secret that soft skills are becoming increasingly important as the pace of change accelerates and the collective problems we face become increasingly wicked. We need people who can craft solid, inhabitable alternatives–“what ifs” that offer better, more sustainable futures for more people. And that starts with storytelling and storytellers. We need to cultivate and amplify children’s natural capacity for creating imaginary worlds and we need to learn from them how we ourselves might regain that wonderful and critical ability to ask “what if?” and run with it.
EMPATHY & PLAY – JUMPING THROUGH FIRE REGULARLY WILL HELP KEEP YOU NIMBLE IN YOUR ABILITY TO ENTER OTHERS’ INTERNAL WORLDS
Not only are children naturally adept storytellers, they are also able to grasp with ease the nuances of others’ stories (I think the proper buzzword to describe this aptitude, these days, would be creative listeners)
. In many ways, each of us, carries and inhabits his or her own world. Our reality is constantly mediated by our perception; our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to others is shaped by a mix of past experiences, character traits, hopes, neuroses, tensions and dreams. In essence, empathy is about being able to experience what an exterior situation might feel like when viewed from the particular lens of another (an Other’s internal world). Children do this extremely often when they are at play, seemingly without any effort. Just a few weeks ago, I was having a drink with a friend on a rather deserted village town square while two little girls played nearby. The girls were running around and jumping, taking turns yelling, “now water, now fire.” Evidently, they were on an epic journey through the elements and shared a common imaginary space, worlds away from the physical environment, that had them running around panting with excitement. They were able to take turns designing the world and could seamlessly go from their own internal reality to that of their friend’s, experiencing with equal ease and immediacy what was in their friend’s mind’s eye as what was inside their own.
It’s interesting to note this link between play and empathy, how they seem to go hand in hand naturally. Perhaps it is because we try to stamp out our own playfulness as we age that we become more and more stuck within our own world and less able (or willing?) to enter into those of others. My advice? Go play with a tiny human.
play & rethink …*