A study released recently sought to explore why children seem to have more immunity to COVID-19 than adults and are more likely to resist infections or have asymptomatic/mild infections. The researchers found that (most) children are able to fight off COVID-19 because their immune systems are still operating under the assumption that pathogens entering the body are new, something they haven’t encountered before.
By contrast, adults have sophisticated response systems that rely on tapping into their existing immune responses. In the name of efficiency, adults’ immune systems aren’t on guard for new pathogens because they expect that what they’re fighting is something they’ve previously encountered. In other words, they’re misguided by experience.
This got me thinking. As adults, are we so “sophisticated” that we lack adaptability? Do we miss new problems because we assume problems are something we’ve seen before?
Are we complacent as innovators, or are we on guard for new ideas and solutions? Is a lack of adaptability killing us?
As adults we gather information throughout our lives, bringing preconceived notions, biases, doubts, fears, failures, negatives—you name it—into the process of solution-finding.
By contrast, if you watch children at play, nothing is off the table for them. They are not limited to boundaries of what is possible, only by their imaginations.
How might we create a mindset like a child, adaptable to new ideas, open to reconsidering our beliefs about the limitations of ourselves and others?
Six Practices to Cultivate an Adaptable Mindset
1. Seek inspiration everywhere.
Like the T-cells of a child assuming that all pathogens are new, you should always be on the lookout for new input. Seek inspiration everywhere. This might look like a willingness to try something new, whether it’s ax throwing, gardening, or creating a discipline of visiting museums or reading different types of books. Pursue new inputs and be open to them at all times, even when you’re not actively pursuing them.
2. Create mental space for imagery.
Children’s brilliance often comes via their vivid imaginations, where ideas play freely and space, time, and logic sit in the time-out corner. Anything is possible.
Increase your ability to imagine the impossible through mental imagery. Try a guided meditation, or read a novel that allows you to picture what’s happening. These activities flex your mental muscles for greater imagination and adaptability as you innovate.
3. Think positively.
Like The Little Engine that Could, a hallmark of resilient, adaptable thinkers is their ability to think positively and reframe situations. They don’t blame others or themselves. They don’t dwell on past failures. Instead, they create a discipline of replacing negative self-talk with reminders of what they can accomplish, focusing on what they’ve done before and how they can build on those experiences to improve themselves and others.
4. Build resilience.
Children show resilience in getting back on their bicycle or trying a Hula-Hoop again. Their tolerance for failure is higher than adults because they don’t let past failures limit them. Instead, they are motivated by memories of success and optimism that the task is not beyond their limitations. It’s easier to adapt when you know you’ve done it before. Prove to yourself that you can withstand change and adversity. Maybe it’s creating an exercise routine or facing fear head-on. Perhaps it’s tackling a problem you’ve been avoiding. Whatever your experiences are, they help build up a mindset of courage to face the new and the improbable with optimism and openness.
5. Look for patterns.
I love asking young children to sort colored alphabet letters. They aren’t bound by the rule of sorting in alphabetical order. They might sort by color, by general shape, or by which letters represent someone’s name. In mathematics, we look for patterns among concepts and situations to prove another assumption or procedure. In innovation, we must look for relationships among processes and patterns to find new solutions. We should seek analogous concepts out of which we can build the ideal foundation.
6. Keep an outsider’s view.
You see a box. A child sees a spaceship, a car, or a new bed for their stuffed animals. Without entrenched ideas of what things should be, they view the potential, like outsiders. How does an innovator maintain the same perspective, especially if you’re an intrapreneur or you’re entrenched in your industry’s or your company’s biases, beliefs, and systems?
One key to maintaining an outsider’s perspective is to treat your team members as experts in their field. Like a consultant would, listen to their insights in a fresh way and appreciate the knowledge (and biases) they bring to the table, or like a child would ask “why.”. Try to step away from the situation or problem you’re seeking to solve and observe it from 30,000 feet. Observe how group dynamics are in play, even if everybody in the group is familiar to you.
Innovation can seem complicated, but to a large extent, it’s really child’s play. In fact, to paraphrase Robert Fulghum, all you really need to know about innovation you learned in kindergarten.