How often do you catch yourself looking outside the window in the middle of the workday and daydreaming about what life “could” look like? What if I had earned that degree? What if I had started that company? What if I followed up on that dinner invitation? We do this all the time. We evaluate our “what ifs” in life and make decisions based on our risk tolerance. Our risk tolerance is the level of importance we place on the likelihood that our actions will end in failure. As adults, we spend most of our lives sabotaging our happiness. We blame circumstances outside our control or rationalize our decisions, but ultimately, we choose not to pursue our dreams out of fear. We sacrifice possibilities and settle for the status quo. We want guarantees before we attempt to change the world. Sometimes what we really need is child-like perseverance.
In 2001, Peter Skillman, now the General Manager of all Smart Things at Microsoft (I mean, who wouldn’t want that title? Just by title alone, if something dumb happens you can raise your hands and say, “not me, I only general manage the smart things”), conducted a creativity experiment over five years. He wanted to understand the core criteria that drives innovation. He called it the Marshmallow Design Challenge which had a simple directive: build the tallest structure you can that will support a marshmallow. Of course, with any challenge there were parameters, the structure had to be freestanding, completed within eighteen minutes, and could only use the tools provided: 20 pieces of dry spaghetti, 1 meter of tape, 1 piece of string, and 1 marshmallow. Now, go.
Skillman tested more than seven hundred people including groups of engineers, managers, and MBA students. The people who consistently scored the highest in every objective measured were kindergartners and the lowest performing individuals were business school students. Kindergartners were not successful because they had more life experience, education, or special knowledge, they just had no fear. Kindergartners used three characteristics that come naturally at six years old, optimism, endless imagination, and relentless tenacity.
Half Full: Somewhere between the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bad haircuts, and reckless abandon, we all grow up and allow the opinions of others to influence the decisions that drive our happiness. We choose not to pursue a degree because of what everyone will think if we fail. We choose not to start that company because what if it is not successful. We choose not to follow up on that dinner invitation because what if they do not find us interesting. However, we sell ourselves and other people short when we assume the worst. Those kindergartners were successful because they were optimistic. They knew they could achieve the goal and they were not concerned with anyone else’s opinion of their efforts. They believed in themselves.
If You Build It: Remember, when you used to lay in the grass on a warm summer day staring up at the puffy clouds just knowing that the fluffy unicorn would eventually catch the pegged-legged lizard heading towards the sun? No, just me? Okay. We always continue to dream. Our imagination is what helps get us through the hard times. It is our brain’s built-in response to difficult circumstances by imagining that better opportunities exist. The kindergartners were successful because they were not afraid to allow their imaginations to provide a pathway for opportunities.
The Right Stuff: Just like there are a million ways to eat Oreos, there are even more ways to try life. No two people travel the same path, we weren’t meant to. We develop our own needs, interests, and wants, and guess, what? They are all okay. We have a chance to learn from every experience. We learn from the triumph of our choices or from the consequences of our decisions. The kindergartners were successful because they just tried stuff. They were not concerned with selecting a leader, documenting processes, and taking credit. They worked together in a pattern of failing immediately and learning quickly. They built on what worked and refined what did not. They embraced the learning process.
While this experiment was a lesson in grit, it is just as important to understand when to quit. We need to establish parameters around our aspirations. Eighteen minutes, that is all the time each group had to achieve the objective. Even though there were constraints to the challenge, it did not alter the kindergartners optimism, imagination, or tenacity. At the end of the eighteen minutes, they were better off for having participated and learned from their mistakes. Sometimes in life we need a new perspective. Try adopting that of a six-year old and see what you can achieve.
What did you not know you could do, until you tried?