Like most of you, my wife and I get together with our family over the holidays to celebrate, make and enjoy meals together, catch up, and play games. This year our kids introduced us to a multi-player video game called “Ultimate Chicken Horse” (google it), and we spent hours learning the ropes and laughing ourselves silly as we built virtual obstacles for each other and tried to navigate around them without our animal-character surrogates meeting an untimely demise.
I learned something very interesting from this exercise: as an adult, it’s difficult to tackle something completely new without suffering from feelings of inadequacy, incompetency, or inferiority. Our kids, who had played the game before, were almost miraculously adept at it – while my wife and I fumbled with the controller, trying to remember exactly which keys did what, and trying to react quickly to what was happening to our characters on screen. It took several frustrating rounds before I realized that the key to stop beating myself up every time my character fell off a cliff (or got hit by a swinging ball on a chain) was to behave like a child – and I don’t mean to scream, cry, throw the controller on the floor, or have a tantrum, tempting as that was.
No, the real trick is to become completely absorbed in the task at hand, with no room for self-doubt or giving up. A feeling of inferiority or self-doubt is completely foreign to young children, who master brand-spanking new challenges every day as they grow: learning how to walk, talk, read, write, ride a bicycle, and so on. Sure, they get frustrated (and cry and scream and throw tantrums), but they always seem to get right back on task and run full-tilt at the challenge until they overcome it – every child who learns to walk has fallen hundreds of times, and yet they are not embarrassed, ashamed, or feel badly about themselves while doing so. Their innate response is just to do something until they master it – no stopping, no turning back, no excuses – even if they cry and scream along the way.
It is only as children get older that they are taught, socialized, even trained to believe that they cannot do whatever they set their mind to do – they are trained to give up too soon, trained to feel embarrassment and shame if they cannot immediately (and painlessly) master a novelty. We need to retrain ourselves out of these bad habits that we’ve acquired, and behave more like the very young children we once were – oblivious to self-doubt, heedless of the thoughtless (or pointedly cruel) criticisms of others, unable to feel shame or humiliation, unafraid to ask questions or to persevere. Every challenge we face is just another opportunity to be curious, to engage fully with the world, to persevere, and to put aside self-doubt and self-criticism. We just need to channel our inner child every time we feel like giving up, and remind ourselves of how many times we had to fall before we could walk.