The power of adopting a toddler mindset

“If you can’t fit your idea on the back of an envelope, it’s rubbish” once claimed Richard Branson. Another entrepreneur who shares the Virgin Group founder’s passion for simplicity and creativity in business is Ella’s Kitchen founder Paul Lindley, whose new book – Little Wins – encourage us to ditch entrepreneurial clichés and empower the toddler within us all.

We sat down with Paul to get a better understanding of his outlook and how it can benefit us all – should we really be adopting the mindset of a toddler more often?

What was the motivation behind writing Little Wins?

Paul: The idea for Little Wins has emerged from spending the past 20 years witnessing firsthand the huge power of thinking like a toddler – from my work life at Nickelodeon, and then in founding and growing Ella’s Kitchen, to my personal journey as a dad to my two children, Ella and Paddy.

As toddlers we are at our most creative, free-thinking and self-confident. However, as we grow up, we take on social insecurities and worries that mean we lose sight of these precious skills. In his popular TED talk ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity?’, educationalist Sir Ken Robinson quotes the fact that 98 per cent of three to five-year-olds tested for their creativity showed the ability to ‘think in divergent ways’. By the age of 25, this figure drops to just two per cent.

Throughout my career, I’ve tried to combat that decline, and hold on to the confidence and creativity of my toddler self. It was my ability to capture the playful, imaginative confidence of toddlers that grew Ella’s Kitchen from an idea at my kitchen table to the UK’s number one baby food brand, sold in 40 countries across the globe. It’s been the key to our success, and at Ella’s Kitchen we have embraced a childlike approach in everything we do – from our product creation, through to our marketing strategy and our employee welfare schemes.

Little Wins is therefore a kind of personal development book to share what I’ve learnt, interwoven with anecdotes from my own experiences, and research from a wide range of psychologists, researchers and business leaders.

What are the benefits for entrepreneurs of thinking like a toddler?

I believe that everyone can benefit from embracing a toddler mindset and learning to ‘grow down’ – especially those trying to improve something, challenge themselves, or do something new. ‘Growing down’ and thinking like a toddler involves casting off some of the self-imposed restrictions that govern our everyday lives, and reawakening our most creative, ambitious and determined selves. These are certainly all traits shared by the best entrepreneurs!

Toddlers are life’s great experimenters, constantly trying new things and thinking outside the box to come up with solutions to their problems – from turning a washing machine into a time machine, to convincing Mum or Dad to let them stay up late. Apply that same playful, boundlessly imaginative approach to the adult world, and suddenly no business problem is unsolvable.

Similarly, toddlers are humblingly determined individuals. The skills we learn during early childhood – from walking, to talking and beyond – require a stubborn determination to try again and again until we succeed. Recapturing that single-minded confidence, daring to give a new idea a go, and refusing to give in when things get tough, defines successful entrepreneurs. Virgin are a perfect example of toddler thinking in a corporate world; and Richard Branson a model of relentless, optimistic, determination to push the boundaries, without fear of failing. He’s even written the foreword to Little Wins to explain how his adoption of a toddler mindset has been the key to his success.

Will thinking like a toddler first require the reader to ‘unlearn’ some of the bad habits they’ve picked up?

Embracing a toddler mindset is less about ‘unlearning’ bad habits, than rediscovering the good habits you used to have in your early years. For example, as a rule, toddlers are innately more sociable than we are as adults – more open to new people and new relationships. Studies have shown that, from around the age of two, children are more likely to work together than to solve problems on their own. This behaviour is motivated not just by an end goal, but by the opportunity to co-operate.

As we grow up, suspicions about being exploited, or an unwillingness to share credit or wealth, can temper our impulse to cooperate. Our pursuit of personal gain often outweighs our motivations around partnership and collaboration. Adopting a toddler mindset means accepting that support is always necessary, no matter the pursuit; entrepreneurs, for example, may often be seen as individualistic, but almost every successful business is the product of many hands rather than a few.

What’s the most valuable piece of insight you’ve picked up from channeling the toddler mindset?

At the heart of the toddler mindset is a willingness to stop worrying – about daily stresses, and the risks and pressures of making a wrong decision. It’s about having the courage to be yourself.

For toddlers, worries are fleeting. Their stage of physical and psychological development means that they have not yet developed a sense of self-consciousness, they have no concept of the future to worry them, and they are unrestrained by convention, because they don’t know it exists. Perhaps most importantly, they explore the world through imagination and play – quite literally everything has the potential to be an adventure.

As we grow up, the worries of the world take hold. Much of our day-to-day lives as grown-ups is governed by doubt – be they simple or complex, real or imagined. Play stops being a priority. And this is exacerbated by the information overload of our modern world; I’ve heard it said that we are now exposed to more information in one day than a sixteenth century person was in their entire lives!

An incredible realisation for me was that the solution to many of our problems does not require expert knowledge, but simply the ability to learn to take ourselves less seriously, and embrace the power of play. Psychologist Stuart Brown, founder of the California-based National Institute for Play, suggests that adults are just as affected by play deprivation as children, leaving them ‘rigid, humorless, inflexible and closed to trying out new options’. By simply changing our perspective, it is possible to transform our experience.

Did the process of writing the book teach you anything?

The process of writing Little Wins has in itself been an exercise in ‘growing down’, and unlocking each of the quintessential toddler traits I identify in the book: from being confident enough to pitch my idea to Penguin, and embracing the creativity needed to develop the ideas within Little Wins and promote it; through to diving right in and believing I could make it happen, and having fun at every stage of the process. Be it in the initial ideas development stage, the writing process, the finalization of visual assets, or the promotion activity – bringing Little Wins to life has been a collaborative effort that in every way embodies the toddler mindset.
You can purchase Little Wins: The Huge Power of Thinking Like a Toddler

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