When you’re a kid, everyone tells you to grow up. In many ways, that’s not the world's greatest advice.
You actually learn a lot about how to survive and thrive in the real world as a child. And while your experiences growing up provide fundamental lessons for your career, they can also rob you of some of your most precious attributes. That’s especially true for aspiring entrepreneurs and business leaders.
As you mature, you learn to be pragmatic, to focus on the issues at hand as opposed to the big picture perspective. You become overloaded by the many demands of adult life. You become jaded and lose your openness to new ideas and experiences. And you learn bad habits from the wrong people.
In short, growing up takes its toll on the entrepreneur within.
On the flip side, some of us never grow up. My own personal journey toward maturity has been remarkably slow and frustrating, especially for my wife, not to mention former employees, coworkers and bosses who’ve had to deal with my childish antics over the years.
That said, staying young at heart – and in mind – has its benefits and it’s certainly paid off for me, as it has for lots of successful entrepreneurs and executives. It’s a balancing act, to be sure. That’s why, if you want the best of both worlds, it’s a good idea to learn how to channel your inner child.
Question authority. I was a nightmare as a kid. My parents couldn’t get me to do anything I didn’t want to do. Wouldn’t you know it, a hatred of phrases like “because I said so” and “because that’s how it’s done” as a child translated into embracing new ideas and being skeptical of the status quo – both quite important in the business world.
Be stubborn and fearless in the face of adversity. Kids are notoriously resilient. And any successful entrepreneur will tell you, if you’ve got a disruptive idea, be prepared for the first hundred VCs to tell you you’re crazy. That’s what happened to Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin until Andy Bechtolsheim wrote them a check. Good thing they hung in there.
Tirelessly pursue your passion. Most kids have a natural tendency toward ADHD, but once they’ve got their minds set on something – something they want or something they’ve got to have – they simply won’t stop until they get it. They’re doggedly determined and they won’t take no for an answer.
Jump into the deep end headfirst. Children are natural risk-takers. After all, they spend much of their time falling down as they learn, play sports, whatever. Likewise, great entrepreneurs don’t hesitate or do things in half measures. When their gut tells them it’s right, they go all in.
Make tons of mistakes. It’s how we learn. It’s what we do when we’re young so we grow up to be wise. The problem with grown-ups is they tend to be afraid of failure. That’s unfortunate because failure remains the most powerful learning tool at any age.
Indulge your ego. Children are all ego; they truly believe the world revolves around them. Granted, that can get an adult into trouble. Still, all great leaders have a strong sense of self and empowerment. You just have to know when to indulge your ego, say to inspire and motivate the troops, and when to reel it in and be humble, say to win a customer or get funded.
Confront problems head-on. Kids are at each other’s throats one minute and playing the next. Likewise, constructive confrontation is critical to coming up with the best decision or most innovative strategy in the working world. Don’t avoid it. Just keep it in bounds by addressing the problem, not the person. That’s the key.
Tell stories. Children are natural actors (in the sense they can easily access their emotions) and unabashed storytellers because they haven’t developed inhibitions yet. That’s one of the best ways of connecting with people and initiating relationships. People connect with genuine emotions and remember stories.
Play hard. People who work hard and play hard don’t do it as a means to an end, but because they’re happy that way. They love to work. Whoever said “work’s not supposed to be fun; why do you think they call it work?” is a dope. Granted, it’s not the same kind of fun as in the playground, but if you love your work, it’s still fun.
Swallow your pride. As children, we’re taught to be the bigger person – to apologize whether an altercation was our fault or not. But as adults, we dig in our heels. We create walls and divisions. There’s a good reason why pride is the primary deadly sin. It’s deadly in the business world, as well. Humility is a powerful leadership trait. So is a sense of humor.
Just remember, if you managed to grow up, you can learn to be young again. Just don’t wait until you’re on Social Security to get started.
Steve Tobak is management consultant, executive coach, columnist, and former senior executive of the high-tech industry. As managing partner of Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting, he's been a trusted strategic advisor to executives and business leaders for more than a decade. Contact Tobak.