What We Can Learn from Babies About Problem Solving

Before Simon was born, people asked me whether I thought I would become a Dad blogger. I don’t want to identify myself as such, as the experience of being a father is only one of the things I enjoy writing about. That said, here I go with my second straight post about Simon – thank you for indulging me.

Like most parents, I could spend all day just watching my son experience each new revelation in his first few months of life. Many beautiful poems, songs and stories have been written about the sense of wonder that a child brings into the world, and I can now tell you that they are all true.

One thing that has struck me as I’ve watched Simon find his toes, look at a tree for the first time and begin to grab toys and blankets is how much we (adults) can learn from how babies discover new things in their world. While we may never again be able to truly harness a child’s wonder, watching how an infant learns can carry widespread applications not only for marketers, but for all industries and professions.

Sheer Determination

The first lesson is one in perspective on sheer determination. The most trivial things we do throughout the day, even those that are now automatic, require a Herculean effort and a significant amount of practice for an infant. Yet, we know as we watch them that they will eventually solve most or all of these problems.

How often can we say the same when we look at the problems and obstacles we face every day? Sure, Simon gets frustrated when he can’t roll from his stomach to his back, but he’s going to try as hard as he can until it happens. Speaking personally, I have to say that I can remember giving up on things much more easily.

The most interesting part of watching him solve problems is in his process. While cognitive development in infants is still a field in its, well, infancy, there is general agreement that cognitive learning begins at birth. In Simon’s first four months, I’ve been surprised and awed by his seemingly innate ability to methodically attempt different concepts until he comes to a solution.

One example is in touching the octopus that hangs from the mobile above his play yard. He identified quickly that he wanted to touch and grab the octopus, but could not raise his right arm high enough to bat it. He tried with the right arm for a time before switching to the left, with a similar result. Over a few days of trying both arms independently, however, he realized that he could not only control both arms at the same time, but that raising them gave him a level of stability he did not have in using just one.

His sense of accomplishment in grabbing the octopus was wonderful to see, and I think the way he went about reaching his goal is something that many of us struggle with as adults. If insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results, then many of us would appear on that spectrum, as coming at a problem from a different direction than we are used to can be phenomenally difficult. For this reason, we often revert to what we know and what we are comfortable with, and when that doesn’t work, we move the problem to the “unsolvable” folder on our desktop.

Inspired by his determination, I’ve been attempting to approach problems more like Simon. Instead of stubbornly sticking to my proposed solution, I want to take a few good cracks at my first idea, then commit to making adjustments, incrementally making progress toward my goal. It’s difficult to let go of what we know and to move into uncertain or unknown territory, but if he can do it, so can we. I need to ask, as Simon seems to do when looking at a problem, “What if I tried it like this?”

Unadulterated Curiosity

Like Simon, all babies and children present us with excellent examples of determination every day. As determination alone will not always be enough, babies combine their inherent grit with unadulterated curiosity, providing an incredibly powerful formula for learning and, ultimately, creating change.

One of the most important applications of these observations for adults is in an infant’s ability to advance change quickly and effectively. One could certainly make the case that promoting change as an adult is far more complex, but I believe the same elements of determination and curiosity are still requirements, and that it can benefit us to remember this simple foundation as we struggle to influence these often critical shifts in our personal and professional lives.

Curiosity, the strong desire to learn or know something, is central to the ability to advance change, as it incites us to ask the all-important “Why?” and “Why Not?” questions, regardless of the political or cultural barriers to doing so. Irish novelist and poet James Stephens perhaps said it best in that “curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.”

To be successful change agents, we must first put aside our fear – babies have an advantage here, as it takes them a while to learn fear. Curiosity helps us move beyond what is, to what can be, while determination ensures that we will struggle until we reach out goal.

Of course, I’m putting words in Simon’s head and mouth, and if he could speak, he might tell me that I’m way off base. That said, I hope you found value in my observations of how a four-month-old takes on, in some ways, the same types of challenges we face as adults. At the very least, I think we can all benefit from asking, “What would happen if we tried it like this?”