Thinking About Thinking - 2019

Make It All Child’s Play

By Balaji Prasad

“In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play."
~ Friedrich Nietzche

Seeds often grow into plants. On their own. Nature seems, generally, to do a pretty good job of moving things along in the right direction. Of course, some seeds don't grow into plants. And, some grow halfway to where they might have, stunted by circumstances adverse to their existence. There have been a lot of plants, though. Lots! In the overall scheme of things, survival, growth and even thriving seems to be the relentless thrust of life, not counting a few losses here and there, asking the way.

However, we are not plants. We “fail". We fail, because, we are different from plants in a specific way.

We are feeling-counters

The human mind is a counting machine. And more. Its design seems to include the ability to define what success is versus failure, to characterize events as they happen into one of these two buckets, and to tot up the counts. The mind also seems to aggressively dislike “failure", and experiences euphoric elation whenever a success is registered.

If we were like plants, maybe we wouldn't fret so much about a few slips and falls along the way. Maybe we would take it all in stride. Maybe it wouldn't be just because we accept both good and bad; maybe we would dispense with such judgmental words that throw us up on high, only to plunge us, immediately after, into a gaping abyss that swallows our souls as we sink helplessly into its depths.

But we are not like plants. We think. Endlessly. We are doomed to immerse ourselves in ourselves, feeling the pain and pleasure of the ups and downs of the hurtling roller coaster we find ourselves on.

We want the pleasure, but we don't want the pain. We want the successes, but would rather not have the failures. However, this was not always so. A step back in time may make this clearer.

Before Count Dracula was born

Once upon a time, we were children. A long time ago. A long, long time ago. It was a time when we barely knew how to count. We may have gained, by then, an ability to recognize the squiggly patterns we call numbers, but not yet the ability to apply this exotic skill to sum up all kinds of events and occurrences. That may have been because we hadn't yet acquired another skill: the ability to categorize things into neat buckets, and put labels on these buckets. Especially the labels of “good" and “bad". We barely had a sense of me versus the world. The word, “world", didn't mean a whole lot at that time. Further, the word, “me", was just beginning to resonate: we did respond to the sound of someone calling out our names, but it was still early days for the budding “me".

One day, this entity would go on to become something of a bloodthirsty Dracula, seeking out the blood of “success" from the vibrant life teeming all around. A rapacious monster would roam the earth, hiding from the light, and prowling at night, looking for success. Success. Success!

Failure was feared by Dracula with the same horror as that for light.

A phobia of “failure"

Fortunately, for us, before we got addicted to “success", we learned to walk. And, talk. We even excelled at these tasks, gaining an extraordinary level of competence at a very young age. As adults, many of us would likely balk at the magnitude and complexity of similar learning tasks. Somewhere along the way, though, we lost something! Somehow, we lost the secret sauce for learning that the experts - the children - possess. Maybe it is because we learned something we should not have learned - something that ended up eroding our ability to learn? Could it be that we somehow got indoctrinated with a phobia of failure? And, unlike our younger selves, we see failures where none exist, and so strive to avoid these “failures" that grip our sensibilities? After all, it matters how other people see us, doesn't it? If you are an adult, you don't want to be seen as failing, an attitude the child in us would find hard to comprehend.

Perhaps we could go back to those days. To the days when we were able, like Superman, to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Perhaps the path to success lies in failures. But maybe we cannot really go back to the same place we used to be in? Perhaps, since we now see the ideas of “success" and “failure", we cannot unsee them anymore. Maybe, we can deal with them, only with the same logic employed to fabricate them. If we cannot vaporize entrenched ideas, maybe we can learn new “logic" tricks built on top of those ideas. We could learn to bear the pain of “failure", perhaps, and be willing to endure failures, trusting that the path to “success" is studded with failures. And, that we too, like the children we used to be, will learn to walk some day. And talk. And, once again, learn and do all the kinds of things that used to be “child's play" for us.

Child's play

Maybe that's it! Make a “difficult" thing child's play. So that we can play with it as a child would. And fail. And fail again. And, yet again. But eventually becoming a master at whatever it is that we are engaging with. Maybe we would be able to conquer the kinds of challenging tasks that children are able to - things that are similar in complexity to walking and talking. Oh, and while we are at it, maybe we should remind ourselves not to stunt our children's ability to learn, by teaching them about failing and succeeding. We should be afraid. So afraid! For, some day, they may turn into us! And fail.


Balaji Prasad is an IIT/IIM graduate, a published author, SAT/ACT Online and Offline Coach, interview, resume, and career coach at NewCranium. Contact: 704.746.9779 or