Yes, I Can

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By Dapo Akande

I was watching a cookery program with my younger daughter and her elder brother, whose feigned interest was so easy to see through. He was far more concerned with getting the latest premiership team news on his phone but I chose to ignore this and dragged him into our conversation anyway.

The host of the cookery program, himself a celebrated chef, was praising one of the junior “chefs” (a child who couldn’t have been more than 11 years old) that his pasta dish was one of the best he had ever tasted. Not one of the best made by a child but by anybody, even other chefs. This got me thinking. How did this child make a dish so much better than so-called experts? I turned to my children and asked them a question which I know has a very obvious answer. “What makes adult cooks better than young cooks?” At least generally. And of course they blurted out the obvious, which were all absolutely correct. Adult chefs have more know-how, as a result of age, experience and so on.

I then asked the question which took us to where I actually wanted to go. “Why is it that at times, child cooks produce magically good dishes that blow seasoned chefs totally out of the water? What enables them to achieve this?” Thankfully, they both pretty much got it, so I was saved the agony of spending the rest of the evening agonizing and wondering why I’ve been spending quite so much on their school fees. Still, I tried to explain further and put it in my own words, just to give them greater clarity in understanding.

Children are by nature less held captive by convention. They dare to peer at and are subsequently able to see what adults dare not even take a peek into, all because they (adults) have been taught over time, the combinations that work and those that supposedly don’t.

Sometimes, it goes beyond what they’ve been told though. Experience, which we place so much premium on, may have conditioned their minds to accept what works and what apparently doesn’t. Numerous failed attempts could have evaporated the last drop of adventure in them and whipped them into the line of conventional thinking. Children on the other hand are not constrained by such. To them, anything is possible once they can imagine it. Rather than an uncanny knack of peering at a knotty issue, the best thing children have going for them is actually the opposite. They succeed where adults fail because they just get on with it without any doubt that they will succeed. Unlike adults, they’re not hindered by 1001 reasons of why it won’t work. They just make it happen because they refuse to entertain the thought of it not working.

In that wonderful book, Nudge, by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, we learn that the authorities at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam came up with an ingenious strategy to tackle the problem of careless aiming into the urinals by travellers who patronize their public lavatories. I want to believe they must have already trod the usual route of putting up notices, soliciting the cooperation of their patrons but hadn’t enjoyed much success. They then employed a method which took everybody’s eyes off the problem they were trying to tackle but instead appealed to the little boy within all of us, who doesn’t just love playing games but always wants to win.

A strategically positioned image of a housefly was etched in each urinal and because boys will always be boys, irrespective of their age, their attention shifted to “aiming” at the fly as soon as they saw it. Little did they know, it was simply a nudge for them to aim correctly. Careless shooting which had always left the floor in a terrible mess was reduced by a staggering 80% and essentially became history from that point onwards. Clever, eh? Possibly exasperated having tried so many different strategies and failed, it was time to think out of the box. It was time to try a less frontal and less obvious approach. But was it simple? Very. It’s one of the many things we hear about that makes us ask, “why didn’t I think of that?”

Many a time, we’re better off keeping things simple. In the book, “Good To Great”, the author Professor Jim Collins, came to a conclusion after spending several years tediously researching businesses and trying to understand why some were able to make the leap from good to great. Supported by volumes of largely incontrovertible statistics, he affirmed that those who made the transition from good corporate entities to becoming great organizations were the ones who were wise enough to streamline their operations, narrow their ambitions and aim for simple goals.

They identified what they could do better than everyone else while acknowledging and confronting the brutal facts. Those whose nebulous ambition was just to become “the biggest and the best” never achieved either. The great companies had succeeded in making their company goals simple by removing unnecessary complexities. They managed to focus the attention of their employees in a particular direction. Clear, precise and simple goals did the trick. Oh yes, there were a couple of other things too but to put it in his own words, one of the most critical was an ability to, “Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties”. He called this the Stockdale Paradox and it’s a notion totally unrelated to baseless optimism. It’s a sturdy belief in oneself even after taking all factors into consideration, that one will succeed.

To parents whose children are still young, my advice is that you allow them to remain in the naïveté that anything is possible for as long as you possibly can. There’s no special place in history kept for those whose mantra is, “forget it, it can’t be done”. Only for those who managed to take us beyond what we ever dared believe possible. It’s time many of us unlearn some of the “facts” that have held us back for so long and quickly acquaint ourselves with truths that can set us free to fly. Great men and women have always emerged from the company of those who said “Yes, I can”.

Changing the nation…one mind at a time.

Oladapo Akande is a Surrey University (UK) English graduate with a Masters in Professional Ethics. He’s an alumnus of the National Institute for Transformation and a two time author; The Last Flight and Shifting Anchors. He writes from Lagos.