My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
~William Wordsworth, 1802
“Once upon a time, there was a little prince who lived on a planet that was barely larger than he, and who needed a friend.”* That’s how Antoine de Saint-Exupéry would have liked to begin his story of the Little Prince. To those who understand life, he says, that sort of a beginning would have rung far more true than any other.
But he doesn’t begin that way. He can’t. For, you see, adults wouldn’t understand. They wouldn’t understand at all. For them, for the little prince to be real there must be proof positive. Numerical, preferably. Asteroid B 612. That’s more like it. Now we get a sense of the man. His age? Weight? Height? Even better. But the sound of his voice? His preferred games? Whether he once collected butterflies? Irrelevant and unimportant considerations that could do little to shed light on the party in question.
That, at least, is the dichotomy presented in Saint-Exupéry’s classic, Le Petit Prince. On the one hand, we have the children, those like the narrator’s young self, inspired by a zoology text to draw a boa constrictor who has swallowed an elephant, or like the Little Prince of the title, who would very much like a picture of a sheep to take back to his planet. A sheep, preferably, who eats baobabs but not roses. On the other side of the spectrum, we have the adults, those who think the boa constrictor resembles an old floppy hat—and not a very well executed one, at that—and who urge the young narrator to pursue a Real Career and advise the Little Prince on the importance of counting every star, following routine, obeying orders, lighting a gas lamp at the proper time of day, even if it happens to be once a minute.
In Saint-Exupéry’s world, the adults seem the absurd ones, going nowhere quickly and persisting stubbornly in mindless pursuits – even when they no longer have any idea of why they pursue them. And it’s from the petit gentilhomme, as the narrator terms him, and from his guileless friends, the fox and the rose, that we get any sense of wisdom, of what is and is not important, of the questions that are worth asking—and the ones that aren’t.
The juxtaposition is necessarily exaggerated (we are in the realm of fable, after all). But Saint-Exupéry’s larger point about creativity and thought is difficult to overstate: as we age, how we see the world changes. It is the rare person who is able to hold on to the sense of wonderment, of presence, of sheer enjoyment of life and its possibilities that is so apparent in our younger selves. As we age, we gain experience. We become better able to exercise self-control. We become more in command of our faculties, our thoughts, our desires. But somehow, we lose sight of the effortless ability to take in the world in full. The very experience that helps us become successful threatens to limit our imagination and our sense of the possible. When did experience ever limit the fantasy of a child?
But it’s not that we aren’t capable of seeing a boa constrictor in place of a hat; it’s just that we don’t choose to do it. Think back to your childhood. Chances are, if I asked you to tell me about the street where you grew up, you’d be able to recall any number of details. The colors of the houses. The quirks of the neighbors. The smells of the seasons. How different the street was at different times of day. Where you played. Where you walked. Where you were afraid of walking. I bet you could go on for hours.
As children, we are remarkably aware. We absorb and process information at a speed that we’ll never again come close to achieving. New sights, new sounds, new smells, new people, new emotions, new experiences: we are learning about our world and its possibilities. Everything is new, everything is exciting, everything engenders curiosity. And because of the inherent newness of our surroundings, we are exquisitely alert; we are absorbed; we take it all in. Who knows when it might come in handy?
But as we grow older, the blasé factor increases exponentially. Been there, done that, don’t need to pay attention to this, and when in the world will I ever need to know or use that. Before we know it, we have shed that innate attentiveness, engagement, and curiosity for a host of passive, mindless habits. And even when we want to engage, we no longer have that childhood luxury. Gone are the days where our main job was to learn, to absorb, to interact; we now have other, more pressing (or so we think) responsibilities to attend to and demands on our minds to address. And as the demands on our attention increase—an all too real concern as the pressures of multitasking grow in the increasingly 24/7 digital age—so, too, does our actual attention decrease. As it does so, we become less and less able to know or notice our own thought habits, and more and more allow our minds to dictate our judgments and decisions, instead of the other way around.
In 2010, a group of psychologists decided to test experimentally the intuitive notion that, as we leave our childhood selves behind, we leave also some of that creative inspiration that is the basis of original ideas, innovative thought, and prescient discovery. They asked a group of college students to write a short essay: Imagine school is cancelled for today. What would you do, think, and feel?
All students answered the same question. But for one group, a single sentence was added to the instruction: You are seven years old.
After approximately five minutes of writing, each participant was asked to complete a version of the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) (specifically, the abbreviated version for adults). The average performance was about as expected—with one major exception. Those participants who were in the seven-year-old condition exhibited significantly higher levels of originality in thought. Both their verbal and figural responses left their more adult-minded counterparts in the dust.
Imagining yourself a child, it seems, can quite literally make your mind more flexible, more original, more open to creative input and more capable of generating creative output—a nice complement to past findings that laughter and positive mood have much the same effect.
And is it so surprising? After all, J. M. Barrie did write: “What is genius? It is the power to be a boy again at will.” (True, he did create the quintessential ever-child, Peter Pan—but not so Charles Baudelaire, whose Fleurs du Mals is anything but a children’s book, and who echoed Barrie closely when he wrote, “Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will, childhood equipped now with man's physical means to express itself, and with the analytical mind that enables it to bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed.” Baudelaire’s assessment, in fact, may be closer to the truth of the matter: the ability to capture the childlike openness and curiosity, but to combine it also with the experience and depth a child could not possibly possess.)
In the French version of the book, Saint-Exupéry never actually uses the term “adult” to describe his uncomprehending elders. He terms them les grandes personnes. Big people. Not once does he call them anything else.
That’s not a coincidence. It’s a crucial distinction. What matters, in the end, is the attitude, not the age. You can have children who are grandes personnes, just as you can have adults who aren’t. The question is one of mindset, of a way of looking at the world. It has little to do with age as such—only insofar as age tends to bring out a more staid attitude in many of us.
In the earlier study, the researchers found one more thing: it wasn’t just the seven-year-old thinkers who performed better. So did those individuals who scored higher on a measure of openness to experience. The effects were additive: someone who was more open-minded still derived benefit from the childhood thought manipulation, but could perform creatively—albeit not quite to the same extent—even absent that instruction.
Mindset is flexible. We don’t have to be grandes personnes forever, even if we’re well down that path already. And, like the Saint-Exupéry of the story, we can be as grande as ever when fixing our airplane—as serious a pursuit as there can be in the middle of a desert, thousands of miles from inhabited land—and as much of a budding illustrator of threatening baobabs and sheep in boxes when we so wish. That’s the beauty of a mindset. We have the power to change it at will, if only we so choose.
How old is the Little Prince? We never do find out. We know he has hair of gold. That his laugh is like the sparkle of the stars. That he loves a rose. That he tamed a wise fox and made him his friend. And at the end of the day, isn’t that all that really matters?
Parts of this piece were adapted from my forthcoming book on Sherlock Holmes, to be published by Viking in 2013.
All Little Prince illustrations from original version of "Le Petit Prince": copyright 1943 by Harcourt Brace & Company, renewed 1971 by Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry.
* All translations from the French my own.
Zabelina, D., & Robinson, M. (2010). Child’s play: Facilitating the originality of creative output by a priming manipulation. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 4 (1), 57-65 DOI: 10.1037/a0015644