Often pedestalized and rarely well defined is the ability of certain folks to maintain a childlike curiosity as they age. From the late-blooming artists to the midlife polyglots, there’s something utterly attractive about those who manage to fend off a state of finality, electing instead to engage in a lifelong intellectual meander. I have come to believe that intentional practice, not happenstance alone, most often creates such a person.
When you are young, you have the space to play dress-up with identity. You instantiate fantastical realities in your mind, crafting new narratives of the self that metamorphosize daily. You slip on the shoes of your favorite fictional protagonists, peek mischievously through the eyes of their villains, or mime the motions of their world-builder.
The dynamism of youth empowers a low-commitment exploration of independent identity and the freedom to dance along the furthest edges of possibility. But as you navigate through a growing set of self-defining decisions, you take on the task of defining your role in a group. As an agent in a system, your identity path carries relational weight. Identity plotted against time establishes a set of historical data points that allow us to allocate trust and responsibility to individuals with the highest probability of acting the way we expect. The allure of building one’s reputation over time is the promise of increased behavioral autonomy, but it comes at the cost of an increasingly entrenched behavioral path.
Time further permits a deepening of social identity that allows us to construct a more distinct image of self in both the eyes of others and our own. There is some drive, I believe equal parts consequent of existential and social demand, to carve out one’s unique place in reality. The more definite one’s state of being, the easier it becomes to establish an in-group and derive a sense of individual worth.
With age, we seem to undergo a consequent decrease in narrative flexibility, picking from an increasingly smaller subset of identity-shaping traits to claim as our own. Faced with novelty, we hear a growing number of “that’s just not my thing” and “maybe in another life” responses. The sunk cost of accrued social reputation bears much heavier on assessments of possibility. Left unchecked, this collapse of possible narratives will inevitably kill one’s inner child.
Burdened by a time-accrued set of biases and bounds with overstated social importance, it becomes difficult to entertain improbable manifestations of reality. While the maintenance of reputation is critical to vocational and relational success, an overemphasis on its growth will inevitably atrophy an individual’s imaginative agency. The preservation of the inner child depends on the ability to actively engage states of mind that are unfettered by the self-inflicted bounds of a fixed identity.
There is a reason so much of the media we consume in childhood is wildly fantastical but much less so in adulthood: engaging deeply with a fantasy world demands the suspension of preconceptions. That is far easier to do when one’s set of preconceptions is quite small.
As an adult with a complex set of learned fears and beliefs, the ability to act in a truly open manner can ironically demand a lot of intentional practice. In the small sample of life progressions I’ve observed, there is no magic trick beyond frequent, intentional exposure to novelty. Curiosity requires vulnerability: it is no more than permitting yourself to engage with the knowledge gradients that surround you. In this way, childlike curiosity is an incredibly antifragile state of mind.
It can be tempting to believe that those with a strong inner child must have never faced the real world. But in practice, they are often the most battle-tested. Equipped with a strong internal locus of control, they are able to consciously quiet the narrative that defers to the weight of social perception. Indeed, acts of the inner child are among the most powerful assertions of agency.
The use of your inner child is a conscious reaffirmation that the world is far more malleable than you think. My observed, practiced, and firmly held conclusion is to treat everything as an experiment. Create and learn in ways that make you uncomfortable. Push the bounds of expectation by engaging deeply with even the mundane. Treat life as an opportunity to explore what could be rather than trying to navigate around what can’t.