A few years ago now I was asked by a prestigious business school to contribute a piece to a book they were in the process of producing. They asked me, along with a whole host of other people, to reflect (with the benefit of hindsight) on what advice I might give to my younger (18 year old) self.

I dutifully did so and was somewhat offended at the time to learn that my contribution did not make the cut. Perhaps it was because I went off-piste and didn’t provide the type of answer they were looking for (or they could just have thought it was rubbish!). However, the request to participate was still a gift and I realised that having my answer published was never the point. Rather, the question posed was for me and not forthem. It was an opportunity for me to remember something really important.

I remembered that my 18 year-old self was generally fearless. She believed that she could do pretty much anything she set her mind to. When people told her that things were impossible, she largely ignored them. She would say ‘everything looks impossible until it isn’t’.  

We tend to call young people ‘naive’. We might say that they don’t understand how the world works yet. The dictionary definition says ‘showing a lack of experience, wisdom, or judgement’, but as I read that, I wondered ‘who says so?’ and ‘as judged by whom?’. It also says ‘natural and unaffected; innocent‘. And thank goodness for that! It’s worth remembering that successfully naive people are called ‘visionaries’ and ‘pioneers’.

Neuroscience shows us that our brains are essentially databases and meaning-making machines. When we want to do something, our rational minds innocently but inevitably look to the past. In searching for evidence that something can be done, that it is a sensible or safe route to take, we look to our own past experiences and those of others. Does it or doesn’t it exist? Has it or has it not been done? What’s happened to other people who have tried to do it? That’s where our sense of ‘reality’ grows from. The older we get, the more ‘reality’ we’ve seen and the more evidence we’ve gathered for what we think is and isn’t possible, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.

So, in answer to the aforementioned business school, I said that there was no advice I wished to give to my younger self, but instead I wanted her to remind my current self that new possibilities are always available to us…but for our thinking that they’re not.

What advice might your wonderfully naive younger self give to you?

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