I recently learned this word: Neoteny. It refers to retaining childlike attributes, often referring to physical features. Yet I’m intrigued to extend the idea. What if we applied the idea to the way we engage with the world? It could encourage us to cultivate a #ChildlikeJoy in our every day. That’s why I think we can learn from the concept of neoteny.
1. What do kids do when they notice a bright, sunny day?
They put aside whatever they’re working on and race outside. Throwing open the door, they run out to embrace the warmth, small faces upturned to the sun.
This reminds of me of that old Calvin & Hobbes comic strip. Remember how Calvin would try to convince his dad to come outside and play? In one strip, dad responds, “Grown-ups can only justify playing outside by calling it exercise.” Isn’t that sad? And untrue! And yet, perhaps it holds a kernel of truth.
Do we feel pressure to demonstrate how busy we are? To look serious and professional at all times? Let me ask you this: what would it take, for us to disentangle ourselves from those expectations and enjoy a sunny day the way a child would? Neoteny.
2. How do kids engage each other on the playground?
A child runs up to another and asks, “Hey, do you want to play?” Smiles exchange and bloom, the kids run off hand in hand. Well, that was easy!
So, why do adults struggle to do the same? Marisa G. Franco, a professor at the University of Maryland, notes that we need two elements to be true to make friends organically1. They are: 1) continuous unplanned interaction and 2) shared vulnerability.
Well, the playground may allow for these dynamics, but as adults, we find ourselves in a this type of situation less often. So, what can we do? I think the secret lies in one of my favorite words: INTENTIONALITY (it’s in the subtitle of my book). We need to create the conditions for meaningful interaction. Book lovers can attend readings and art lovers may visit galleries. Pet lovers might visit dog parks. Note: stay off the phone! Enjoy the day and look around, because it’s difficult to engage with others if our eyes are glued to the screen.
For years, the U.S. Surgeon General has warned us that America is in the midst of a loneliness epidemic, and the pandemic certainly exacerbated issues. Let’s fight loneliness by getting intentional and learning from the concept of neoteny!
3. How do kids grab a seat at the table?
They race to the best seat they can find and promptly, plop themselves down! Perhaps they’re gunning for the seat closest to the crayons, or trying to claim the spot closest to the window. Kids don’t overthink about how they might be perceived, or worry about following social norms. Adults can learn from that kind of gusto!
Personally, once I entered the C-suite, the head of the table was often reserved for me. I’ll confess that initially, I was very uncomfortable taking that seat. I’d roll my chair to the side, creating an uncomfortable asymmetry in the room. Or I’d take a seat on the side of the boardroom, which left the big chair empty. But soon, I realized my own reticence was creating discomfort for the group, so I learned to just sit down. Eventually, the habit became more comfortable and the seat felt more like my own.
Here’s the other thing I realized: if everyone’s worried about how they’ll be perceived for which seat they select, no one is really looking at you. So learn from the young ones and just grab a chair!
This concept of neoteny isn’t about being shallow-minded or naive.
Rather, it’s about embracing life the way a child does.
It’s about sprinkling joy wherever you go! (now THAT is a great legacy).
Or giving with an intentional generosity that borders on outrageous, because you know it comes back tenfold!
And it’s about cultivating a space that promotes a deep sense of well-being. Check out more about the Danish concept of Hygge here.