Why you should start thinking like a child

Peter Woolrich

Could listening to your inner child be the secret to making millions? One father and businessman certainly thinks so…

Paul Lindley has always had a childish side to him, but never in his wildest dreams did he think it’d make him a multi-millionaire. Already a director of the children’s cable channel Nickelodeon with two youngsters of his own, his rise to the very top of the business world began in a tent in British Columbia.

The Lindley family was on a camping holiday in Canada when Ella, his baby daughter, refused to eat any of the food Paul spooned out of the glass jars he’d bought in the supermarket. Although at his wits’ end, the 37-year-old accountant didn’t blame her. If it tastes anything like it looks it must be so boring, he thought. And is it really as nutritious as we’re led to believe? An idea began to germinate in both his business and parenting brain.

In 2003 consumers were becoming increasingly aware of the need to eat more healthily and it was generally assumed that feeding our babies sterilised, pureed banana out of small bottles was good for them. Baby food had been presented in the same way since the 1940s because it was thought that mums liked being able to see the product—even though they all looked the same—and for decades none of the major brands saw the need to do anything differently. But Paul did.

“Basically, Ella had just had enough of the same old, same old and the only way I could get her to eat was to make a game out of it, making it more enjoyable both for me and her,” he says. “I’ve always had a childlike mind, asking why all the time, and it occurred to me that if the whole eating experience—as well as the food—could be more fun, engaging, and healthier too, children would be more likely to put the food in their mouths.

It seemed to Paul that the problem needed to be approached from a different angle: that of the end user. “The only person whose opinion really mattered was the baby’s. Babies were the ones eating the stuff so we had to think of a way of making meals more of an adventure by stimulating their senses. The question was how,” the now 50-year-old—who, as you’d expect, appears much younger in his faded T-shirt and personalised Converse trainers—adds.

The idea went round Paul’s head for three months and not long afterwards he handed in his notice, having formulated a business model. People said he was mad to quit a wel-paid job to sell baby food, but he was determined to press on. He’d already realised that children could hold onto the squeezable pouches and feed themselves, but further research showed that the food didn’t need to be heated to the same high temperature; thus retaining more colour, taste, texture and vitamins. With the right recipe, it could be pasteurised, not sterilised.

Paul’s real brainwave however, apart from his food being organic, was to look at the product in the same way as his young daughter and, later on, his son, Paddy. “They liked bright colours and cartoons so that’s what I wanted to put on the packaging. Branding experts told me that greens and browns would convey the key natural message. Vibrant colours, they insisted, would strike the wrong note.” Despite the negative feedback, Lindley stuck to his toddler’s way of thinking, which he applied in more ways than one.

With just £25,000 and no previous retail or start-up experience he gave himself two years before the money ran out. Paul knew his pitch to the notoriously tough supermarkets and manufacturers would have to be innovative so he took inspiration from when a child, without any inhibition, belts out a song in a school play.

“Toddlers excel at free thinking, being self-assured and imaginative while as adults we feel embarrassed about what people might think. We become self-conscious and consequently our resilience to follow our instincts diminishes.” After 23 months, having sent more than 500 emails and spent hours on the phone, he hadn’t made a single penny. People, he discovered, are reluctant to change.

Lindley’s childlike way of thinking is backed up by science. As we get older, the prefrontal parts of our brain—used in planning, focusing and fast decision-making—exert more control, which has the drawback of making our thought processes less divergent; in turn making it harder to think differently or learn new things. In other words, baby brains are more flexible than adult ones partly because they have a high level of the chemical which allows the brain to change connections more easily. 

Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, has conducted studies that show four-year-olds perform better than older children and adults at solving a variety of problems.

Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, has conducted studies that show four-year-olds perform better than older children and adults at solving a variety of problems.

“Thanks to their free-flowing creativity and playfulness, toddlers are the research and development department of the human species while adults are production and marketing,” she says. “The noisiness, unpredictability and variability that we see in young children—which we tend to think of as something we need to get under control—is actually what helps us to see things in an alternative way.” So should we all throw temper tantrums to get our way in the office? “No, the challenge for entrepreneurs hoping to tap into this younger side of themselves—the less inhibited side—while continuing to run an efficient business is to be able to pulse back and forth between the two modes 
of thinking,” argues Gopnik.

Paul Lindley poses with Labour MP Kerry McCarthy next to a statue of Peter Pan commissioned by Ella’s Kitchen

Sir Ken Robinson, 67, an Emeritus professor at Warwick University and government adviser on education, believes our creativity is stymied even before we reach adulthood and that schools should tell children that sometimes it’s OK not to conform. With 50 million viewers, his TED talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” is the second most-watched of all time. “We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.”

With one month to go before his capital ran out, Paul Lindley continued getting nowhere with food manufacturers and retailers. He had very few cards left to play and tentatively picked up the phone to one of the biggest names in the business, the buyer at Sainsbury’s. “In order to keep going I had to tap into the best resource I had, the enthusiasm and tenacity of a child. I kept thinking what does a toddler do when it falls over? Gets up and try again, hundreds of times if necessary, so that’s what I did.”

Alison Atkin at Sainsbury’s immediately responded to Paul’s way of thinking. She found his orange, purple, yellow and red packaging refreshing and loved his unorthodox combinations of sweet potato, pumpkin, apple and blueberries. More importantly, so did the baby and toddler market.

Within a year of launching Ella’s Kitchen from the comfort of his home near Henley-on-Thames in 2006, he was on the shelves of every major supermarket; and after 18 months, while still a one-man band, had £1m turnover. Today, the company has a presence in more than 40 countries with a £77m turnover and four years ago Paul sold it to the American brand Hain Celestial for £83m, though he remains chairman. His business card lists his job title as “Ella’s dad.”

Digital agency Sleeping Giant Media replaced the traditional meeting room with a ball pool

Since selling, PAul’s been busy working on a number of programmes encouraging ethical business practices as well as writing a book called Little Wins, The Huge Power of Thinking Like a Toddler. In it he urges us, in the same way we had to grow up as children, to grow down. “Growing down is about changing the way you think to become more open, curious and creative. It’s about changing the way you explore your surroundings and relate to the people around you. Try going a different way to work or look at the trees differently. Take yourself on a journey similar to the one you undertook as a toddler when you first learned to smile, walk, talk and play.”    

Lindley won’t hire someone unless they can demonstrate that they’re capable of thinking and acting like a child, a concept supported by Sir Richard Branson. When asked to give an example in his own company of a less creative department showing such ability, Paul laughs and cites how payroll have written “from our piggy bank to yours” on staff wage slips. 

Darya Zabelina, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, says: “Our creativity is boosted by anything that allows time for play and wonder.” She’s co-authored a study in which undergraduates who were told to imagine they were seven-year-olds responded far more inventively to the Torrance Test of creative thinking, than those who remained in their adult mindset. “When we’re having fun our mind isn’t locked onto something specific, allowing our brain to see different things and make new associations.”

Some businesses prize innovative thought and invest in seemingly frivolous equipment like giant slides and ping pong tables. At digital marketing agency Sleeping Giant Media in Kent, there’s a Lego wall, a games room and instead of meeting in a boardroom, staff and clients are encouraged to plunge into a neck-high pit of colourful plastic balls.

“Everyone has that inner child within them but sometimes it’s drilled out of us, particularly in traditional workplace environments,” says Luke Quilter, the company’s chief executive and co-founder. “We embrace that here and try to remember what it’s like to have fun. By having fun, everyone becomes more creative.”

In eight years Quilter and his business partner Anthony Klokkou have taken their agency from his parents’ dining table to a company with 40 staff and an annual turnover of £1.6m.

Bosses beware. Children, it seems, have the midas touch.