Today I want to explore one of the subtle reasons people end up self-sabotaging their self-improvement efforts. It all has to do with leaving a dumb kid in charge.
When I was about 11 years old, I went to an event where a real-life astronaut came to speak to us about his experiences at NASA and on the space shuttle. It was really cool.
At the end of the presentation, he opened the floor up to questions from the kids. I raised my hand as high and hard as I could, and after a few other students asked their questions (dumb stuff like how you go to the bathroom in space, come on, EVERYONE knows that), the astronaut finally called on me.
This was my big chance. I had a burning question that had been on my mind for years, and this was my opportunity to finally get to the bottom of the matter, and potentially change the world!
“My question is, uh… about all the garbage we see in the landfills and stuff. Why don’t we just fill rockets with the garbage and shoot them into the sun?”
I had been holding on to this thought for a long time. It seemed like such an obvious and simple solution to the problem of waste. If only I could get the right adult to listen to me, my idea would finally get through and the Earth would be a nicer, less polluted place.
The astronaut chuckled, and very patiently explained that sending rockets into space used a lot of fuel, and it made more sense to keep trash on Earth, but that we should do it responsibly, use less, and recycle.
“Hmmph,” I grumbled inwardly, “He doesn’t get it either.”
This story is meant to show you one thing —
Looking back now, I can rattle off two dozen reasons why shooting garbage into the sun is a really stupid idea. To name a few:
- The greenhouse gas emissions from rockets blasting trash into space would dwarf any ecological benefit.
- It’s extremely difficult to actually shoot anything into the sun. To do that, you need to first shed all the speed that the Earth gives a rocket on launch. That’s 67,000 miles per hour of thrust you need to overcome. Otherwise, your space garbage will just orbit the sun forever. Unless a rocket took a decades long round trip involving gravitational braking across several planets, flying into the sun simply isn’t possible. The delta-V equation just doesn’t work.
- In the future, we’ll probably need all that trash. It turns out that trash contains the Earth’s largest store of rare metals, already mined and processed, and is sitting right on the surface ready to be harvested. The old products humanity has been throwing out for a century are a literal goldmine. Several companies are already starting to use sophisticated identification and harvesting techniques to bring those metals back into production. Shooting our few precious metals into the sun would be a monumentally dumb thing to do.
I cheekily said above that kids are idiots, but a better word would be ignorant. 11-year-old me was ignorant of how much CO₂ rockets release (or what CO₂ even was). I was ignorant of the delta-V issue for flying into the sun, and was ignorant about how wasteful it would be to throw all those irreplaceable metals into a giant ball of plasma.
When you’ve only been alive and conscious for 10 years or so, with a brain that’s still forming neural architecture, it’s just not possible to have deep, extensive knowledge on any advanced topic. As you grow up, study, and have experiences, you start to see how things are much more interconnected and nuanced than you thought. A curious, thoughtful person will start to realize that nothing is as simple as it seems at first.
This is why we don’t put 11-year-olds in charge of waste disposal, rocket launches, or anything important. Their brains don’t have the breadth or depth to make choices at that level.
But often, people DO put 11-year-olds in charge of some of the most important decisions of their lives. They let young kids choose how they spend their time and energy all day long.
I’m talking about the 11-year-old that lives inside you. The 11-year-old you used to be.
I’ll give you an example. Our neighbors recently gave us an electric piano that they didn’t have room for as they downsized homes. My wife ignored it for a few days, but eventually started sitting down and playing some simple songs. She seemed to be enjoying it, so I asked her if she wanted to take lessons, or at least download a piano teaching app. She instinctively shook her head and said, “No, piano isn’t really my thing.”
I knew where this sentiment was coming from. When my wife was a kid, she took electric organ lessons, and her parents bought an expensive organ for the home. But like a lot of kids, she gradually lost interest and came to resent the practice time and slow progress of learning an instrument. Much to her shame, she quit the electric organ after 6 months and to this day feels guilty about how much her parents spent on it.
Now, when she sits down at a piano, the 11-year-old version of herself calls out across the decades and says, “Remember what happened last time? You’re not a musical person! You’re just going to give up!” Your inner 11-year-old has a lot of power over you. They know your most secret thoughts. They know your soft spots, where to poke and prod you in the most painful ways. And so we often acquiesce to them, taking their advice about what we should and shouldn’t do with our time.
This is where it’s helpful to remember that 11-year-olds are idiots. They’re ignorant. They don’t know anything about anything. They think shooting trash into the sun is a great idea. So why are we grown adults letting these little twerps call the shots in our internal lives?
After a while, my wife did quietly download one of the piano teaching apps, and was amazed that she not only enjoyed playing piano, but that she loved practicing. The kid version of herself would get frustrated and feel dumb when she had to practice. The adult version knows that nothing worthwhile is easy, and that practice and making mistakes is the only way to improve. The decades between have given her perspective, context, and patience that was beyond the 11-year-old’s ability.
I see this situation all the time around the topic of wellness, in the form of smart, capable adults who leave their health and fitness choices up to the ignorant 11-year-olds inside them.
- The chubby, unathletic kid who was forced to run laps in school, and now has internalized that they can’t run, and that jogging is off the table as a cardio choice.
- The kid who was forced to eat poorly prepared, tasteless vegetables, and now as an adult still considers themselves “not a vegetable person."
- The skinny, beanpole kid who as an adult believes they can’t put on muscle, and that resistance training can’t work for them.
- The shy kid who was embarrassed at a pool party decades ago, and still feels bashful in a swimsuit, despite being a fit and healthy adult.
- The kid who furtively ate snacks and treats because their parents wouldn’t allow junk food, and now as an adult still guiltily sneaks the same treats as a coping mechanism for stress.
If you search inwardly for things about yourself which “just seem obvious” (I’m good at this, I’m bad at that, I’m not a ________ kind of person), you’ll often find the basis of the belief comes from an ignorant kid who didn’t understand the full scope of the situation. Why do we give these kids so much power over us!? Take control!
Internal kid voice: “I’m bad at running.”
Adult: “Running might be harder for me than others, but if I train intelligently and gradually increase distance, my endurance and VO₂ max will improve and everything will become easier. It turns out I like running when I prepare and do it properly!”
Internal kid voice: “I don’t like vegetables.”
Adult: I used to think I didn’t like vegetables, but it turns out I was being served vegetables in the worst possible way. Now I know that with seasoning, roasting, sauteeing, and grilling, vegetables taste amazing and I eat as many of them as I can because they make me look and feel great.
Internal kid voice: “I’ll always be a skinny beanpole.”
Adult: “My genetics don’t let me put on a ton of muscle quickly, like some other people, but with consistency and a good diet I CAN add muscle to my frame, and best of all, as a naturally lean person that muscle will be defined and “cut” in a way the more naturally musclely people can only dream of!”
Internal kid voice: “I don’t like people seeing me in a swimsuit.”
Adult: “Actually, I look pretty good in this swimsuit. Maybe not like a swimsuit model, but I know those are photoshopped images of already abnormally attractive people. I also know no one is really looking at me, and that everyone else is just as self-conscious as I am. So I’m just going to get out there and enjoy the water.
Internal kid voice: “I need to sneak treats because I shouldn’t be eating this kind of food.”
Adult: “I have some hang-ups around junk food, and am working on finding a balance between food that makes me happy and food that makes me healthy. One of these steps is to consciously make time and space for my comfort foods without it undermining my fitness efforts.”
You can see in these examples that the adult perspective has nuance and knowledge of the greater context with which these health choices are being made. The internal kid has a narrow-minded, closed viewpoint that makes change seem impossible. The adult view allows room for growth and learning. Which would you rather have making choices for you?
We all have these little hang-ups, whether it be about a fitness-related issue, or some other bad experience like learning an instrument or a weak subject in school. If you’ve identified an area of your life that you’re tired of being afraid of, it’s time to sit down with your 11-year-old and have a heart-to-heart.
“Listen kid, I know you mean well, but you just don’t know enough about how the world works to be making these decisions for me. I love you but you’re going to need to quiet down and let me be in charge.”
Your internal child may grumble and stomp their feet at this, and that’s ok. That’s what kids do. But it’s your job as an adult to be patient and teach the kid inside that there’s a lot more to the story, and that no matter what your age, you can still surprise yourself.
You wouldn't let little kids do your taxes or make career decisions for you, so why leave them in charge of your wellness choices? Let the adult in you make the calls, and you'll soon see the "truths" about yourself the kid has been whispering in your ear for decades might not be so true after all!
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder