The metaphor of having the energy of a child has an erred reputation. People say they want to move through life with the imagination, excitement, and curiosity of a child. The problem is children are discovering the world. As adults, or even as adolescents, we are doing less discovering. Instead, we are trying to find our place in the world. Those tools of discovery remain valuable but new skills and attributes become important.
In all stages of life, we find ourselves in times where we feel trapped. Life can take the shape of a continuous loop. Throughout our upbringing and traditional education, we have people setting a path for us and there is little reason to question them. After all, they’re the ones with experience, why should we question their judgment? The design of our life takes shape like a connect-the-dots puzzle, from number to number, without question, exactly the way it was planned by somebody else. We don’t know what the final picture will be, but we are assured that by the time we reach the last numbered dot and pick up our pencil there will be a design established that we will love and be proud of.
I don’t want to disenfranchise connect-the-dots (I loved those puzzles) or to criticize the process by which we raise our children. Guidance is essential. Without instruction, a child’s drawing of a monkey is more likely to end up as a maze of incoherent squiggles. With some luck, the child might at least pick an appropriate color for the monkey. Still, always being told what to do and how to do it doesn’t tend to build the best habits and inform the best routines. There is an alarming frequency of people in adolescence and adulthood feeling lost, worthless, depressed, and insignificant. According to James Altucher in his book, Choose Yourself!, the three highest-ranking search phrases that lead to his popular blog include, “I want to die,” “I hope to die,” and, “how can I disappear?” It is safe to say that the youthful energy of these searchers has been lost. The routines that form our lives dictate what is important and I believe a lack of engagement comes through misaligned routines.
The Foundations of Life
Growing up, we don’t all build the best habits and that’s a bigger problem than it sounds. Our habits generally revolve around listening to authority figures. Once we got older and begin to learn better, we can see this is similar to a forced routine of a prisoner. These kinds of routines are guaranteed to rob anybody of their energy. This is important because our habits and routines are the foundations of our life. Having soul-sucking habits does not bode well for our quality of life.
Watching Shawshank Redemption with my wife, I was reminded of why habits and routines are essential to our lives. There is a line in the movie where Morgan Freeman’s character is talking about life in prison. He says that everything in prison is about routines. The truth is, life everywhere is about routines. Studies have suggested that 40 percent of what we do is the same on a day-to-day basis. If this is true — which, any honest reflection on ones life will show — then we are effectively building our lives through the routines we allow to take shape in them. Or, perhaps, we are building our own prison.
The main character of this movie, Andy Dufreins, does exactly that by merit of what he does on a regular basis. It is prison, and some parts of his routine are atrocious. Still, one of the things he does is write letters every week requesting more funds to furnish the prison library. After six years, his repetition is rewarded with stacks of books, records, and money to fund the library further. He continues the habit and gets greater funding. Through his repeated actions he changes his prison into something more to his liking. He molds his life through the things he does on a regular basis.
This metaphor does not need to be limited to the confines of a prison. Yes, it is a movie, and the results of particular actions can work out conveniently to the interest of the writer, creator, or director, but the truth of habit translates powerfully to life. Habits and routines are the structure of our lives and, if we chose them purposefully, we can utilize their power to build a life for ourselves more akin to the house of our dreams. I would build a modernized treehouse with a library. It would rest in the canopy of a mountain forest. The fresh air and songbirds would be monuments for my treetop getaway.
Building these kinds of monuments requires something more than the aimless energy of a child. It requires direction, intent, and consistency of habit. But, it still requires energy. Morgan Freeman’s character, Red, in a now-famous monologue at the end of the movie describes energy we should all aspire to feel:
“I find I’m so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel. A free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.” -The Shawshank Redemption-
This is the kind of energy I’m interested in. Childhood is energy for the sake of doing that is often misguided or unguided. With the proper foundation of routines built around what excites us, we can form the energy ‘of a free man at the start of a long journey’. This is how we each begin constructing our own homes and our own monuments.