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Lessons from a Four Year Old: How to Reach Next-Level Innovation with your Clients

Take a look at this picture my 4-year old son created. What do you see?


I quickly looked at his drawing and came to the simple conclusion that he had drawn three balloons floating in a blue sky. “Good job with those balloons, bud,” I recall saying to him.

He twisted up his face and I could tell he was disappointed by my response. That was because, to him, those weren’t balloons at all. And in my rush-to-judgment, I forgot to ask him what it was in-fact that he had drawn and was now sharing with me.

So, what did he see?

Well, he thoughtfully explained to me that the two circles in the corners were “eyeballs.” When I asked my son why he had drawn eyeballs in this way, he responded, “So they can figure out where they can live.”

He then went on to explain that the middle portion was a “zig-zag road.” When I asked him to elaborate, he told me “so ‘he’ could find another friend. The middle picture was different than the other two, so he needed to find a new friend.”

If you’re lost, I understand. That’s just four-year-old logic for you.

The point of the story was that in my initial quick glance, I was way off. I imagine you were, too. I came to the most logical possible answer – the one my brain had come up with first – and accepted it as the truth without digging any deeper or considering other possibilities.

Whenever my son shows me a project he’s worked on, I no longer have the same reaction. I might make a few guesses, yes, but I take the time to listen and understand his perspective.

I’ve found that this same lesson also translates in my professional life.

My interaction with my son reminded me of four fundamental lessons when it comes to gaining valuable insights from my students and clients.

  1. You don’t know everything. I came into this exercise 100% certain that those images were balloons. The middle one was just a different one. My mind was closed to my son’s perspective because I already knew what he was going to say. If we want to be innovative in our businesses and careers, we have to approach our customer and client interview sessions with a “I’m here to learn” attitude. If we don’t, we will likely fail in uncovering the true meaning behind their thoughts and actions. Without fully knowing and understanding our customers and clients, our chances of helping them go to their next level are slim-to-none.
  2. Pay attention. At one point during my interview, I busted out my phone’s notes app and took notes while my son talked – some of the things he was saying were priceless and I had to capture them! He did not like that at all. He even stopped me at one point and asked, “What did I just say?” I couldn’t answer. I just missed an opportunity to build trust with him and gain insight into what really mattered to him. I was too busy writing. Now, I often pause and ask myself, “Am I doing the same thing with my clients? Am I too worried about remembering what they are saying, instead of looking them in the eyes and feeling what they’re saying?” I immediately stopped taking notes, and focused on having a conversation with him. I simply listened and asked thoughtful questions that enticed detailed responses. As a result, my son became more engaged (and animated)! And guess what? I remembered everything he said. My ears weren’t the only things focused on him. My brain was, too.
  3. Stop judging. When I learned that the middle image was looking for new friends because “he was different,” I caught myself disliking the other two “eyeballs.” I blamed them for forcing the middle image to find other friends. But was that the truth? It wasn’t. My son told me so. I quickly found out that my preconceived notions again prevented me from keeping an open mind. Innovation doesn’t like closed minds; neither do my clients. We need to set our opinions and experiences aside if we want to truly learn from others. If we don’t, we will limit our imagination in a way that hinders (or flat-out prevents) the innovation process.
  4. Stretch your imagination. My son went on-and-on (and on) about this drawing. You can thank me later for sparing you from the 15-minute version. The point is, my son had it right. Just when I thought he was going to stop explaining the drawing, he kept going and his story kept getting more outrageous. The lesson here is, when you’re thinking about your goals and crafting the infamous “what if’s,”- don’t stop when you think you have “the” idea. Keep going! Give yourself a hall pass to be ridiculous, bold, and outlandish. Steve Jobs was laughed at when he envisioned a computer as a personal tool. Did that stop him? Nope. He kept dreaming and innovating. He turned “what ifs” into “what is.”

These four fundamentals have transformed the way I interact with students, clients, and potential partners and have helped me to hone in on my listening skills in order to gain better insights.

After all, these insights are at very the core of innovation. Without them, it’s difficult for me to provide my students and clients with the resources they need to tap into their imagination and go to the next level.

Most importantly, without insights, I won’t be able to fully understand and build trust with my clients.

Maybe it’s time for you to put yourself through the same exercise I did.

I’d hate to see you miss out on a key piece of customer or client insights because either your listening skills or your imagination didn’t stretch far enough.

Are you seeing balloons or eyeballs? In what ways can you stretch your imagination in business? In your life?

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J.R.'s work is ground-breaking. It goes completely against the grain and helps you think completely outside
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