Lessons to be Learned from a Child’s Toy

This post was crafted by David E. Elliott, who we are thrilled to have join us as a speaker at the Engaging Associations Forum July 17-19, 2019 at the Brookstreet Hotel in Ottawa. 

Don’t forget to join us!

Lessons in life come in many forms and are all around us. For example, a child’s top. Yes, the toy that you give a spin with twist of the fingers or pull of a string. The “old fashion” kind, not the new ones. The simple ones that haven’t changed much over the last several hundreds of years.

Before explaining the lessons to be learned from a top, let me help refresh your memory. Tops are typically small enough to be held in your hand and consist of a minimum of three elements, a point to spin on, a shaft or crown and the body, the wide part. Stings, paint, carvings, etc are all optional additions that are not essential.



What could possibly be taught to us from such a basic, simple, child’s toy? Let’s evaluate the simplest of tops as shown in the photograph. What does a top do? You may say, “it spins” and be unimpressed. For me this is the beauty, the top knows exactly what it is, and what it is not. It has a single, solitary, clear function, that it executes beautifully. It isn’t trying to be a top and a ball and a musical instrument and whatever else might amuse a child. It has a clear purpose.

How does a top fulfill its purpose? First, a small amount of input from the user to get the spin started. Second, a design that can be absolutely minimalist, the point, the shaft and the body. Nothing more, nothing less. In the example shown these three parts are manufactured from a single piece of metal, taking this minimalist design a step further.

Only with a crystal clear purpose, could the minimalist design be achieved. If the purpose was unclear or consisting of a combination of objectives, the design would need to be significantly different and without a doubt, more complex. There is a strong correlation between the clarity of purpose and the ability to achieve a minimalist design.

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I came across this quotation about 20 years ago and I revisit it regularly. This quotation captures the aesthetic of the top perfectly. This message has influenced my work, how I approach designs, how I approach problem solving and almost everything I do. Over time this has evolved to shape both my professional and personal life. I strive, not always successfully admittedly,  for a Zen like simplicity, searching for the shortest path to address clearly identified opportunities.

It is from this perspective that I look forward to sharing a message, at the 2019 Engaging Associations Forum, for the need to focus in order to produce great work and have a life that brings you joy. With clarity, we can identify what we need to do, and what we need to stop doing. When we know very clearly what we are trying to do, we can execute on the task with the appropriate amount of energy that is required, bringing precision, quality and efficiency, that can be lacking when trying to do too many things. My hope is to share this approach and give some tips on how to apply it so that you can make your workload sustainable, your outputs powerful and life enjoyable.

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