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Work, Life, Lead: Playing at Work


Is play another way we should look at how we approach our work?

Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughn write in their book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul,

The opposite of play is not work – the opposite of play is depression. Our inherent need for variety and challenge can be buried by an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Over the long haul, when these spice-of-life elements are missing, what is left is a dulled soul.

Far from standing in opposition to each other, play and work are mutually supportive. … though we have been taught that play and work are each the other’s enemy, what I have found is that neither one can thrive without the other. We need newness of play, its sense of flow, and being in the moment. We need the sense of discovery and liveliness that it provides. We also need the purpose of work, the economic stability it offers, the sense that we are doing service for others, that we are needed and integrated into our world. And most of us also need to feel competent. … The quality that work and play have in common is creativity. In both we are building our world, creating new relationships, neural connections, objects.

There is much insight here, however, I want to focus on one specific thought.

Our inherent need for variety and challenge can be buried by an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Over the long haul, when these spice-of-life elements are missing, what is left is a dulled soul.

The crush of responsibility robs us of the joy of play and discovery in work. We human beings are born to live as learners and discoverers. When we lose it, and life and work become an endless series of repetitive activities then the play and fun go our of our lives.

During the creation of our Managing Morale in a time of change e-book project, we discovered stories of people for whom play and work were not synonymous, but the antithesis of each other. They found that job insecurity, having expectations to do more with less, and the ambiguity of their company’s fortunes created a highly stressful workplace.

In Frank Luntz new book, What Americans Really Want … Really: The Truth about Our Hopes, Dreams and Fears, he lists six employee satisfaction indicators.

1. Do I have a job or a career?

2.  Does my employer respect me and the work I do?

3.  Do I respect what the company does?

4.  Do I have some control over my role and responsibilities?

5.  Are decisions affecting me and my place of work made with some reliability, consistency and predictability?

6.  Will I still be working here three years from now?

Each of these factors is also an indicator of how much fun or play is possible in our workplace.

However to truly answer the question about play at work, we must look beyond work to the nature of play in the whole of lives. For play is not one thing at work and another at home.

Play is a fundamental aspect of human nature. It is an expression of freedom, creativity and happiness. When we are fully and without constraint at play, we are filled with joy and purpose, living in the moment of being who we are.

I mentioned to a friend today that I was writing about play at work. His initial reaction was something like play being what people do to avoid work. This is work as a set of activities and responsibilities that I must fulfill. This is not what I see as playing in the workplace. Instead, what play represents is that difference that matters, and why this is important.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle is a good guide for us to discover a perspective on play that can inform how we approach the work we do everyday.  Aristotle would say play is a form of eudaimonia, which can be translated as “living well” or “doing well” or simply as happiness. Aristotle says,

Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for self and never for the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves … but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself.

We seek happiness for its own sake. And to play is to express this happiness in our actions. For to play is to be free in the moment of happiness. It is like the child. Free of worries and free to experience the sublime joy of the moment of play.

The more practical question, then, is how do we arrive at a place in our lives where we are able to play at work. For surely, it is more than job security, respect and a dependable, stable work environment that makes play possible. In fact, these external conditions may have nothing to do with whether we can find play at work. It may be harder, but still we can find joy and satisfaction in the work we do.

Let me return to Aristotle once again, for he points us to a truth about human life that is important for us to understand in the context of work. He says,

… the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

In other words, we learn to be happy from doing. We progress through life to acquire an ever deepening fulfillment in life. It is this fulfillment that provides us the context for play.  Based on what Aristotle tells us, as we mature in life, we should find ourselves more able to play at work. If this is so, then what will this be like in a practical sense. Does this mean that we’ll be acting silly, standing on tables, telling jokes for hours on end around the water cooler, or is play really something else. Is play more like what a fully developed human life is like?

If play is an expression of eudaimonia, why is that our perception of play is that young people play find it easier to play at work, and older generations do not? Is it something intrinsic to play that we miss and begin to lose as we get older?

Brown and Vaughn in the quote above state, “The quality that work and play have in common is creativity.” How is work and play both creative acts?

We think of creativity in artistic terms.  It is easy to see how an artist at work is being creative. Yet, most of us lose that creativity as we learn to do our jobs. What we are learning is not to play and be creative, but how to be efficient in doing the same series of tasks and activities over and over again. That level of unconscious performance robs us of the fun and joy that comes from being creative. For being creative is a practice of discovery of new things, and new ways to do the work that we must do every day.

I don’t believer older people can’t be creative. I see it all the time in their choices of retirement activites as they learn to play golf or turn beautiful wooden bowls. What they have allowed to happen is the suppression of the play of creativity at work. It is why so many people look to retirement, and choose to take it sooner than later. Imagine the contributions to be made by experienced veteran members of a company who continue to explore and discover new ways to make the work of business fun.  It may all require us to discover the artist in us.

I dare say, most of do not think of ourselves as artists, but rather as laborers and managers of tasks and activities, not the creators of impact that makes a difference. Yet, every time we are called upon to solve a complex problem, we are forced to become creative, to look for new and innovative solutions to resolve the issue or advance our cause.

Tom Morris, in his fine book, If Aristotle Ran General Motors, writes about the place of beauty in our lives.  He says that beauty can be found in both an passive and active forms.

The Passive Mode of Beauty

· What we see

· What we hear

· What we smell, touch and taste

The Active Mode

· What we plan

· What we create

· What we do

He concludes that we should view business  as a performance art.  For us to do this we must learn how to play, and enjoy the creative process.

To play at work is not to act frivolous and irresponsible, but to fulfill our very purpose in life within the context of work. When we come to understand what that purpose is, we begin to see that our life can be more whole and integrated. It is this that Aristotle points to as eudaimonia, of living well.

In order to play at work, then, we must do the following.

1. Discover our purpose in life and how it fits into the context of work.

2. Learn to develop our talents and skills to fulfill our potential within the context of work as well as in our personal lives.

3. Learn to find how we can play by being creative in the context of work.

To play at work is to seek new places where freedom, creativity, purpose and play can be found. To do so may require us to rid ourselves all the self-limiting notions that have dogged our lives. In finding genuine happiness, real fulfillment and a life lived well also means that every day brings the opportunity to play at work in ways that make a difference. It is not play as a frivolous exercise in diversion, but the very essence of the creative being that all of us can be.

About the author

Dr. Ed Brenegar I'm a leadership speaker, writer and consultant who is a mentor and catalyst for change. I assist leaders and their teams in the transitions required to succeed in today's complex organizational environment. I live in Western North Carolina. I'm involved the Boy Scouts, a charitable leadership training group called Lessons In Leadership, an ordained Presbyterian Church USA minister, and am the host of the Say Thanks Every Day social network.

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