Skip to main content

Play isn´t the opposite of work

By Mastery5 min read

Play has little place in most modern organisations. Unless you work in Silicon Valley or for a wacky design agency with play dens and fireman’s poles, it just isn’t the norm at work. As young children, any distinction between play and work is meaningless; they do everything through play. As we grow, we learn how to recognise different situations require different behaviours. This learning is stored as behavioural scripts – a kind of autopilot system – which get activated whenever we enter particular environments. With hardly any conscious effort, your behaviour automatically shifts as you enter a library, your local pub or work. We learn to segregate play from work at school, which is then reinforced when we enter employment. So, on entering work we shift, automatically, into non-play mode.

The problem with scripts, like any of the brains shortcuts, is that they are blunt instruments. Scripts are triggered by broad environmental characteristics. Many times within work, where a playful approach would prove powerful, it gets over-looked. We stay in character. Going off-script and being more playful takes conscious effort, and feels weird. Yet the payoffs can be significant. Play is a primary drive. Impulses for play originate from the most primitive regions of the brain, which also deal with breathing and keeping your heart beating. Jaak Panksepp, one of the world’s foremost experts on human and animal play, describes play as a key source of joy which provides the emotional fuel to build your mental capabilities. Play is mood-enhancing, generating a positive state of mind more able to creatively solve problems. Play creates new neural connections. It helps you learn and have insights. It may even make your brain bigger – at least it does in rats. Finally, it will minimise your desire to throttle your boss: murderers don’t play according to Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist specialising in play.

One key approach to play at work is through building. It has been estimated that 50% of all play in children involves some form of construction. The value in building is both in the process – which can be fun and insightful – but also in what happens with the product of the build. Michael Schrage from MIT has found a pattern across some of the world’s most innovative companies: they build rapid prototypes. The genius of a prototype – whether a physical object, a simulation or an excel spread sheet – is that it encourages people to interact with it. Prototypes bring the conceptual into the concrete world allowing people to play with it. If you’ve ever rebuilt or redesigned part of your house you’ll understand this well. No matter how well you visualize and plan, once you start to see it take shape, once you sit at the new kitchen bar, you see things with a clarity you could never do while looking at paper drawings. Ideas flow as people see, touch and manipulate things, and innovation results.

Play is risky though (just think of all those bumps and bruises you got learning to skateboard), and as adults we get risk averse. To really benefit from building things, they have to be done quickly; roughly thrown together at the earliest stage of design. Building something that looks dumb, that isn’t well thought through, opens us up to ridicule or disapproval. We’d prefer to keep our ideas and designs to ourselves until they have been perfected; hoping to reveal them with a flourish to rapturous applause.

Play has rules. The rules of the prototyping game aren’t the same as those for presenting designs or finished products: they’re not for people to decide if they like the idea or not. It’s not a ‘yes/no’ game but an ‘and’ game. Children are great at ‘and’ games. I was once building lego with my nephew and niece. We were building a boat. My nephew said, ‘let’s make it an evil boat, and add guns and bombs’. To which my niece added, with no element of irony or hesitation, ‘and let’s add curtains and cushions’. As adults, even when we avoid the ‘yes/no’ game, we play the ‘or’ game instead: it’s your idea or mine.

The ‘and’ game is not necessarily a team sport. One of the most valuable forms of play at work is exploration. To play with an idea, you wander around exploring the idea or problem, with no clear goal or expected output. This is a purely cumulative activity, following random thoughts, building a bigger picture. The time for making sense of your findings or ruminations will come later. For now you’re playing with hunches, led by your interest, motivated by curiosity. Exploration is great fun, and it’s a real waste of time; most of the time. It might, however, produce something great.

Given how time poor many of us feel, it’s pretty difficult to give yourself permission to ramble intellectually, playing with possibilities. An uncertain outcome is a poor trade for the certain loss of several hours of prime task execution time. Exploratory play produces what Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes as ‘lumpy outcomes’: most of it is wasted effort, but every now and then you strike gold…such as the theory of relativity. Albert Einstein famously attributed his discovery to cumulative play, imagining riding on a light beam. Play may stop you completing your to-do list, but it might help you come up with something amazing, make a real breakthrough.

Play is a mood-altering activity. It rapidly gets us into an ideal state for creativity. You can achieve the same with mind-altering drugs – I just don’t advise you try. You can also learn the ability to control your mental state through years of practice along with therapy or meditation! However getting into a playful mood is a whole lot easier. We’ve done the practice. We practiced for most of our lives (or at least the first ten years anyway). Just choose to play and let the mood sort itself out.

Play can be a risk, and it may get in the way of your being good at your job and delivering all that you want to, but it may just help you to be great. Let’s break down the distinction between work and play. Let’s fight our scripts and weave play through our working lives. Let’s make a difference.

How could you play more?

Leave a Reply