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March 2010

The secret to great work is great play

We were born to play. Play is how we learn and develop our minds and our bodies, and it's also how we express ourselves. Play comes naturally to us. I was reminded of this while listening to a cool little jazz gig near the beach in Maui a couple of months ago. I snapped this photo below of a little girl enjoying the simple beauty of that musical moment by dancing happily all by herself.


I love this picture above because it shows both adults and a child at play. The adult musicians are expressing themselves through jazz, a complex form of play with rules and constraints but also great freedom, freedom that leads to tremendous creativity and enjoyment for the players and the listeners. The child did not know or care about the complexities of the chords and the rhythms or the wonderful interplay among the musicians, yet the energy and beauty of the music made her smile, then laugh, then dance. She did not care if her dance was "good enough" — she just danced because she was moved by the music. She danced with such exuberance and speed that she appears only as a blur in the photo above. Dance is perhaps the purest form of play. Children move to music long before they receive instruction on "how to dance." We are born to move and we are born to play. Children remind us of this. They remind us that we are passionate beings.

Original photo of Martha Graham by Barbara Morgan.

Play keeps us in the moment
A spirit of play engages us and brings us into the content and into the moment.
Children remind us that we need more play in the classroom, in the lecture hall, and especially in the typical conference presentation. But first we adults must give up the notion that play is not serious. We must abandon the notion that work (or study) and play are opposites. Work and play are inexorably linked, at least the kind of creative work in which we are engaged today and hope to prepare our children for. As Bill Buxton likes to say, "These things are far too important to take seriously. We need to be able to play."

The opposite of play (and work) is depression
In this TED talk below, Dr. Stuart Brown reminds us that "The opposite of play is not work, it's depression." Brown makes many good points concerning the importance of play, not just for children but for all of us. Ironically, the presentation could have been even better if Dr. Brown had interjected more play into the actual talk (like Tim Brown did in his talk on play and creativity), but still the talk is very much worth watching for the issues raised.

A spirit of play connects
Play creates a relaxed feeling of connection between presenter and audience and among the audience members themselves. Play fosters a collective experience of engagement with the content. In this example below, the legendary Bobby McFerrin illustrates the power of the pentatonic scale (and expectations, etc.) not by sitting and talking about it, but by standing up and getting the audience involved. Watch it.

It starts with not taking yourself so &^%$#@! seriously
Our topic may be very serious indeed. Regardless of the topic, we should take the needs of the audience and the material quite seriously. However, good things happen when we stop taking ourselves so seriously. It's OK to have fun, it's OK to enjoy the experience and to expose some of your true self without the doubt and worry about what other people will think. What would happen if you removed the fear? This rare video clip below by one of my heroes, the brilliant (and quite humble) physicist Richard Feynman, is a wonderful example of play. If a "serious person" like a respected Nobel-prize winning scientist can go nuts on the bongos, why can't you and I let go of our egos just a little bit and have some fun too?

Bringing a spirit of play to work — and the feeling of exploration and discovery that it instills in the moment — improves learning and stimulates creative thinking. But often it's good to play for no other reason than to have great fun and feel good and recharged (as Dr. Feynman demonstrated). We can find inspiration in play itself, and we are inspired by those teachers and managers who understand that play is too important not to bring to work.


Kindergarten Is the Model for Lifelong Learning

We learn from stories and experience

Experience.001 When it comes to learning and genuinely retaining something, nothing beats experiences. Formal educational or speaking settings don't always allow for actual hands-on experience with the content, but almost every learning situation — including presentation in various forms — does permit the use of stories. Stories that illustrate the content and bring people in, enabling them to "experience" the material in an engaging, visual, and imaginative way. A way that will be remembered. One can use analogy, or metaphor, or the verbal reenactment of actual, relevant events that illuminate and make the material more real and more memorable. Stories have an emotional component and when you engage people's emotions, even just a little bit, you stand a better chance of them paying attention and remembering your point (whether or not they agree with you is another matter entirely).

People remember when emotions are triggered
Class_preso Early this week four students in my Japanese labor management class did a presentation on employment security in Japan. Three days later when I asked other students to recall the most salient points of the presentation, what they said they remembered most vividly were not the labor laws or the principles and the changes in the labor market in Japan, but rather the topic of karoshi and the issue of suicides in Japan, topics that were quite minor points in the hour-long presentation. Yet death-from-over-work and suicide are extremely emotional topics that are not often discussed. The presenters cited actual cases (i.e., told stories) of karoshi and suicide which also attributed to these relatively small points being remembered most in people's mind.

Stories get your attention and make it real
Sign_maui In January this year we drove the Hana Road (one of the most beautiful places in the world) to the 'Ohe'o Gulch Falls at Haleakala National Park in Kipahulu. The falls look inviting and are usually calm, but to warn the tourists of the great dangers that lurk, large warnings signs have been installed to advise people to use great caution. Of course, people often ignore warning signs like this or think that the dangers are abstractions that happen to other people, if they happen at all. What I found very effective was that the park service included real newspaper clippings of actual deadly accidents that had occurred there recently. I know it was effective because people read these articles and you could see the look of concern on their faces. I usually would only glance at such signs, but I stayed there and read every word. I felt sad for the victims who were no longer abstractions but real people with names and hometowns, they were mothers, and sons, and so on. Reading the actual accounts of what could happen — what did happen — stopped me in my tracks. It was informative but also emotional. In this case, those things together made quite an impact and the content was memorable.

Warning  Warning2
The sign on the left features actual newspaper clippings in the design which underscores the dangers by making it more emotional, real, and memorable.

Teaching and presenting with emotion and enthusiasm
Tysonquote Here is a wonderful podcast with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson (famous astrophysicist and one of my heroes) that all humans should listen to. In this interview on science literacy, Dr. Tyson touches on the issue of experience and emotion and the importance of enthusiasm. Again, experience may be best, but we can also use storytelling and other methods to get people's emotions involved and to get them more engaged with the content in a deeper, even exploratory way. It is not enough to give people information, we must stimulate their imaginations. Presentations and class lessons are ephemeral and short. As much as anything else, shouldn't we be stimulating people in a way that inspires and encourages them to go out and learn and discover more about our topic on their own at their pace and in a way best suited for them? Bullet point slides, for example, rarely inform, are hardly ever memorable, and never inspire action (unless that action is taking a nap). Below is an excerpt from the fantastic interview with Dr. Tyson.

"Research and education has shown that field trips are remembered long into adulthood. Why? Because you’re experiencing something rather than simply reading it in a book…. To experience something has a far more profound effect on your ability to remember and influence you than if you simply read it in a book. So why not figure out a way to turn a lesson plan into a living expression of that content. A living expression, so that sparks can be ignited and flames can be fanned within the students. And at that point, it doesn’t matter what grade they get on the exam because they are stimulated to want to learn more. If they didn’t learn all the “A” stuff for that exam, they’re inspired enough to go out and buy a book or spend more time on the documentary that they saw on the Discovery Channel or on PBS. And there it is.  You’ve cast a learner into the world. And that’s the most powerful thing you can do as a teacher. The enthusiastic teacher is fundamental to igniting flames of interest in any student in any subject. So that’s not a special need within the call for science literacy. That’s a need for all teachers in all subjects."
                              — Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Listen to the entire interview here.

NOTE: Moving forward will be updated about twice a week. But if you are interested, I update my more personal blog — ichi-go-ichi-e— a couple of times a day, usually with iPhone photos of life in Japan.