The secret to great work is great play
March 26, 2010
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.
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