The Work of Play:
I have a two year old boy, Pax. The only thing Pax has to do each day is play. Trucks, books, blocks, spin in circles, chase the dog, jump off the couch, jump on me. The kid plays like it is his job.
It is his job. While playing he is learning skills that will make him a successful adult. He is a good little worker. He shows up everyday.
The thing about play is that it doesn’t feel like work. Play is fun. Time goes by quickly. Your mind is clear of distractions. You try new things without too much concern. You take risks. You explore.
The End of Play
When we get older a lot of our work stops being play. Adult tasks require us to hunker down and focus. No goofing around. No using your imagination. No trying new things. No expelling unnecessary energy. Just get the job done.
But more and more that kind of work is taken away from humans and given to machines because machines are better at it than us.
Don’t try to outperform machines.
You are Human
Do what humans do best. Play. Take risks. Use your imagination. Spin in circles just to see how it feels. Play like it is your job.
In 2004 I decided that I wanted to learn how to tell stories with video. I didn't know how to film, edit, or do anything really, so I decided I would enter a season of play. Instead of spending 80K on art school I spent 8K and bought a video camera, a Macbook, and a copy of Final Cut Pro. Then I started playing. I edited a friend's wedding video. I needed to rent out our house so I made a video tour and put it on YouTube. I put a link to the tour with the craigslist ad. It got us a lot of applications and could have turned into a business. But I was still playing. I spent a year putting way too much effort into a promotional video for a non-profit. I did all this because it was fun. I did it playfully.
Play is hard work when you are focused. But it doesn't feel like work.
I discovered that I had a knack for storytelling with video. My projects had limits due to small production budgets and my lack of experience, but these limits forced me to be creative. I figured out cheap and unique ways to tell stories with simple animations. I learned what parts of the process I was good at and what parts I wasn't so good at. I learned how to rely on my strengths and create interesting things.
That season of play spun into a freelance gig, which evenutally launched a small studio, which has now turned into a large creative agency.
Play can be really productive.
It was easy to justify that season of play because I felt like I was saving money by not going to art school. I was also in my early twenties and it is common to "discover yourself" during that time.
But other times it is hard to justify play.
As my business grew I noticed I wasn't playing much anymore. I was grinding it out. I began to wonder if the lack of play is what being an adult is all about. I'm not in my twenties. I have a family. I have a mortgage. I can't take as many risks. I have lots of reasons to not play around anymore
But then I realized that this is nonsense. If I don't play I won't discover new ways to create value. If I rely on doing redundant tasks I won't innovate. I 'll lose my job to competition. Or I'll one day be replaced by a machine.
I decided to prioritize play again. I created space in my schedule. I chose two projects to play around with. One of those projects really does feel like spinning in circles just to see how it feels. I'm not sure if either project will be amazing or unimpressive. But that isn't the point of play. The point is to play.
A New Paradigm
Play-work requires a different paradigm than work-work. Since it has been a while since we've been children lets have a refresher on how to play:
- Tip #1 Have goals but don't have standards. It is ok that your play has goals. These goals can be something like, "try to climb that tree to the very top." or "write a story". But you can't really play when there is too much at stake. Create situations where it is ok to do something lousy. When you aren't focused on performing to some standard you can lose yourself in play.
- Tip #2 Don't be efficient. Take risks on stuff and throw things away without concern. At the end of the day you were just playing around, and not all play is productive. But lots is.
- Tip #3: Get incredibly curious. Start to think like a kid again. Read things without an agenda. Ask questions that might sound stupid. Pull things apart just to see how they work.
- Tip #4: Make limitations assets. When you are a kid and you don't have a basketball hoop you just turn a bucket into the goal. You build stuff out of what is in your parent's garage. You make due with what you have. You come up with interesting things this way.
- Tip #5: Give yourself a shot clock. Lots of games have some sort of shot clock in which you have a limited amount of time to score your points. This requires you to get creative and try new things when you are running out of time. In other words: deadlines.
Set some time aside everyday to play. And then do the work of play like its your job.