I'm a player: I love to play, in all aspects of my life, and especially within my work as a creative. I see much of my work as play, rather than seeing it as a job. And when I look back at my body of work, I’ve realized that the more fun and the more play that went into the ideas or process of creation, the better people seem to respond to the end result.
I read several books on the topic recently. Why are we driven to play as mammals? Stuart Brown explains that play is a wasteful thing—it consumes a lot of time, burns a lot of energy, can cost a lot of money, and can be dangerous. If it didn’t have major benefits biologically, it would have faded out with evolution.
Scientists say there are two main reasons we play: first, it’s preparation. It allows us to practice skills that we will need in a safe environment where we can fail with few consequences, so we can apply those skills when they are really needed. Bears in the wild who play as cubs have a much higher survival rate than those who don't.
Play is also necessary for brain growth. In fact, studies in mammals show a nearly identical match in growth curves between brain size and playfulness during childhood. Other studies show those who play video games as kids have a 10-20 percent higher cognitive ability than those who don't, which does make me feel a little bit better about all those years I was addicted to playing Halo live on Xbox. (And yes, I totally wore a headset).
What is play? Most people automatically think of games, like golf. But a game of golf can mean a lot of things to different people. To a golf enthusiast, a game of golf can be purely play. To an executive, a game of golf can be business and a way to land a big client. And then there are people like me, who think even the thought of playing 18 holes seems like pure hell. So play can't be specified to any one activity or another. Instead, play is a state of mind where we feel challenged, focused, creative and alive.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said play is a flow state where we have just the right balance of challenge and opportunity given our skill sets; in the state of play we are so completely absorbed by our activity to the point which nothing else in the world seems to matter. You can see this all the time when you watch kids play.
But what about adults? Even though adults can continue to benefit from the effects of play, society and our education systems make us feel like it’s a waste of time as get older. We learn to suppress the crazy ideas and thoughts and stupidly brilliant questions we have as children in exchange for “serious responsibilities.”
When a creativity test was given to adults over the age of 25, researchers found that about two percent of adults qualify as a "creative genius." When they gave the same test to kids between the ages of eight and 10, they were surprised to find 32 percent tested as a creative genius. And when that same test was given to kids between three- to five-years-old, 98 percent scored at the creative genius level.
Picasso said every child is an artist, and the only problem is remaining one when we grow up. I think it's because our society conditions us out of play when we are young. Classrooms instill a fear of mistakes, and don’t put enough emphasis on imagination, intuition, or spontaneity. But without enough play, we lose creativity. Studies show that humans can have a play deficit just like the well-documented sleep deficit. Adults who play are actually shown to be more productive at work and in business than adults who do not play. So play is not just for kids. It’s a powerful state of mind that can benefit any kind of work that requires creativity and innovation.
How can we use play within our work? There is no one magic formula for everyone, but research shows there are several conditions that makes entering a state of play more likely. The first condition is having the confidence to fail, so that you can take risks within your work. You also need to have plenty of time to work on a project. If the deadline for a project is in an hour, you will likely pull from existing styles, techniques, and ideas that you already know have worked for you or someone else in the past, as you have no time to experiment.
There are studies that show that the key trait of the most successful creatives is having persistence to keep working through failures, no matter long it takes, in order to solve a problem. But even with enough time and persistence, if your email box is full and Twitter feeds are buzzing and your client is calling you every five minutes harassing you to make the logo bigger, you’ll never be able to play within your work either. So in addition to time, you need space away from your responsibilities to let yourself experiment and take risks within your projects.
It’s also important to have a sense of humor, which liberates the brain from rigid thinking and opens it to exploration, spontaneity and risk-taking. And the last important trait is intrinsic motivation, meaning you have to want to do what you are doing and be passionate about it in order to enter a state of play. So if it’s not something you’re doing during your day job, that might mean finding what you love to do elsewhere or creating your own personal projects.
80 percent of us are unhappy with our work, and that’s crazy. There is not enough play, passion, and love in our daily routine. If we don't take the time to play, and learn to integrate it into our jobs, as Stuart Brown says, we face a joyless life lacking in creativity. The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.
Images courtesy of Santiago Carrasquilla and Joe Hollier