Play is integral to my life and work.
Why? First, it’s fun. Second, it works. Play puts me in a receptive place where it’s easier to see new perspectives and solutions.
The story of play, of how it fits into the human experience, can teach us how to embrace the possibilities that can come of being frivolous. Initially, play might seem like an indulgence, but it can lead to some amazingly consequential developments.
So how do you play at work?
Here are four techniques to get the ball rolling. I’ll post another set soon. Try these out, or adapt them to your needs and situation. Go forth and play!
1. Divert yourself.
Conductor and New World Symphony artistic director MTT often talks about the trajectory of a successful concert. For him this is: divert, challenge, reaffirm. I think the principle works for lots of other applications. So try it! Divert yourself, then return to the challenge at hand. Most of the time, that exploration will reveal a new insight that reaffirms your sense of progress or provides new momentum.
Use when: You’re feeling stuck or unmotivated.
Group or solo: Either.
Activity: Start by going on a purposeful, timed tangent. The point is to distract yourself from any challenge you are giving your attention to, and focus on a sole unrelated task. Set a timer for, say, 6 minutes, and do something completely unrelated to that challenge, such as: Breathe deeply or meditate. Write a haiku or two. Make a list of things you love best in life. Go outside. Pet a furry creature. Call someone you love. My suggestions: aim for an activity that feels positive for you and save social media for another moment.
2. Be curious. Ask questions.
Very often, we think we are experts on every aspect what we are doing and what all of the possible solutions are. We have gone through a whole list of these possible solutions and their pros, cons, feasibility and likely outcomes are of implementing them. We believe we have exhausted the list, so there’s nothing more we can do. Try un-learning your expertise for a moment, because it may be blocking new potential. This is the best time to play.
Use when: you notice you are talking about the same “impossible problem” and want to find new possibilities.
Group or solo: Group.
Activity: Try on the beginner’s mind. Ask a series of questions, ideally with a small group. These should be questions that get you back to the heart of what you are doing and why. Nominate a note-taker and then work in pairs or threes to answer the questions. Very important: all answers are valid – this is about moving through a process, not about coming up with perfect answers. Limit the activity to 20 minutes. Then come back together to reflect. Notice and write down any: themes or overlaps that emerged, new insights into the challenge, fresh ideas to approaching solutions, etc. From there, outline how and with whom you’ll incorporate any of the fresh ideas.
Try these questions on or develop your own list: What is your overall aim? How does solving this challenge get you closer to it? What will solving this challenge accomplish – what will it resolve or open up for you that you can’t do right now (physically, financially, emotionally, etc.)? Why is solving this challenge of urgency and importance right now? Focusing on the work itself, why does it matter? And why does that matter? And why does that matter?
3. Be ridiculous. (Practice yes.)
There are all sorts of reasons adults avoid and resist anything that could make them appear foolish to others. Naturally, suggesting that they do just that comes with a degree of resistance. But it’s worth moving through your own discomfort. Experiencing being ridiculous with others can actually create empathy and a sense of shared purpose, lighten the mood and open up new creative realms. Plus, it’s fun. Anyone who has experienced an improv comedy show will feel a sense of familiarity with this one.
Use when: Anytime. Because fun.
Group or solo: Group.
Activity: Set a timer for 7 minutes. Identify something unrelated to your challenge. This could be a theme, topic or activity you remember or experienced in childhood. My go-to list includes favorite superheroes, candy, games, places in your home or neighborhood where you felt most special, holidays that were particularly magical to you, etc. Ask everyone to write down their answers on a sticky note. Now ask the group for a suggestion about something they want to create, no boundaries. Encourage them to be as out-there as they can. (This is about saying yes.) They might suggest a poem, a creature, a new way of getting out of bed in the morning, a language, a new app, or whatever.
Now, divide the group into pairs and have each pair work out how they will incorporate the childhood elements each of them wrote down into the creation that was selected by the group. Share, discuss, reflect. Notice any commonalities, discuss what it was like to do the activity and how people felt doing it. Return to working and see if anything has shifted or opened up.
4. Embrace the impossible. (Practice yes #2).
How long has it been since you pretended? It’s surprising, but even highly creative people forget from time to time that they can use their imaginations to move into new creative places where boundaries don’t exist. Imagination is the food of play. When you really get going with pretending, you are not only having fun, but also getting totally out of the practiced, practical mindset that sees impossibilities and limitations more than solutions. From a place of yes, we are moving beyond “truth” and much more open to and able to access possibilities we may not have been able to see before.
Use when: Anytime. Because fun.
Group or solo: Either, although for beginners, this may be easier in a group setting.
Activity: Set a timer for 10 minutes. Ask the group, What would happen if our challenge was completely solved? What would it look like if absolutely everything on our way to solving it went right? Have each person write down on sticky notes (one thought per note) every step or detail that could go right along the way. Then, one thought per sticky note, have them write down what new potential opportunities, pathways, ideas, collaborations or whatever that could result of everything going right. When time is up, pair up in groups to discuss (2-3 per group).
Have each group arrange the sticky notes according to the insights and commonalities they discover. Then have each group present to the whole group. Draw out commonalities across the entire group. Reflect on how people feel in general, and then how they now feel about the challenge. Has anything changed? What new ideas or insights arose? Is there anything new to pursue? Then, flesh out how the group or leaders can take action or move the insights forward.
Want more, or to want experience this in person? Join me at Venture Cafe Miami, where I lead a Creative Jam once per month. Topics vary. Next jam is Self-Care for Busy People, Nov. 30 at 6:00pm. RSVP here or check the VCM schedule for updates.