When We Hit The PLAY Button

Updated: Jun 28, 2019

By Achim Nowak

I jot this down on my birthday. Feels fitting.

Spent a few fine days last week with some of the amazing peeps I get to support. Every single one of them works in a high-pressure Fortune 500 culture. And every single one of them – as individual, as a leader – is actively claiming a lighter side.

Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold. A favorite quote from Joseph Chilton Pearce, author of the much-revered book “Magical Child.”

To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong. Another Pearce gem I cherish.

But really – how do we claim our playful side amidst often daunting work pressures? How do we reclaim our magical child in an environment that needs us to, quarter by quarter, nail ambitious Key Performance Indicators? How plausible is it to overcome our fear of being wrong, or worse yet, being found out?

These thoughts have been bouncing about in my brain this week as I consider the choices I make in my own life. The serious sides of my life, the playful ones. The second I commit these words to my laptop screen I realize, of course, that it’s not about my life, it’s about the choices I make, moment by moment, about how I engage with those around me. These momentary choices become my life. Many of us separate work and play. This separation is deeply ingrained in how we talk about everything we do. When I go on a trip, someone invariably asks me: Work or play? We all know the phrase Work hard, play hard, right? Goes hand in hand with let’s have a drink after work at the bar. Let’s go and play some golf. Play time, after work.

Play is relegated to how we engage when the non-playful stuff is done. Here are some thoughts on how we may begin to integrate a sense of play AT work.

1.   Make PLAY a conscious value.

The moment I decide that a sense of play matters, opportunities for playful engagement shout at me from every corner. The comment by my colleague Eric that really is quite funny and unexpected. The glint in Suzanna’s eye as she talks about a new product idea. Signals. Eric and Suzanna are ready to play. They are choosing to be split-second playful. My job is to notice. To respond in kind. It’s a split-second choice. It always is. Notice, and don’t allow the moment to slip away.

2.   Embrace the metaphor of PLAYING A GAME.

In peak performance lore, the question of how we play the game is a well-oiled metaphor. How do we play the game of life? The game of success? The game of personal satisfaction?

I like the allusions that come with the notion of playing a game. On the dark side, the metaphor can reinforce an obsession with always being the best, always beating others. Gotta win, gotta win, gotta win. On the lighter side, it comes with the awareness that, well, we don’t win every game. But we associate playing a game with a sense of fun and excitement. An adrenaline rush. A pleasure in the act of doing. Yes, playfulness. A playful spirit. What if we carried this same sense into a meeting at work, a client phone call, a business lunch? After all, it is all just a game anyway, isn’t it? Even when it IS really, truly critical that we win.

3.   Choose to PLAY ON WORDS.

Since language is our most persistent and prescient mode of expression, why not play with it a bit? Language connoisseurs love the play on words. They realize that words can be fun simply because of the way they sound. The layers of meaning in language can be fun, as well. Let’s have a great time at this meeting, someone says. Why not do a riff on that? What does it mean? What all could it mean? What does it definitely not mean?

Word Play ignites two things: It can take us into the realm of silliness and absurdity. To many folks this is terrific fun and welcome relief in a routine conversation. Word Play can also drop us into the world of nuance and unexamined meaning. To more folks, terrific fun, as well. Multiple wins.

4.   PLAY when things get stuck.

When a conversation goes round and round in circles, when the frustration rises, when the energy gets stuck, choose to get unstuck. In the world of Training and Learning, we do it by switching modalities. Lean into a different mode of expression. Go to the whiteboard and ask everyone to draw what their frustration feels like. Play some music and ask everyone to “shake out” their stress. Pull out some Lego blocks and give everyone 5 minutes to build something together that represents success. Yes, short breaks via a totally different modality. Shared PLAY. If you haven’t done it before it may feel like a big collective risk. Know what? The energy always shifts. Always, always.

PLAY works.

PLAYFULNESS is a choice. The moment we choose, opportunities for playfulness suddenly show up everywhere.

So PLAY. Reconnect just a little with your magical child. The folks you’re with will be grateful. And guess what? You will get more done, faster, with less exhaustion and a lighter bounce

I’ll take that.