Tuesday, April 05, 2011

If you're not playing in the mud, you're doing it wrong

On quora.com, I got into a discussion about life lessons -- that stuff we all wish someone had told us when we were younger. One of my contributions was the claim that play is vital. This is so important to me, that I often ask friends (or want to ask them), "When was the last time you played in the mud?"

Playing in the mud is somewhat a metaphor. If you don't like getting muddy, that's no big deal. But when was the last time you had a snowball fight or danced in your underwear or loudly sang a song in which all they lyrics were made-up nonsense words?

As I'm defining here, play isn't Scrabble. I love Scrabble, but it's not the kind of play I'm talking about, because it's too rule-based. Same with tennis and most other games and sports. Going-out-drinking with friends also doesn't count. You're cheating if you're using alcohol, pot or some other drug to make you playful. I'm not being a "just say no" guy here. My objection to drugs (as play facilitators) is that they make too much of a separation between your normal state-of-mind and your drugged state-of-mind. At best, the play you do when you're playful insinuates itself into your serious work life. It not very useful if it's a dimly-remembered escapade you can't possibly recapture without more drugs.

I claimed that "letting go" is vital for mental health, and I stand by that. But one quora member disagreed and said that he say no point to play -- that it served no purpose for adults. Below, I've pasted my response. You can read the entire discussion here:



We are in agreement that play is not productive. In fact, I would say that if it IS productive (other than by accident), it doesn't count as play.

You don't see the purpose of play because there is no purpose, if "purpose" means something tangible you can point to before you start playing and say, "the reason I'm playing is to get this specific task achieved."

But let's drop "mental health" for a moment and talk about why children play -- why they evolved to play. I am, of course, speculating here, because we can never know the answer to that for sure, but I don't think anything I'm about to say veers far from Science or conventional wisdom:

Children have evolved to play because, by doing so, they make discoveries. How does a child learn about gravity? By dropping stuff.

Adults sometimes do something similar. We call it "brainstorming."

Now, there are many types of exploring/experimentation, and they ALL have great values:

1. Formulaic/algorithmic exploring is useful when you sense that a current problem resembles a previous one. "I'll try applying the X formula to it and see what happens."

2. Brainstorming is useful when you're stuck (you don't know what formula to apply) or are worried that you're thinking too "inside the box." You're essentially trying to surprise yourself with novel possibilities, and you're doing this by letting your mind free-associate.

Brainstorming is great, but it has a limitation: it is generally confined by pretty rigid, goal-based parameters. In other words, you're brainstorming TO figure out the name for a new product or TO figure out what speakers to invite to a conference.

Via this process, you'll likely get a lot done, but you'll never accidentally stumble across an idea to revolutionize the fashion industry or a sudden understanding of what's wrong with your dog.

I am NOT saying all thinking should be totally free. If someone else said that, I'd be posting here saying, "No! You need to ALSO do formulaic thinking and brainstorming!" In my view, the healthiest and MOST PRODUCTIVE approach is formulaic thinking, brainstorming AND

3. Play.

It doesn't work to consciously go beyond brainstorming. You can't say, "I'm going to brainstorm ideas of who to invite to the conference but also keep my mind open to all sorts of other potentially useful ideas that have nothing to do with the conference at all." By setting the parameters (speaker/conference), you are most likely binding your thinking to staying within those parameters.

You are GUARANTEEING that certain thoughts will never cross your mind. PLEASE NOTE THAT I'M NOT SAYING THAT'S ALWAYS A BAD THING. I am a big fan for structure -- but I'm also a big fan of partly-structured activities. And I'm ALSO a big fan of activities with no structure at all. Each type of activity has different kinds of payoffs, and a well-rounded person engages in all-of-the-above.

(I've had this same debate, but in reverse, with people I know who play ALL the time. To me, what they're doing is unhealthy. They are missing out on a great number of useful life strategies.)

By "letting go," which means explicitly NOT having a goal, you can free your mind in away that formulas and brainstorming never can.

You will wind up wasting a lot of time. But you also waste time when you apply formulas that wind up not working. And you waste time when you brainstorm and throw away 90% of the ideas you come up with. (I don't actually think of this as wasting time. It's pruning. It's the necessary trial-and-error you have to go through in order to grow).

I HATE the phrase "kids work is play," because I hate the need some people have to define everything useful as "work," but I understand -- or think I understand -- what the phrase means. It means what I wrote about, above. It means children need to play in order to make certain kinds of discoveries they can't make any other way -- discoveries that will help them out in life.

And my question is, if this helps kids, why wouldn't it help adults? Adults DO have avenues for learning that aren't open to kids. We can read and use power tools. But we can't learn EVERYTHING that way.

So if play is so useful, why don't adults play more often? Because we've been trained not to do it! ("It's childish!") If it's useful, why do people train us out of it? Because there's no metric for it. Schools and most jobs have no ability to deal with unquantifiable activities. If we can't grade it, we don't want to see it.

That's 100% about what's easy and practical for schools and offices. It has nothing to do with what's actually useful or healthy for individuals or society.

If we had more play, we'd have more Einsteins, Mozarts and Edisons. Ask ANY really creative person how important play is in his work. He'll tell you it's vital. I suspect that though natural talent is very real, a LOT of people would surprise us if they felt comfortable playing more often. (Remember, going out and drinking after work is not what I'm calling "play.")

I am certainly NOT an Einstein, but I AM someone who continually comes up with really useful and novel solutions to problems, and people continually ask me "how did you think of that." Not always, but surprising often, the answer is, "by not trying." Lots of answers "come to me in the bath." But only if I PLAY in the bath -- not if I strain to try to come up with the answers! Often, people much smarted than me don't come up with the answers, because they refuse to free their minds.

More important: if we had more play in the world, we'd have more happiness (even if we didn't wind up with more Einsteins). I have "proved" this to myself anecdotally, by observing my playful friends vs my more "adult" ones. There is, of course, a chicken-egg problem here: are my playful friends happier because they play or playful because they are happy? Either way, the correlation is pretty clear to me.

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