Playing Into Darkness

One of the several books I’m working my way through right now is “Designing Your Life.” It’s a book (review forthcoming) that takes “design thinking” and applies it to life planning. Preliminary reaction: good stuff.

In the beginning, the authors (who teach a course at Stanford’s d-school by the same name) suggest that you do an evaluation of your own life in four areas: Health, Love, Work, and Play.

It’s a pretty simple assessment question: “How are you doing in each of these areas? I have been feeling pretty good about life lately, so I wasn’t too worried. Work? 100%! I’m engaged in work I enjoy, find meaning in, and I’m compensated adequately. Love? 120%! I’ve never felt so loved, cherished, and even occasionally adored as these last few years. Health? About 90%. I’m pushing fifty, so it’s not the greatest, but I’m aware of what needs work and have the resources to address them.


full stop. Uncomfortable shuffling of feet. Um…how exactly do you define “play”?

play: an enjoyable activity pursued purely for its own sake, with no monetary, social, or other purpose.

More uncomfortable shuffling. Um…well…

My play score was about 15%. If I’m being generous.

Why You No Play, Gray?

It’s easy to see why. That old saying “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life is 100% the reverse of reality: I love what I do, and since I do a lot of different things, I am in a constant state of “hustle”. If I’m drawing, I’m trying to draw better so I can design better ads & newsletters; if I’m playing guitar, I’m trying to get ready for a performance. And if I’m not doing something that I know is furthering my work and career or benefiting the people I care about…well, I feel like I’m wasting time.

I should add: I do watch TV, surf the web, and even read a fair bit. That doesn’t count as “play” within that definition, though, because they are passive. I’m taking things in, not interacting with them. There’s nothing wrong with any of them, mind you – but when we’re looking at Play, they don’t count.

At first glance, I also thought I could see clearly the reasons why: I’m too busy. When you work for yourself in a performance-related capacity, any time you’re not producing is lost revenue. And in my case, the margins are tight, and the deadlines are constant, and…

Wait a minute.

As my mind ran through those phrases, I realized: that’s not true any more. Right now the events I’m managing are in good shape. I have plenty of time to myself, the pantry is full, the rent is paid, there’s gas in the car…all those stories of scarcity that I told myself just don’t apply.

Yet I still feel like I can’t play. Why is that?

FOLED Again.

I gave it a little more thought…and realized that I didn’t play because I felt guilty when I did. If I was playing, I was wasting time. I was being selfish. I was destroying opportunity.

I was letting everybody down.

And I can’t do that, can I? I want to be a Good Man. I enjoy my role as counselor, provider, creator…and if I was playing, and by definition not doing those things…then what use was I?

What kind of worthless person just plays?

See what I mean? Dark. I even coined a FOMO-esque acronym for it: Fear or Letting Everybody Down. It’s tied pretty tightly to the belief that I am only worth anything if I have recently done something worthwhile. Past achievements don’t count except as bars never to be lowered, only raised. Future intentions also don’t count. The feeling is that: if I am not, right now, doing something that is constructive and valuable, I am not any good.

If you’ll pardon my French: that’s a fucked up attitude, for anyone.

What Are You Prepared to Do?

Of course, that changes “Play” from an overlooked activity to a challenge. Can I force myself to spend time in an activity with no other purpose than the activity itself? It’s a specific, measurable, achievable goal, so of course! I’ve been playing “Uncharted 4” on privileged – er, I mean, light – difficulty, for a minimum of 1/2 hour, with a goal of three sessions this week (two down, one to go). And I’m going to spend some time learning to draw pinups for no other reason than I want to (no, you’re not going to see a pinup on this blog).

In case any part of this made you wonder “why on earth would an adult need playtime?” you should start with this article.

And then? Go play for a while.

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