I really enjoy the way we adults re-package the things we loved to do as kids into “grown-up” packages so that we can do the same activity with an official-sounding name. The monkey-bars become “climbing gyms”; scavenger hunts become “geocaching”; hanging-out-watching-the-clouds-go-by becomes “meditation practice.” Even the neighborhood games of cops and robbers have had millions of dollars sunk into them to become “XBox Live.”
All of it has to do with the innate desire we have to play. It’s a desire that often gets sucked out of us by educational systems (where it is first caged within the word “recess”) or (in worse cases) by the families and people who are supposed to be nurturing and providing more opportunities for it.
We find ways to compensate, to sneak around the expectations and habits drilled into us. We decide to take a class in this subject, or buy a membership in that club. We read up about other people doing it and imagine that if we do that, too, we’ll feel the way we imagine those people feel.
The problem is that’s still not really play. It’s “play” dressed up and weighted down with extra things like official canons, dogmatic practices, fees, equipment, progress reports, smartphone apps, etc.
Why don’t we just play?
The Two Enemies of Play
The problem, of course, is that there are two big bad enemies of play :
- Productivity: We’re told this is the measure of our self worth and given many role models of people who have accomplished amazing things. The message is: if you’re not doing something AMAZING, you might as well not bother. So if we’re doing something, it had better be towards a higher goal, or else we just aren’t worth it.
- FOMO: The Fear of Missing Out keeps us from just relaxing into something and enjoying it because of the chance that we might be enjoying it wrong – or not as much as that guy over there with the latest model of whatever we’re using.
Yesterday I went for a run for the first time in over a year. It was a combination of joy and pain – I ran 3.4 miles, and while my body hurt in all sorts of ways, there were moments of exhilaration as I ran through the beautiful sunny Seattle day, crossing Lake Union with some truly stellar views.
So why did I keep comparing myself to the other runners (who had obviously been doing this longer than me)? Why did I stop and check in on FourSquare? Why did I decide I had to run to a certain point and then back, as opposed to “run until you’re tired. Then stop.”
Because I wanted to do it right. I wanted other people to know I was doing it. What if people didn’t know where I was? What if they were snickering at my running gear (aka t-shirt and shorts) as they ran past in their wicking fabrics and pedometer-linked running shoes?
It wasn’t play. It was a project. And there’s nothing wrong with the project; I made better time than I expected for the run, and it’s part of training for a bigger event, so it was a good baseline.
But I spoiled a perfectly good chance to play. I have plenty of projects; I need more chances to play. Do you know how many chances to play I’ve been missing out on…oh, wait.
How to Create Chances to Play
So, contrary to my normal practice, I’m going to actually try and give you some concrete solutions to your two big barriers. These are by no means the only ways to fight them, but they are, I believe, a useful start.
- Worried about being productive? Relax. Taylor Wilson, age 16, managed to achieve nuclear fusion. If you, and anyone you know, has done something bigger, then you deserve a break. If not, well, you can still take a break, because whatever it is you feel you should be doing is probably not going to match up. Stop trying to keep up with the Taylor’s of the world. You’re worth it.
- Scared of Missing Out? This solution is a bit of a cheat. Decide you want to play for a set amount of time – say, 15 minutes. For that quarter hour, turn everything off – facebook updates, cel phones, computers, everything. Seriously, turn it off.
Now spend the 15 minutes doing something silly and fun – blowing up balloons. Shooting hoops. Playing tag. Staring up into the sky. Whatever, just make sure you do it to the max. Suck the marrow out of the experience, take everything you can from it – because when you turn your device on, you get to update EVERYONE on the “awesome 15 minutes just playing! Such a blast!”
I say it’s cheating because technically you’re doing something: trying to create an experience worth updating social networks about. It also has the unfortunate side effect of possibly heightening the FOMO in others who read the status update, and wish they had the chance to play more.
But hey, small steps, right? Just make sure that whatever you choose to do, it has no other purpose than fun. If you find yourself tallying points as you shoot hoops, stop it. No timing yourself or trying to figure out distance when you run. And above all – and you know who we are – no composing the blog entry about the play while you’re playing.
Save it for later. And like one of my favorite podcasters, Steve Eley, suggests in every conversation or talk I’ve ever heard him give: