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How Play Improves Your Work, Part 1

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When I bring up the topic of play with clients, I usually hear a groan. Why? Because for many of us, play has become something we feel we should do rather than a tool to improve passion, purpose, connection, creativity, cognition, and innovation.

For me personally, understanding my authentic play mode – what I defaulted to when I was a young girl with oodles of unstructured time and no “shoulds” – helps me keep the excitement in my work. Read on, and I’ll share how simple it is for you to do the same.

Many of us confuse our authentic play mode with what we choose to do for fitness or recreation, or what we do to help numb our brains after a stressful day at work. Running a marathon or playing games on your phone for hours isn’t exactly what I’m getting at here. I’m talking about the essence of play – the traits that make play playful.

I bring this up because particularly when you are under a great deal of stress, feeling boxed in and disempowered or stuck in your work, gaining awareness of your authentic play mode and then incorporating it can actually lead to sustained satisfaction – and even happiness. But most of us don’t yet have an understanding of the difference between authentic play versus contrived play.

Someone who loves to run marathons may believe she is playing, and maybe she is, but running is the action not the essence of her authentic style of play. What really keeps her motivated to run? Is it competition? Is it covering new ground? Is it her connection to other runners? Is it the solitude? In other words, what is beneath the action that gets her jazzed? That is what we are going to look at here.

How Does Play Help Us Improve Our Work?

Cognitive Development Play improves cognitive function by developing new neural pathways. Play encourages curiosity, experimentation, and risk-taking. It helps us to innovate by exploring what is possible in low-risk ways. In adulthood, fluid cognitive processing abilities (divided attention and complex problem-solving) begin to decline, and we depend more on crystallized intelligence (based on fact and what we know). The traits of play can help us continue to enjoy the benefits of fluid cognitive processing.

Creativity Einstein referred to play as “intelligence having fun”. Play helps us slip into the beginner’s mindset that’s necessary to foster creativity and new innovations. The person who knows all the answers can’t possibly discover a new one.

Flexibility Using the tenets of play, we are better able to let go of established rules and create new ones. This helps us to remain flexible, nimble, and able to respond to rapid change, both in organizations and the world. Without the ability to slip into creative play, we risk becoming rigid.

Collaboration and Connection If you were fortunate enough to have unsupervised and unstructured pick-up games with siblings, cousins, in your neighborhood, or on the playground, then you understand how play builds collaboration and connection.

I remember in my neighborhood, in a pick-up game of kick-the-can or softball, or whatever the game was, each person got in touch with their strengths and the strengths of those around them. We knew who was going to pitch, who could kick the can the farthest, and who could squeeze into the best hiding place.

When we were picking teams or assigning roles, we knew who fit where and why. I still know who was the best at what, and I haven’t seen most of them for 40 years. And I still remember the hours of connecting with whoever showed up to play. We learned about each other, and we used each other’s skills and resources to build a fort, put on a play, or make two teams without enough players – you bring the bat and I’ll bring the ball.

Experimentation Play allows us to experiment, to try new roles and new rules, to support each other, and to give ourselves a break when we are learning how far we can stretch or what undiscovered skill or talent we may possess. The stakes aren’t as high in play as they are in work because, after all, it’s only a game. The sudden discovery that Bob has a knack for something we didn’t know about is worth the risk when we are just playing around.

Finding & Incorporating Your Authentic Mode of Play

In his book Play. How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown, M.D. tells us there are 8 essential play personalities: Joker, Kinesthete, Explorer, Competitor, Director, Collector, Artist/Creator, and Storyteller. These are the dominant play modes we are naturally drawn to and interact with.

To quickly zoom in and get a snapshot of your authentic style of play, listen to this brief relaxation.

Incorporating elements of your authentic play styles into your work requires self-awareness and then taking steps to do so. The benefit is that giving attention to play within your work empowers you, brings passion and purpose, and actually improves the outcome of the work you are doing.

Integrating play isn’t something you wait for someone else to do for you. Your play styles are unique to you, so it’s something you do for yourself. You can, however, engage and interact with teams and colleagues using your traits of play.

How I Incorporate My Play Styles Into My Work I am a combination of the Explorer, the Director, and sometimes the Storyteller.

As I was wandering the beach with dear friends just this evening, one of them asked me what I would most love to do for my life’s work, if money was not an object. I instantly knew that I would do exactly what I do now:

  • Research and read (Explorer) everything I can about human development, self-awareness, and human dynamics at work, and then
  • Write about them and create programs (Storyteller) and
  • Facilitate workshops (Director) that help others to use this knowledge to improve their work, their relationships, and their lives.

I’m at my happiest when I’m doing exactly that.

If I didn’t balance my work around the modes of Explorer, Director, and Storyteller, I’d be bored, unfulfilled, and lacking passion. I know I must do bookkeeping, report writing, proposal development, filing, and a myriad of other tasks that aren’t within my play styles. But I keep a balance by making the work I love as playful as possible.

So, if you are interested, here is a quick worksheet that will guide you toward understanding your authentic modes of play. Remember, you want to uncover the play modes you naturally gravitated toward as a child when you had no “shoulds” or “musts” and had unlimited time. You may be surprised by what you discover. Click here to access worksheet.