Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.

― Albert Einstein

My wife and I take part in a discussion group twice a month at our church. We get an innocuous sounding word to focus upon and set about answering deep questions about it. Everyone gets a chance to speak without interruption and everyone else focuses on listening. It’s hard (I’m really bad at listening), and it’s rewarding. Last week the wordkids-playing-outside was “play”. In talking about what the concept of play means to me first in the context of childhood then adulthood I had several epiphanies about the health and vitality of our current society and workplaces. Basically, the concept of play is under siege by forces that find it too frivolous to be supported. Societally we have destroyed play as a free wheeling unstructured activity for children, and crushed the freedom to play at work under the banner of accountability. We are poorer and more unhappy as a result and it is yet another manifestation of unremitting fear governing our behaviors.

We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything, than when we are at play.

― Charles E. Schaefer

adult-playThe greatest realization in the dialog came when I took note of how I used to play at work and all the good that came from it. The times when I have been the most productive, creative and happy with work have all been associated with being allowed to play at work. By play I mean allowed to experiment, test, and create new ideas in an environment allowing for failure and risk (essentially by placing very few constraints and limitations on what I was doing). The key was the creation and commitment to very high level goals and the freedom to pursue these goals in a relatively free way. The key is the pursuit of the broad objectives using methods that are not strongly prescribed a priori.

Work and play is the same thing just with a different perspective.

― Debasish Mridha

When I was a child, I had immense freedom to play. I would ride bikes around the neighborhood and play at the creek. My parents had a general idea where I was, but not specifically. This level of independence and freedom is almost impossible to imagine today. Children have scheduled and scripted lives where parents know their precise location at almost any time. Instead of learning to manage their lives with a high degree of independence, we teach our children to always be in control. Most of what is being controlled is a set of highly improbable risks that should not warrant such a high degree of control. We are subverting so much of the positive influence that comes from independence to control exotic and tiny probabilities. Societally, the overall impact is counter-productive and hurts us far more than protects us. The treatment of our children is good training for their lives as adults.

The same basic dynamic is working in the adult world of work. We spend an immense amount of time and effort controlling a host of miniscule risks and dangers. The feeling for children and adults alike is that controlling potential bad outcomes is worth the effort. People say things like “if we can prevent just one needless death…” which sounds compelling, but is stupid and inane. Bad things happen all the time, bad things are supposed to happen and the amount of effort spent preventing them is immense. How many lives worth of effort are spent to prevent a single death? No one ever asks if the steps being taken actually have an overall balanced positive effect pro and con.

You cannot build character and courage by taking away people’s initiative and independence

― Abraham Lincoln

Elliott Erwitt

A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer pats down Elliott Erwitt as he works his way through security at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

The TSA and airline screening is a good example. What is the cost in number of lives wasted going through their idiotic screening procedures to prevent problems. We also appear not to be able to control our reaction to bad things either. A terrorist act unleashes an avalanche of reaction that magnifies any harm the terrorists intends by orders of magnitude. Yet we continue to act the same without any realization that our fear is in fact the greatest weapon the terrorist possess. Terrorism is quite effective because the public is afraid and the societal response to terror will assist the aims of the terrorists. We have given up an incredible amount of resources, freedom and independence to protect ourselves from minuscule threats. There is a lot of evidence that we will continue to empower terrorists through our fearful responses.

Of course these trends are not solely limited to our response to terrorism. Terrorism simply amplifies the generic response of society. These trends in response occur in a variety of settings and drive short-term, low-risk behavior almost across the board. We typically encourage adults to focus on very short-term goals and take very few risks in working. The result is a loss of long-term goals and objectives in almost all settings in work. In addition the goals and objectives that do exist almost always entail little or no risk. The impact of the environment we have created is a systematic undermining of achievement, innovation and creativity in work. One way to capture this outcome is the recognition that play is not encouraged; it is actively discouraged.

We are being overwhelmed in the workplace, in the schoolroom and in every aspect of life with the concept of accountability. Accountability is one of those things that sounds uniformly good and no one can argue that it’s bad. Unfortunately I have come to the conclusion that the form of accountability we are subjecting our selves to is damaging and destructive. Accountability is used to control people and their activities. It is used to make sure people are doing what they are supposed to be doing. These days we are supposed to be doing what we are told to do. We are not supposed to be creative or innovative and do something that is unpredictable. Accountability is the box we are all being put in, which limits what we can do.

Wal-Mart-GreeterWe end up working extremely hard across everything in society to make sure that bad things don’t ever happen. We put all sorts of measures in place to prevent bad things. We don’t seem to have the capacity to realize that bad things just happen and it’s a fact of life. We spend so much effort trying to manage all the risks that life is just passing us by. This manifests itself with the destructive belief that the government’s job is to protect all of us from bad things (like terrorism). We are willing to give up freedom, accomplishment and productivity to assure a slight increase in safety. Often the risks we are sacrificing so much to diminish are vanishingly small and trivial (like terrorism), yet we are making this trade over and over again. We are allowing ourselves to drown in a sea of safety measures against risks that are inconsequential. The aggregate cost of all of these risk control measures exceeds the value of almost any of the measures. It represents the true threat to our future.

In today’s world, we are in the box all the time whether as children, or as adults. Children’s playtime used to be unscripted and free more often than not. Today it is highly scripted and controlled. Uncontrolled children are viewed quite unfavorably by society as a whole. As adults the exact same thing is happening. Life and work is to be highly scripted and controlled. Anything off script or uncontrolled is considered to be dangerous and highly suspect. The desired result of this scripting and control is predictivity and reliability without risks and failure. The other impact is less happiness and less creativity, less innovation and generally worse outcomes.

Another thread to this thought process is the avoidance of passion in my work. Increasingly I find that expressing any passion or commitment at work is viewed negatively. Work is being driven to be dispassionate and free of deep of emotional connection. In the past when play was very deep part of my productive work life, I also felt great passion for what I did. That passion was tied to the entire way that I worked, and included commitments of quality and learning. More and more today such passion seems to bring nothing but condemnation and seems to be unwelcome. I don’t think that this is disconnected from the issue of play and its diminished role too.

Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.

― Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.