play: value the game
part two: creativity functions, chapter 9
“It’s not what you’ve got that matters, it’s how you’ve got it.” ― Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies
98% of children are highly creative when they are five-years-old. This fact, by itself, is remarkable. What is even more so is that soon after that, the vast majority of us become far less creative1. By the age of 20, only 2% of the population is ranked as highly creative. From almost 100% to near zero — that is a drop that calls for some introspection. Is the reason biological? Is this the way we are programmed? Are we destined to start off as creative geniuses but spend all of our adulthood without realizing our creative potential?
The premise of this book, my personal experience, and works by numerous others suggest otherwise. We know that we can reignite our Creativity, and the five functions we have discussed so far are an essential part of being able to do so. Each of these functions plays a significant role in any creative act, regardless of its domain, context, and magnitude. It doesn’t matter if we come up with a groundbreaking, life-changing invention or merely trying to solve a personal problem. All creative ideas, without exception, are a mixture of our experiences, things we observe and that make us wonder, new realities we imagine, and magical fusions we create in our minds. Enhancing these skills — practicing them daily — is the only way to develop our Creativity and apply it naturally, just like we did when we were young children.
And yet, the question remains: what happens to our Creativity around the age of 5? Why do we see such a sharp decline in our creative abilities? If our brain is programmed to experience, observe, wonder, imagine, and fuse, why does this program fail as we grow up and become adults? Does nature turn off our Creativity at the age of 5, or is there something else that affects the utilization of these five creative skills?
If we understand the root cause of this dramatic decline in our Creativity, we can prevent it. We can reverse the trend and boost our Creativity. That is where the next function in our Creativity Operating System fits in. It is the first of the two powerup functions, and as such, it can increase the effectiveness of each of the other creative skills by order of magnitude. And it bears the somewhat misleading name: Play.
Let’s do a simple exercise. Write down the three first words that come to your mind when you think of Play. Then, write the first three words you think of as the opposite of Play.
There is a good chance Kids or Children are on your first list. It is also very likely that you wrote something like Serious or Work on the second list. Of course, I’m just guessing, but this guess is derived from the common way we interpret and use the word Play. The formal dictionary definition of Play is fully aligned with this view (including the examples that accompany it):
verb: engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.
“the children were playing outside.”
noun: activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially by children.
“a child at play may use a stick as an airplane”2
We will soon see why this definition is extremely limited and how the perception it creates prevents us from realizing our creative potential in practically every aspect of our lives. And when perception is common enough, it affects reality. Most people believe there is (or there should be) a clear line between play and serious work or any other practical goal. The immediate result is that we rarely allow ourselves to be playful in any context that we believe calls for seriousness. Is it a coincidence that at the exact age when children are expected to engage in what is perceived as more serious educational activities, we start to see an alarming decrease in their creative skills?
Nature does not turn off our Creativity at the age of five. Nature also doesn’t turn off our desire and need to play when as we grow up. We fully utilize our Play function until we believe (or being told) we have less time and opportunities to do so, and unfortunately, at the time of writing these words, for most of us, this happens around the time we start school. As you can expect, it doesn’t get any better from there.
Creativity and Play are not just connected. In many aspects, they are two parts of the same whole, continually reinforcing each other. Play is essential to Creativity. Each of the five functions we have discussed is a vital piece of the Creativity puzzle. Creativity relies on maximizing all five, and Play, the sixth function, is the powerup designed to do that. If we wish to make the most of our Creativity Operating System, we first need to free ourselves from the limited perception of what Play is. We need a different, more profound definition of Play. Then, we need to strive to apply it to as many aspects of our lives as possible.
The connection between playfulness and Creativity is widely accepted. I believe many of us understand and acknowledge this connection at an intuitive level. We see our children play, and we see them being imaginative and creative while doing so. We see our children engage in activities we (falsely) perceive as non-productive (because they are still allowed to) like drawing, building with Lego®, turning a cardboard box into a castle or a spaceship, and we know this is the purest and most natural expression of Creativity. We tell our children how creative they are, and we encourage them to be even more so because we know that is how they are wired — that is how we are designed to operate to fully realize our potential.
At the same time, we have this very restricted and rigid sense of what Play is: it is the opposite of doing serious, goal-oriented work (so we believe). And so, many people treat Play as “just a phase” of development. An essential phase by all means, but still, a phase. If Play is the opposite of doing meaningful, productive work, it obviously can’t take over our lives. We need to learn, gain necessary knowledge and abilities, become professionals, and then work for our living — all serious activities, and therefore by definition (we are taught to believe) not playful. And, as you can guess, this view becomes dominant as soon as we step into school, literally. We repress our intuition on the connection between Creativity and Play, and we mostly accept this transformation as a necessary part of growing up. Many of us believe it is the essence of growing up.
In recent years, an increasing number of people who are more aware of the connection between Creativity and Play try to bring back playfulness into their lives. They proactively create space for Play in their busy schedule — islands of non-serious activities designed just for fun. Some practice hobbies of different kinds, some engage in competitive sport, and few find the time to play with actual games — to have fun just like kids do. Some business organizations went as far as building dedicated physical spaces for playful breaks with anything from pool tables to gaming consoles, from table tennis to slides and swings, just as you would expect to find in a typical outdoor playground.
All these activities and facilities are excellent. They really are. To be productive, motivated, and healthy, you must have enough space in your agenda for non-work-related activities. And if you manage to spice up your breaks and time off with playful fun, the positive impact of this time becomes even more significant, not just in terms of renewing your energy but also in terms of Creativity. There is only one pitfall to this approach: it frames playfulness in the realm of “time-off” — it reinforces the definition of Play as the opposite of work and serious activities. We acknowledge the importance of Play, but we keep it confined to limited time slots and spaces. So, while we can surely benefit from such playful breaks, when we limit Play to our time off, we barely scratch the surface of our creative potential.
Play is much more than just games.
Play can span across everything we do — it is not limited to taking some time off.
Play is not the opposite of meaningful work. It can be a catalyst for meaningful, creative work.
To understand just how much Play can affect everything we do and why it is a powerful component in the Creativity Operating System, we have to find a better and deeper definition. We need a definition that allows us to break free from the limited common perception of Play. As it happens, Peter Gray has just what we need.
When his son was nine years old, Peter Gray, then a biopsychology professor, went through an experience. As he sat in the principal’s office in what began as yet another discussion on the misbehavior of his son at school, Peter realized something was fundamentally wrong not with his son, but with the system that expects him to sit in class for the better part of the day instead of doing what humans are designed to do. This epiphany changed the course of his professional life, and he began to explore the role of play in children’s development. His book, Free to Learn3, is the result of years of observing, wondering, and imagining a different reality — a reality in which children are allowed to learn and evolve by doing what they do best: engage in free play.
Free to Learn is not a book about Creativity, although Creativity keeps showing up throughout the text4. Peter Gray’s work is focused on learning and the development of children. Play, according to Gray and others, is the essential component of child development. Play is not just the most effective way to gain knowledge. It is the most effective enabler of practically any capability we need as adults — intellectual, mental, and social. Play, according to Gray, can affect everything we do.
As part of his journey, Peter Gray searched for a better definition of Play — one that doesn’t frame Play as the opposite of serious work. The five characteristics of Play he has defined are so radically different from how we usually think of Play, and at the same time, they are easy to understand and apply. When I read Gray’s definition, its place in the Creativity Operating System became vivid. The common intuition that playfulness is a Creativity booster was suddenly materialized as a concrete set of things we can do to enhance the five functions we already know and how we apply them in everything we do.
The Definition of Play
Let’s explore the five characteristics of Play and see how they affect Creativity. As we relearn what Play is, try to break free from the misconception of Play as the opposite of something practical. Try to think of its attributes in the context of meaningful tasks, projects, and goals you are engaged with. The more we practice and apply these attributes, the more playful we become, and that in turn creates the perfect setup for unleashing our Creativity.
Having a Choice
Play, according to Peter Gray, is first and foremost an expression of freedom. When you Play, you have a choice: you can decide at any given moment whether you take part in it or quit. When forced upon you, nothing can be considered Play, regardless of how the activity looks objectively. Play cannot be coerced.
When phrased positively, this statement becomes super powerful: the greater our sense of freedom is, the more playful we are. And this equation has nothing to do with the nature of the activity we are engaged with. Even in the context of the most serious tasks and critical projects — when we feel we are acting freely out of our own choice, we naturally adopt a more playful mindset. And with a more playful attitude, we become more creative.
All the creative people we’ve met in previous chapters were and are creative by choice. Sometimes it is based on a conscious, pre-planned setup, and sometimes it results from a spontaneous burst of inspiration. None of these creative acts was forced externally. Nobody forced Arthur Conan Doyle to imagine Sherlock Holmes. Nobody forced Eben Bayer to create innovative packaging material. Lin Manuel Miranda was not under a contract to write a play about Hamilton before he had the idea to fuse so many ingredients and create a stunning result. It is not a chance that these and other creative acts originated in the sense of freedom. When you are forced to do something — when you feel you have no choice — you are not in a playful mindset, and therefore the chance for a creative outcome reduces significantly.
But wait. Let’s be realistic. Even these creative successes were subjected at some point to contracts, obligations, budget, constraints, and other real-world stuff that we perceive as limiting our freedom. Most of us don’t have full control over our daily agenda, the tasks we have to perform, or our yearly goals. And even if you are self-employed, you can’t always choose what project to take. If you are already under a contract, chances are you can’t just walk away.
Are we doomed to be less playful and, therefore, less creative with such preconditions?
Years ago, when I was a Software Developer, I was lucky enough to work on exciting projects — projects I was involved in designing from scratch. Although I did not conceive the idea for any of these projects, I felt they are mine. They were mine. I thought of them as my creation. The problem with any software is that it is likely to contain bugs — programming errors that cause an unexpected behavior. And so, like any other Software Developer, I found myself spending a significant part of my time trying to find the source of such reported bugs and, of course, solve them. Here’s what you need to know about bugs: the most devious bugs are also the ones someone needs you to solve NOW! Not many people would associate this activity and apparent urgency with a sense of freedom. It is part of the job. It has to be done. And it has to be done ASAP.
But here’s the thing. Although I can’t honestly say I waited for bugs to be discovered, I found myself treating these bug-hunts like mind-challenges (which most of them really are). I was under a deadline, and I didn’t choose this task in the ordinary sense of choice. But I was engaged in this task as if it was solely for my benefit. With this mindset, investigating and solving bugs soon became an activity I benefitted from. I enjoyed it. I felt like I was playing, and with this sense of playfulness, creative ideas started to take form. Sure, I would have preferred to design a new, innovative feature at any given moment. But when I “was forced” to work on a bug, I proactively turned this activity into my own little playground.
Freedom and choice are not objective concepts. They are tightly-coupled with how we think of what we are doing. When we are engaged, and we see the value in what we do — especially if we identify a personal value — we make it our choice. If you don’t see the benefit, the rationale, or the reason for doing something, you think of it as something you are forced to do. Any activity can become more playful, and therefore more creative if we choose to be committed to it.
Simon Sinek coined the phrase “Start with Why”5 in the context of leadership: great leaders inspire people by articulating “the Why.” Phrasing clearly why we are doing what we do, is the key to creating more engaged and motivated teams, organizations, and communities. The beauty of this idea is that we can use it at a personal level too. With or without “a leader” articulating “the Why,” we should find our own personal Why. And if we manage to connect what we do (yes, even the things objectively forced upon us) to our inner Why we gain a sense of freedom. We really do have freedom. No matter what is the nature of the task, we know we have a choice.
And we play.
Being Motivated by Means Over End
When you watch the 2009 video in which Lin-Manual Miranda and Alex Lacamoire perform what would later become the opening song of Hamilton6, you see two talented people genuinely enjoying what they do. This performance was recorded when Lin still imagined Hamilton as a concept album, and only one song was written. Saying that nobody imagined Hamilton’s success then would be misleading: nobody even imagined the outcome of the six-year work yet to be done. And still, it was pure joy, not just for the audience, but also (and in the context of Play even more importantly) the players.
Listening to interviews with the cast and anyone involved in this project, it is evident that the most significant thing during the work on Hamilton was that the entire team challenged and uplifted one another and basically shared the amazing energy of creating together. Obviously, everyone involved wanted this project to succeed. They aimed to succeed personally and as a team. But that is not what pushed them forward as a creative team. What gave them the creative energy is the shared experience they had. The process was the experience — they truly enjoyed the journey. And I’m willing to bet that even if Hamilton hadn’t been such a huge success eventually, everybody on the team would have remembered the time they spent together as a time of mutual development, enrichment, and sheer fun.
The second attribute Gray lists as defining Play may sound idealistic, especially today and especially in the business world: you play when you value means over end. You play when the process is more of a motivation than the result. And the connection of this aspect of Play to Creativity is fundamental.
The utilization of all the functions we have discussed so far — Experience, Observe, Wonder, Imagine, and Fuse — is tightly coupled with our ability to slow down, take detours, and even get lost from time to time. To make the most of these functions, we must adopt a mindset that enjoys the process — the path — and values it more than it values the end. When we value the outcome more than the journey, we are demotivated to explore and try unproven or riskier operation methods. When the result is our ultimate goal, we “play” safe: we take the shortest path known to work. We try to avoid surprises instead of embracing them. We move fast and straight ahead. Our field of vision narrows, and with it, the chance of coming up (let alone act upon) creative ideas is significantly reduced. Creativity is often messy, and when we aim solely for the ultimate goal, the last thing we need is a mess.
When we play, we experiment, learn, make mistakes, take unplanned detours, come across surprises, and use them as opportunities. We take risks because we know we can benefit from them even if we fail. We have a wider field of view, and we have the bandwidth to explore it and make unexpected fusions. We take some time to imagine, and we are not afraid to take some steps in uncharted playgrounds. And all this can happen regardless of how serious our project is — if we just let ourselves enjoy the journey even more than we desire the outcome.
Leonardo da Vinci is one of the greatest artists in history. The ultimate goal of an artist is essentially to create artworks. And so, it might come as a surprise that there are only twenty four artworks attributed to Da Vinci. At the same time, Leonardo da Vinci left behind him thousands of pages with observations, insights, and sketches. Apparently, Da Vinci was focused on exploring, discovering, and asking questions more than he was on creating (or taking credit for) groundbreaking artworks. This playful mindset, which is not a bit less serious than a goal-oriented attitude, allowed him to see things others didn’t and bring these discoveries back into his art. Imagine what we can achieve if we allow ourselves to focus on the journey instead of running blindly in the shortest path toward a predefined goal.
The real challenge is applying this aspect of Play without cynicism and without compromising our goals. We want to adopt a playful mindset in everything we do and not just during pre-allocated breaks, but we do not want to wander aimlessly without a vision and with no goals. The solution lies first and foremost in the awareness of the importance of both goals and the road we walk. We must always balance the two. Many people and teams are motivated by results far more often and to a greater extent than they are by the journey. Many organizations (starting with schools) encourage that. Ironically, extrinsic motivation, even when we freely choose to engage in an activity, doesn’t only suppress Creativity — in many cases, it creates worse results in other parameters as well. If we perform a task just to get the reward at the end, our performance is sub-optimal. When combined with the notion of doing something we do not choose to do, the impact can be devastating.
We will revisit this aspect when we discuss the applications of the Creativity Operating System. At this point, I would just say this: teams and organizations can do a quantum leap in what they create if they wisely acknowledge the value of the journey as well as promote a strong sense of self-choice. This powerful combination creates unmatchable results. But even more importantly, it has an amazing impact on our well-being, our sense of accomplishment, and our happiness in general.
We have to value the game.
Choosing and Reshaping the Rules
While Play depends on freedom and choice, it is also guided by rules and structure. According to Gray, any type of Play, from an imaginative role-play to a group playing basketball, includes an inherent set of rules. It may sound like a contradiction to having the freedom to choose until you realize that the rules are essentially self-chosen by the players. Nothing is set in stone, and it is entirely up to the players to define and agree on the rules their play will follow.
I love this aspect of Play because it captures the subtlety of what is happening in our minds when we are creative. Whether we are trying to solve a problem or develop an innovative idea, we operate in a world with predefined rules. These are the constraints we must follow — the boundaries of the challenge we have to address. It is common wisdom that Creativity benefits from being subjected to constraints, and this is mostly true. But, real creative breakthroughs happen when we manage to see an alternative set of rules and apply them to our challenges. They are still rules, but maybe not the exact set of rules other people see when they look at the problem. This attribute of Play — being guided by self-chosen mental rules — is literally a game-changer. It is a powerup that boosts Creativity.
Pablo Picasso is known best for his Cubist artworks. In fact, Picasso was one of the artists who invented Cubism at the beginning of the 20th century. With great talent, an imaginative way to view the world, and an innovative painting style, Picasso became a synonym for Cubism. But what is Cubism? Obviously, it is a painting style. Some would say it is an art movement. Both definitions are correct, but when you think of it, Cubism is basically a set of rules for creating a visual expression. It is innovative and imaginative because it is radically different from any set of rules that preceded it, and that is why Picasso was a creative genius. Picasso managed to break free from the practices that ruled the art world before his time and develop an alternative set of rules. They are still rules, but they form an alternative universe. Picasso and other artists that followed chose to apply this new ruleset in their work. Others are free to adapt Cubism and create an entirely new style with an alternative “instruction book.” This creative evolution is directly derived from our ability to Play — to define a new set of mental rules that suits our needs.
Albert Einstein did the same thing to create his innovative scientific theories. Einstein had to break free from the laws of physics as they were known at the time to create an alternative description of the universe. Later proven in experiments, his theories were no less structured than the ones they broke, but they followed a different set of rules — one that Einstein had imagined. Without rigid rules, no scientific idea can exist. But with the known physics at the time, Einstein couldn’t have played. So he had defined a different set of rules — the ones that eventually made him one of the most famous scientists in the history of humankind.
Constraints can be great for Creativity, but knowing when they are nothing more than manmade rules that can be replaced with a different self-chosen set of rules, is the key to opening a universe of opportunities. When we create a setup and adopt a mindset in which it is possible (and even encouraged) to break some of the existing rules and replace them with new ones, we become more playful.
We define the rules. We play. And we create.
Moving Between Reality and Imagination
As you remember, the Imagine function has three aspects: acknowledging the possibility of a different reality, envisioning a reshaped reality, and imagining the next steps toward realizing it. Gray’s definition of Play brings us back to the imaginative realm — this time with an important nuance that boosts up playfulness and Creativity.
We intuitively connect Play and fantasy, at least when we watch children playing. Inventing the rules under which we play is by itself an imaginative act. These rules are rarely viable in the real, physical world. What Gray wisely adds to this aspect is the concept of moving into and out of the fantasy realm. When we play, Gray says, we are continually moving between the real world and the imaginative one, and we let each of them affect the other. And once again, this aspect of Play can take the Creativity Operating System to a higher level. If we have a vision and then we “go back down to earth” and start to implement it without looking back — without revisiting the alternate reality we have imagined — the outcome might drift away and become less Creative or less effective.
When an architect designs a building, Gray continues, she builds an imaginative world in her mind. It is a creative act done in a serious, professional context. But it doesn’t stop with that. In the process, the architect moves between the imaginative world and the real one numerous times. She probably imagines the people who will live and work in the building and the ones who will see it from the outside. She imagines their actions and their interactions with the building. And when she returns back to the real world, what she has imagined affects her creation. Can you see how powerful this constant leap between reality and fantasy is? It can have an immense impact on the creative outcome compared to just having a one-time vision and then running full steam ahead to implement it.
This fourth attribute of Play also has a positive impact on the Fuse function. Fusion is, by definition, an imaginative act. When we blend ingredients together, we take a detour to an imaginative playground where we see the potential of the harmony we are about to create. And just like having a vision of an alternate reality, Fuse is not a one-time action. Anything we come across can potentially be weaved into whatever it is we are working on. The only way to do that is to allow ourselves to jump into and out of the fantasy world. We need to work in a mixed-mode: moving forward in the real world and making occasional stops to enjoy the scenery in our imaginary world. It is a powerful combination that injects playfulness into anything we do, no matter how serious, and with it boosts our Creativity.
Being in an Active, Alert, but Non-Stressed Frame of Mind
We can also intuitively understand the fifth and last aspect in the definition of Play. Nevertheless, it embeds some non-trivial requirements that can affect the way we conduct our personal and professional lives. If we just let it.
Play cannot be passive. To play, we must take an active part in the journey and avoid being merely outside observers. If your child is passively watching her friends playing, you are not likely to call that playing. But as adults, we find it less trivial to apply. Watching a game or any other kind of entertainment might appear to get us in a playful mood, but it is not really playing. We must take action and be part of the game. Gray goes on, adding another essential requirement to this aspect. Being active is not enough if our actions are automatic, derived from habits and reflexes. In other words, when playing, our actions should be based on conscious decisions.
Both these requirements of Play fit perfectly in the context of Creativity. Creativity is never passive. It is never about just consuming — to be creative, you must actively generate something, even if only in your mind. Since creativity is essentially about breaking free from patterns and seeing and doing things differently, it cannot be the result of repetitive or automated actions. The Experience and Observe functions require us to be alert. To collect ingredients and store them in our mind-pantry, we must be mindful and aware of our surroundings. We must actively be part of what is happening, at least in our minds. And when we use the Wonder, Imagine, and Fuse functions, we process the ingredients we have collected. We must take mental action to wonder, imagine, and fuse. It’s the complete opposite of being passive.
The last part of this aspect is where things become non-trivial to implement as adults. This is where many individuals, teams, and organizations fail. We can easily agree that Play cannot be stressed. We associate Play with something we enjoy, and we do not perceive it as a context in which we are continually being pushed to deliver results. In contrast, our personal and even more so our professional lives are often full of stress. Even if we, or the organizations we work for, seem to value play, we confine our playfulness in space and time, and when we go back to our “serious” tasks, we are likely to feel stressed. And the more stressful the situation is, the more we are expected to deliver better, more creative results.
Why is that? Well, I believe one possible origin of this mythical expectation is rooted in popular culture. It is, after all, a very photogenic myth. Back in the 80s, I loved to watch MacGyver. Everybody did. Like many TV series at the time, most episodes followed the same structure and basic idea: the hero is called to resolved a situation, at some point, things don’t go as expected, the situation gets more complicated, and then out of the blue, when you think all is lost, MacGyver comes up with a genius way out of the situation (mostly using objects and materials he finds around him), and on his way out he obviously saves the day.
Predictable, and yet, we loved it.
If you rely on fiction and mythology (even such based on real events), you might get the notion that Creativity is not only a sudden burst of original thought often triggered by pressure and duress. It is easy to believe we are likely to be creative when the situation leaves us no other traditional choice, and when our lives (or, in less dramatic cases, our projects) depend on it. The “romantic” view of Creativity is that the more we are limited in our options, and the higher the stakes are, the more creative we can be. We shine when we are forced to shine. And this myth, glorified by stories, movies, and TV shows, eventually affects many management (and self-management) practices. It affects how we set goals, how we plan our projects, and how we operate daily.
The truth is that Creativity thrives when you are in a playful mindset, and as Gray states, stress kills playfulness by definition. Repeated experiments and research show that stress suppresses Creativity. Simple, repetitive tasks might benefit from being under pressure to perform. But when it comes to creative, open-ended tasks with no predefined or obvious solution, and tasks that call for decision making, the pressure to perform creates less effective results. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise. This is how most of us are programmed evolutionary. When we are stressed (or in the evolutionary terminology: threatened), our instincts push us to the fastest, safest bet. When we see a lion in front of us, we don’t have the luxury to experiment, imagine, and possibly fail. And so, our primal mind orders us to run. The same instinct (with a less fatal potential outcome) guides our actions when we have a stressed project or when our manager demands immediate results. We need quick, bulletproof methods, and we can’t miss the target, so we don’t have time to play. We don’t have the bandwidth to experiment and be creative.
When we are not stressed, when we allow ourselves to play with a problem even when it is in a serious context, we have the bandwidth to utilize our Creativity Operating System. Our inherent creative skills require us to be mindful, take detours, explore new possibilities, and have enough space for opportunities to emerge. It’s a playful journey by definition, and therefore, it cannot be stressed. Creativity is messy, and the results are never guaranteed. The less stressed we are, the more we allow ourselves to take this uncertain, playful path. In that sense, Creativity and Playfulness become almost synonyms.
The Next Step: Plan to Play
To master the Play function, please refer to the Core Practices defined in the c.os model. The following activities are an excellent place to start, though. They are designed so you could experiment with Play in lab conditions. To lead a creative life, your next challenge would be to implement all the Core Practices, turn them into habits, and seamlessly apply them in everything you do.
There are obviously many examples of creative ideas that came up in a time of duress when the options seemed as limited as they can be and the heat was on. The myth of Creativity under duress is not based entirely on fiction. It is still a myth, though, as it glorifies this unnatural setup — a setup we really wish to avoid — and presents it as the best setup for Creativity to thrive. The truth is that while some people, in some cases, can be highly creative under stressful conditions or when they don’t have real control over the goals or the rules, this is not the typical case and clearly not the most effective setup. In such cases, highly creative people manage to overcome the suboptimal setup — they manage to put the stressful or coerced context aside — and they apply a playful mindset despite of it.
Having said that, none of the five attributes we described are binary. Each of them is really a spectrum, and when combined, our playfulness is also not either “on” or “off.” The more we play, the more creative we are. The more we play, the better the setup we have to Experience, Observe, Wonder, Imagine, and Fuse. The stronger our playful mindset is, the chances for the magic of creative insight to occur increase.
That is why I like to think of the Play function as a powerup. You can certainly try to apply Observe, Experience, Wonder, Imagine and Fuse without Play. You can hope to come up with creative results even when you don’t choose to play, and none of the attributes of Play is in effect. You can try, and in some cases, some people will manage to come up with surprising, creative ideas under these conditions. The value of the Play function is in creating a better setup and frame of mind that will allow us to better utilize our creative skills. When the Play powerup is applied, the dynamics of each function and the feedback loops between them reach a whole new level, where breakthroughs are not only possible — they become an inherent part of the game.
The challenge is creating and maintaining this playful mindset. When the common perception is that playfulness contradicts effective work, we need to actively bring Play back to the center of our lives. We will start with charting where we are on this spectrum of playfulness during different activities, and then we will plan proactive steps that will help us shift toward the better end of the spectrum.
Know Where You Are
Journaling is a powerful way to reflect and notice patterns we might not be aware of otherwise. It is easy to be unconscious about how we apply the five attributes of Play in our lives. If we aim to be more playful, we should first identify the times and contexts in which we are less so. Recording where we are regarding each of the five aspects when performing different activities throughout the day might seem artificial, but the Insights from such an experiment could be priceless.
To know where you stand and how to make Play more dominant in your life, record the significant activities and tasks you perform throughout the day. Consider both personal activities and professional tasks, both leisure activities and serious ones. For each such action, evaluate and grade each of the five aspects of Play on a scale of 1-5. Try doing that as soon as you complete the activity when you still have a vivid sense of what you thought and felt while performing it.
After recording your playfulness levels for one week, reflect on the results. How playful were you? In which activities did you practice more playful aspects? What setups promoted a more playful mindset? What made you be more playful? And which of the five characteristics you can improve?
- Capture the major activities you are engaged with during one week .
- For each activity, rank the level of each aspect of Play from 1 to 5.
- At the end of each day and at the end of the week, reflect on your playfulness level. Consider what has prevented you from being more playful?
Reflecting on the tasks you are engaged with through the lens of playfulness will give you a fresh perspective and quite a few insights. Even before considering how to actively spice-up your next week with playfulness, the mere awareness of where you stand will help you make a change. The following ideas will help you take these valuable insights and turn them into concrete actions to help you play more in any context.
Plan Some Dedicated Play Time
Throughout this chapter, I emphasized how Play can and should be applied to everything we do. The separation between “playtime” and “serious time” deepens the misconception that play has little to do with achieving serious goals. And yet, if based on your activity log and your reflection you are missing playfulness in your daily routine, the easiest first step would be to define some dedicated time for “traditional” playing — playing in the common sense.
So, before moving on to embedding the various aspects of Play in your serious activities, make it a habit to plan your day with at least one dedicated time slot for some kind of playing. What would be considered playing for that purpose? Well, anything that follows the five aspects we have listed. The most obvious choice would be, of course, to pick a game and play. If your friends and family play along with you, it would be great. But even if you are planning to play alone, there are an infinite number of games you could pick from. Picking a creative challenge from seempli.com is one such perfect choice.
- Every evening, plan a dedicated playtime slot for the next day.
- Pick a game or invent one. Decide in advance if you are playing alone, or set up a playdate with friends or family.
The benefit of setting a dedicated playtime is that it also serves as a time off. When strategically embedded during the day, it can relieve stress and increase your productivity and overall well-being. Again, don’t expect such confined time frames to fully utilize the Play function if most of your other activities are done in a non-playful mindset. It is a good practice to start with, though, because it doesn’t conflict with how your environment might perceive your primary tasks.
Own the Game
After making Play part of your daily routine, it is time to make it part of practically everything you do. This is a creative challenge that requires an experiencing mindset, looking at things from different perspectives, wondering, imagining, and often some fusing. That is part of the magic of Creativity. We have to use the Creativity Operating System to be more playful, which, in turn, will boost our Creativity. It is not the first feedback loop we have encountered in our journey, and once again, it might seem artificial when you first do it, but soon it becomes a habit that reinforces itself — a natural part of the way you operate.
When it comes to activities, tasks, and projects we do not control, the first thing we should do is to find the value for ourselves. This is the key to having a sense of freedom. When we see the value in our actions, we perceive them as actions we choose to do. It doesn’t matter if, objectively, they are part of a plan defined by someone else. When we acknowledge the value of what we do, we make it our own.
Luckily, finding value in tasks we don’t control is tightly connected to the second aspect of Play: being focused on the means at least as much as we are on the results. While we can certainly be emotionally attached to the goals of a project, even if they are not our own, finding the value in the journey is often easier. When we see the value in the road we take, we can enjoy that value along the way. We don’t need to wait for results that may or may not come in the future. It is this realization that allows us to enjoy the path and treat every step of it more playfully.
Try to decouple what you do from the goal that someone else might have defined. Deconstruct what you do and observe it from a different perspective — your perspective. Try to see your own personal value in each of the actions you have to perform. It can be a short-term value like turning a task into a mystery challenge or a brain teaser. Any task you will manage to turn into a standalone game will turn into a playful activity by definition. But you can also find a long-term personal value in what you do.
Take for example the task of writing emails. I don’t know many people who love to write and reply to emails. If email-based communication is part of your daily routine, it is probably not the highlight of your day. And if you treat this daily task as something you must do, it obviously can’t be playful. Unless you find a new, personal value in it.
A couple of years ago, I started to use Grammarly — a service designed to improve the way you write. From that moment, every email I wrote became a mini English lesson. It had value beyond just communicating with whoever I was writing to. Every minute I spent writing emails became an investment in myself — in developing my skills. Needless to say that this didn’t come at the expense of “the organizational goal.” But I did manage to find a personal angle to it. It was a huge step toward owning this activity and thinking of it as something I choose to do. At the same time, spicing up the task of writing emails with improving my English is a perfect example of emphasizing the means over the end. Writing became the focus of this activity, although objectively, writing emails is just a means to achieve something else. The emails’ context was important to the project, but for me, writing better, preferably without any mistakes, became more important (at least while I was spending time doing it). I managed to turn this daily, routine task into a playful game. From here, the distance to turning it into a creative playground was quite short because when you are already in a playful mindset, being creative is the next natural step.
- Decouple the target from the actions you have to perform to achieve it.
- Find either a short-term or a long-term personal value in every task and action.
- Deconstruct your activities to make it easier to find the value they might have for you.
Many of us spend most of the week doing things we don’t have much control over objectively. We will discuss later how organizations can create a setup that promotes and ignites personal and collective Creativity. Allowing more freedom and emphasizing personal value on top of the organizational value is an essential layer in any such setup. At the same time, let’s not use the environment we work in as an excuse. Owning the game — finding the personal value in everything we do — is entirely up to us.
Once we own the game, the next step would be to spice it up.
Spice Up the Game
Once you own the game, you are in the perfect spot to reshape its rules. Once again, if you are in a formal position that enables you to objectively influence the project, it can be much easier. But even if you are not, there are many ways to spice up the game.
Anything we do is subjected to some rules in the sense that it follows patterns, practices, and habits. Many of them can be broken, replaced, or manipulated without risking the quality of the outcome7, and most likely even improving it.
Consider, for example, a weekly team meeting designed to discuss a project’s status and some issues that came up during the week. Such a session can be critical to the team’s alignment and an essential platform for thinking together about the next steps, especially when things are not going smoothly according to plan. At the same time, many people find such meetings boring or ineffective at a personal level. At best, they can be very repetitive. But what if the team decides to spice up the meetings by changing the rules every now and then? What if every team member will play a famous character when presenting the status or brainstorming some challenge? What if you agree in advance to raise only bad, ridiculous ideas? How about changing the location of the meeting? Maybe conducting it outdoor, perhaps even while walking or jogging?
Some of these ideas might sound ridiculous at first. They seem to be the opposite of doing serious work and might be perceived as a waste of valuable time. But if you think of these ideas as opportunities to change the rules of the game, you would realize that you can turn any tedious, repetitive activity into a playful one. Adding this magic ingredient will turn the status meeting into a creative playground. Your team will not only enjoy it more but will actively use new perspectives, come up with new insights, and maybe, just maybe, have some creative breakthroughs. And even if they don’t, their motivation and engagement levels will skyrocket.
Another way to spice up the game is by adding an imaginative layer to it. Recall the bug-fixing activity that was a significant part of my life as a Software Developer. Even if I cannot affect how I perform this task, I can always imagine it is part of a secret hacking mission or some nerdy takeoff on Mission Impossible. The steps I will do to find the problem or solve it might not change. To an external observer, I will appear just like any other Developer solving bugs. But in my mind, I will be somewhere else. In my head, I’d be 100% playing.
- Change the rules of the game, even on a small scale.
- Find a way to spice up your activities with new ways of doing them.
- Imagine a different setup or context for the things you do — one that will turn a task into something completely different even if you don’t change how you are performing it.
Just like the case is with owning the game, spicing-up the game can surely benefit from a supportive organizational setup. But whatever the context we operate in, we have a vast space to play with. Changing the rules and elevating any task to the degree of a game can be a creative challenge by itself. The benefit of proactively trying to achieve that goes much further than just increasing Creativity.
Create a Low-Stress Environment
The last aspect of a playful mindset is probably the hardest to achieve, as it greatly depends on the environment in which we operate. All the attributes of Play can be affected by the organizational and interpersonal context. But when it comes to stress, the context has a dramatic effect. Keeping the stress level low is far from being trivial when the organization you work in, your managers, and sometimes even your colleagues are all sending a clear message: we need results, and we need them now.
Some people might be able to ignore the atmosphere surrounding them and create a stress-free island for themselves. These are the people to which Play comes naturally. For such people, even the external noise can be perceived as part of the game. Assuming most people can achieve that is not realistic, however. When everything around you sends stressful messages, you are likely to be affected. And as if the negative impact stress has on your Creativity at work is not enough, it might soon creep into other areas in life. Stress cannot just be turned off when your formal work day is over.
The solution lies in creating a safe, stress-free environment. There is no way to beautify it: the higher your rank is in the organization, the easier it is to change the organizational mindset and create a more playful, creative setup for your employees. As we saw, this has little to do with building huge physical playgrounds. It has everything to do with how you lead your organization.
We shall discuss the organizational application of the Creativity Operating System, and specifically the Play function, later in this book. From the perspective of an individual, I would say this. To the extent that you can control or choose your work environment, always prefer a less stressful organization. It doesn’t mean you will not work hard. It doesn’t mean you won’t have targets and goals. A less stressful organization allows flexibility and is built on trust — an organization that celebrates doing and experimenting even if the results are not guaranteed. It may sound utopic, but the reality is that with the right balance and effective leadership, such organizations will outperform their competition both in the motivation and the engagement of their employees and in bottom-line results. At the end of the day, stress is subjective. The same ambitious targets can be much less stressful, or they might even become playful when the organization supports that. And with this stress-free, playful atmosphere, unexpected, creative insights are just a matter of time.
From Creation to Evolution
When I read Free to Learn, I felt like Creativity and Play are interchangeable. The two are so tightly coupled that it is easy to mistakenly use the attributes of Play as the definition of Creativity. For that reason, Play is placed at the center of the Creativity Operating System. It is such a primary component of being creative that you can rarely do without it.
Unlike the other five functions we have discussed, Play is not always present in creative acts. Its importance is in its ability to boost our Creativity, increase the chances of creative magic to occur, and help us deliver unmatchable results.
The next and final function is similar to Play in the sense that it is a powerup. You can have creative insights without it, but when applied, it amplifies your Creativity by orders of magnitude, just like it did for the life on our planet. The last part of our operating system is all about evolution.
2 Interesting choice of example as it throws us directly into the Creativity Operating System, and specifically the Imagine function. ⤴
4 Effective learning and Creativity are indeed tightly coupled, and we will explore this connection later. ⤴
7 Although taking some risks is essential to making creative breakthroughs. In a setup that does not allow any risk to be taken, no one should expect an innovative, surprising result. The best one can hope for in such a setup are the predictable, pre-planned results, but even that will happen only in the best-case scenario because whether we are willing to take risks or not, reality might just have other plans for us. We will discuss fail-safe vs. safe-to-fail environments in an upcoming chapter. ⤴