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You learn a lot about business studying play.
I’ve been teaching design and working in the toy industry for over two decades, and one of the biggest takeaways I have is about how universally important play is. In fact, in my humble opinion, we’ve turned the truth on it’s head. We equate children with play through a hierarchical lens. We see play as a fun and potentially helpful learning ‘stage’ that children grow up and out of. It’s like the training wheels for real life. But the truth is the opposite. Children play not because they are ‘unformed’ or ‘unenlightened’ adults, but because they are drawn to the most natural and beneficial activities for humans.
In adult terms, I would argue that play has the biggest ROI of any activity I know. Here’s why.
Play teaches you to handle obstacles creatively
Business (especially entrepreneurship) could be described as a constant process of running into an obstacle, assessing your options, and coming up with a solution. Often, the best solution is an unexpected one. Think about eureka moments you have had in your own work, when you’ve realized the importance of a certain pivot, or how you thought you were solving x problem, but really the value is in solving y.
How do these magical moments happen? What’s the optimal blend of all the tiny factors (who you talked to, what you’re focused on, what happened to be on the news that day) that led to the epiphany?
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The truth is that there is no way to perfectly systematize how entrepreneurs can creatively problem solve. Every situation will be different (the dynamism of entrepreneurship is, after all, why many of us are in the game). But it is possible to train the muscle of creative problem solving outside the business arena, where the stakes are high, and a bunch of factors can interfere with being our most creative selves. That arena is–you guessed it–play.
There are all kinds of play. We can play artistically, we can play games, we can play physically. Regardless of how we do it, play creates a safe and open landscape in which we are able to approach problems or challenges in new ways. The more frequently we explore this in other contexts, the more we are able to comfortably and effectively apply it to the arena of entrepreneurship.
Play opens up your imaginative range for what is possible
One of my favorite TED Talks is where Jay Silver talks about turning a banana into a keyboard. (Yes, you read that correctly). Why? Because it perfectly displays how play totally blasts open the arena for innovation. No one who was using a linear mindset to find a specific ‘problem’ and monetize a specific ‘solution’ would have thought to turn a banana into a keyboard. But the invention Silver creates throughout the process is genius, and something people all over the world took up and started using in their own creations and innovation. In other words, he created value for others. After all, isn’t that what we are all aiming for at the end of the day?
The banana-keyboard is a wacky example, but I implement all sorts of assignments in my design courses that force students to forge new neural pathways and reassess how they think about things. I’ve asked students to use the Jack-in-the-box concept but make something totally unexpected happen upon the moment of reveal. I’ve asked them to think of a way to transport clouds from New York to London. I’ve asked them to build creations out of a broom and bucket. In every exercise, students are forced to throw out what they think they know, and what all their prior associations with an idea or object are, and create something new. Are the creations always genius or usable? Of course not, but that’s not the point. The point is that by allowing ourselves to play, we fight back against the ever-encroaching boxes and categories of thinking that hinder innovation.
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I like to think of play as the muscle of imagination, and imagination as the material of innovation.
Play teaches good leadership
Entrepreneurship isn’t easy from an interpersonal standpoint. History is littered with the famous break-ups of co-founders, of teams that went from passionate collaboration to hating each other’s guts. It’s a fast-paced, high-stress arena, where people’s best and worst selves live on display 24/7.
I’ve never worked in more traditional or ‘old school’ business spheres, but I have a suspicion that part of all the rules and structures around roles, hierarchy, and professionalism are an attempt to make sure employees at work are themselves, but in a somewhat filtered way. In other words, old school business understands that a person bringing all of who they are–the good and the bad–to work can be chaotic, emotionally charged, and hard to manage efficiently. But in the start-up arena (and, as I will argue, in the arena of play), people tend to show up as themselves, totally unfiltered.
There are wonderful aspects to this, and also challenging aspects. But just as play offers up a safe space to expand your imaginative muscles, it also is a place that allows you to practice your leadership and collaboration skills. I don’t know if you’ve watched children deep in collaborative play recently, but it’s a pretty magical sight to behold. Children fall seamlessly into roles, interacting and adapting around each other without ever attempting to hide or change who they are. They speak honestly and also have a kind of sixth sense for how they can be in a constant flow state, changing the scenario, overcoming obstacles, and leveraging the characteristics they have (or want to have).
We would do well to try and emulate this behavior as often as possible in our own, adult lives. Just imagine how much healthier and better balanced we would be, if we could simultaneously take our situations seriously (if you’ve ever interfered with a child’s play, you know how deadly serious it is), while also having the intellectual, imaginative, and emotional flexibility to go with the flow, collaborate with others, and not always be in control of everything.
Often when I preach about the merits of play to driven entrepreneurs, they try to approach play like it’s something they can be productive at or optimize. When they do that, they’ve entirely missed the point. This isn’t something to quantify or qualify. This is something that goes more deeply into our systems, that impacts not one area of our lives, but all of it.
That being the case, I don’t have a prescription for you. I can’t tell you how to play, for what length of time, or anything like that. All I can say is that in my own life, and in the lives of the most fulfilled, creative, successful people I know, a healthy appetite for play is always present.