To quote Amelia Earheart, “Whether you are flying the Atlantic or selling sausages or building a skyscraper or driving a truck, your greatest power comes from the fact that you want tremendously to do that very thing, and do it well.” That idea touches on a theory by the late William J. Reilly, a career counselor who in 1949 penned How to Avoid Work – a work that underscores the value of doing what you love. The book came at a ripe time where in a decade teetering at the precipice of Mad Men, too many people were “caught in the hamster wheel of unfulfilling work.” A futurist far ahead of his time, Reilly broke down perceptions barricading work from play. He asserted how “most have the ridiculous notion that anything they do which produces an income is work – and that anything they do outside ‘working’ hours is play. There is no logic to that.” Sixty five years later, the conversation is more relevant today than ever before during the last century. We’re immersed in a society that thrives on creativity. We foster it and reward successfully harnessed creative intuition. Emerging technologies, including start-up culture and even shifting sociopolitical trends exploring how we live and why we do what we do, reinforce these trends. I recently wrote another blog post here called “The Creativity-Productivity Paradox” that showed how this type of thinking is actually getting rewarded in business, noting that start-up and new media businesses able to successfully build playful work environments have been duly privy to record-breaking success. The success isn’t just reserved for traditional companies either. Let’s take a look at two examples. The first is TED Talks, and the other is Oxford University. The underlying difference between these two idea tanks is that TED talk ideas circulate more virally and are more often referenced than just about any Oxford lecture you can recall. Sure, Oxford has the prestige but TED does the one thing Oxford never could: it plays. The Economist recently looked at how Ted revolutionized the ideas industry, adding that “TED has done more to advance the art of lecturing in a decade than Oxford University has done in a thousand years.” Oxford, on the other hand, takes itself very seriously. Let’s shift back to brick and mortar companies to take a look at how play is integrated in a physical environment. Take Innocean for example – a global advertising agency that emphasizes branded content, the company’s own stomping grounds mirror a perfection pairing of work and play. Understanding that forward thinking work environments welcome the feeling of community within a place of business, Innocean has clearly invested considerable thought in kindling a lifestyle in the office. You won’t find rows of cubicles but you will find work spaces that offer natural opportunities to collaborate. As conveyed by on their website, there’s a presence that “conveys a spirit of optimism, creativity and freedom.” For a business that thrives on creativity, Innocean scores big points in walking the talk. The results speak for themselves. Not only do they have an impressive client roster, they’re key speakers at every event and conference that matters – including the recent SXSW. Like anyone how loves their job, you can bet their team members feel like they get to play everyday. Innocean is part of a rising group of firms that recognize the role of “play” in “work”. Essentially, that’s what it comes down to. Our misgivings about play arise from century-old prevailing work-place attitudes that equivocated play with goofing off. Goofing off is goofing off; but play is experimental and innovative with paired with a strong work ethic that understand creative discipline. A struggle with integrating play comes from a need to control work environments. There’s a strong undercurrent of fear that doesn’t want to risk losing control when play is introduced. Yet, some of histories greatest discoveries came from play, including penicillin, which was discovered by accident during a scientist’s “off hours creating petri dish sculptures out of bacteria.” The takeaway rule here is that even if you can’t structure a physical environment that promotes play, you can offer employees a set number of on-the-clock hours for experimentation – which is essentially what play boils down to.
Finally we come back to time, the number one reason why people feel they cannot be productive. People mislead themselves in thinking they need extra time to be creative. On the contrary, the ideal time to think up your best ideas isn’t when you’re in the office; it’s when you’re off doing something completely unrelated. The subconscious needs time to saturate in thought, to sort through ideas, and play with concepts. It can’t do this at crunch time in a hectic environment where you’re expected to perform at peak capacity. It can however do this when you’re off enjoying a leisurely walk, taking a shower, or are ‘unplugged’ in some other way. Managing your creative time begins by training your brain to step out of the 9-5 trap. The 9-5 trap is what I call the ‘zombification’ of the modern worker, when at 5pm hordes of bright motivated people switch off their cerebral cortex to sit in hour long traffic so they can go home eat, watch meaningless TV, and go to bed – when really this is the time your brain is ready to escape in a whole different way. When you’ve clocked out, you shouldn’t be checking out. You should be using this time as a creative play, intermingling necessary tasks like driving home and making dinner with exploratory play that entertains meandering thoughts and connected dots. Here you’re not trying to arrive at a moment of inspired genius. Rather, you’re just toying with ideas without any expectation. The practice mirrors a player’s interaction with a Rubik’s cube, where each turn is often little more than an experimental move until you get closer to the final form – at which point each move forward is increasingly strategic, yet still made without fear of error even though often times we’ve just made a mess of it. In fact, this is how children learn and it’s a method we can learn from. Play is important theme in how children learn. The idea of embracing the ‘messy’ (or error-filled, as often encountered with a Rubik’s cube) develops a conceptual frame of mind that entertains non-linear thought. A Developmental Science study featured in a NY Times blog post by Dr. Perri Klass furthers the dialogue by adding that this concept of “messy” isn’t really about making a mess; it’s about digging into problem and exploring your environment with a sleeves-rolled-up attitude. In a business setting we can use this thinking to help steer away from “right answers” and “explore real world challenges that include ambiguity and doubt.” We’re already seeing this sort of attitude more widely adopted in start-ups and new media-based companies where traditional business culture has become a relic. These groups think playfully, create playful environments, and as a result have experienced record-breaking success. What used to take 20 years to achieve is now being secured in just handful of years simply through exploratory business models that require playful thought. The ability to play is something both small and large-scale businesses have difficulty adopting. The reason isn’t money or rigid organizational structures. The reason involves lacking a willingness to play. Yet being creatively productive is within reach for both groups. Entrepreneurs can encourage creative play in the workplace through strategic exposure to a field of ideas, people, and experiences that can act as a bridge from banal to creative. Take yourself, or your employees, for example. You may not have the time to indulge in creative thought (what I earlier referred to as Einstein’s theory of combinatory play) outside of the workplace, but you can carve out a time at the office. Take for instance something as simple as lunch. Instead of treating lunch as a mandatory task that has to be checked off, why not treat lunch as an experience? So tomorrow, ditch the usual lunch-time hot spot in favor of a new bistro or coffee shop. The idea is to look forward to the experience, to enjoy that change in environment that forces your neuron’s to “wake up”, and start giving your brain a little more material to work with later when it’s “unplugged.” Meanwhile, productivity has lapsed or been compromised through our subtle way to infuse creativity. Productivity 1: Creativity 1.