I have a confession to make: Despite a deep academic interest in play, I’m not the most playful person. I’m too results-focused, too enamored with rules and often too serious to just spontaneously play. Yet playing creatively—with ideas in my head, by looking at things in new ways—helped change my future.
Several years ago, I was completely stuck. Stuck in a career that had run out of growth opportunities. Stuck in an organization where I struggled to find meaning. Stuck with financial responsibilities that shackled me to my job.
Finding a new path
When it came to my career all I could see ahead of me were years and years of gray. My options—or lack of options—seemed pretty straightforward. I could try to find another big, high-paying corporate job—but it was unlikely to satisfy my craving for more purpose. I could quit my job and start my dream business, but I needed a consistent stream of income. Or I could try to stick it out, find joy in other parts of my life, and accept that this was what it meant to be a grown-up.
But, I thought to myself at the time, surely there has to be more to life. That’s when I decided to start playing.
The benefits of play
Not just part of childhood fun, play is in fact a profound biological process that has evolved to promote our survival. It shapes our brain, improves our flexibility and lies at the core of creativity. When it comes to our work, far from being a distraction, Dr. Stuart Brown, author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul believes play and work are mutually supportive. Why? Because both rely on creativity.
“Respecting our biologically programmed need for play can transform work,” writes Dr. Brown in his book. “It can bring back excitement and novelty to the job. Play helps us deal with difficulties, provides a sense of expansiveness, promotes mastery of our craft, and is an essential part of the creative process. In the long run, work does not work without play.”
Creative thinking opens up new possibilities
Often play takes place in an imaginative world, but is also firmly grounded in reality. To activate the functionally diverse regions of the brain and create new opportunities, I decided to just play—to imagine, explore and have fun—with the possibilities of what might happen next in my career. I let go of the need for serious outcomes and unleashed my creativity.
Each day for one week I played with completing this sentence: “To make my work more purposeful, joyful and rewarding I could…” For 15 minutes I’d let my mind run free; there were no right or wrong answers. At the end of the week, I read everything I had written and found five genuine possibilities for what I might do next in my career—things that I had never previously imagined. One in particular filled me with excitement.
Play breaks down perceived barriers
When Monday arrived, I went to my boss and proposed an unorthodox win-win solution. I’d give six months’ notice, during which I would work part-time while I began building my own business. To avoid losing my skills (on which he relied), at the end of this period he would become my first client. The ink was dry on my paperwork before the end of the week.
It was only when I allowed myself to “play” and to be creative in my thinking that I was able to move beyond my self-imposed limitations. It gave me the freedom to find new patterns, and it sparked the “aha” moment that I needed in order to envision a different future.
Work and play are not mutually exclusive
No wonder, as Brown says, a growing number of corporations are identifying play as their most precious commodity.
So when it comes to your work—be it your own career, a project you’re struggling with or a colleague who’s driving you mad—ask yourself if you are playing enough, thinking creatively about future possibilities. Your future happiness may rely on it.
For more on creativity, see the special section in the October issue of Live Happy magazine.
Michelle McQuaid is a best-selling author, workplace well-being teacher and change activator. To learn more about Michelle visit www.michellemcquaid.com.