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Productive Play: The Middle Ground Between Work and Play
What happens when our work becomes play?
I take it that a few people thought the point of my last post was to suggest that people should quit their jobs. Perhaps it’s the point in which I come out and recommend that everyone who doesn’t work for themselves is living a low-quality life. Because that’s exactly the type of thing that I would say.
Stupid, self-serving, egocentric cock rot. Most of us don't have a choice, asshat.
I love this comment for several reasons. One, I absolutely love the term '“asshat.” Two, I love the self-assuredness of his lack of a choice in the matter. Third, I love that he took the time to see how this train of thought would play out. This is an absolutely wonderful comment that’s a testament to the quality of commenters on the Internet.
Sure, there are some elements to the questions that may make you question the suitability of your current job. If it helps you get out of a bad situation, great. But I have a larger goal: I want to change the way you think about your work and your play. I want to give you a new paradigm that I hope will clear some things up and empower you to do more of those awesome things that you do.
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Work, Play, and That's It
From an early age, we've associated “work” with something we don't want to do and “play” with things we want to do. Our lives are structured around “work” days, “vacation” and “leave” days, and “rest” days. The end result is that we create conceptual dichotomies along the following axes: job/fun, work/play, and leisure/productivity.
But what happens when our work becomes play? Or when our play becomes work? That is, what happens when we find ourselves in the position such that the things we want to do are the same things that put food on the table?
What happens is that most people are still stuck with the work/play paradigm that the rest of us are in. On one level, they know that they love what they do, yet at the same time they have to untangle their emotional associations when they talk and think about what they do.
So pernicious is our cultural socialization that it's hard for us to really come to grips with the fact that it's possible to have fun doing the work that you do and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, that's the ideal situation.
Introducing Productive Play
Stop living in the work/play dichotomy. As with most things in the life, there's a third category: productive play.
Productive play is what creatives do when they're reaching down to their core and creating that new thing. Hours lost while writing, making music, painting, coding, designing, problem-solving, and such do not feel like work — they feel like play are done for the process, not the product.
Think about how children play for a second. Sure, there's a point to the games that they play, but usually adults are the ones who have structured play to have a specific outcome. Children enjoy playing not because they'll reach an outcome, but because the process of playing is fun.
That we learn to structure play into outcomes is part of the problem. The closer we tie play to a specific outcome, the less fun it generally is. And, of course, work is tied to a specific outcome — is it any wonder that we don't find it fun?
But unlike pure play, in which no specific outcomes are desired, productive play happens to have the side benefit of advancing one's goals and projects. At the end of a day of productive play, a good creative recognizes that something came from that day spent at play. It may be a great creation, an advance in their creative skill, or the building of a great relationship.
Before I make the jump to the next section, please remember that by "productive," I don't mean the mere business metrics that we mostly associate with productivity. Spending time with friends, family, and loved ones is productive — perhaps much more that putting food on the table. Spending time brainstorming and dreaming can be productive. Exercising is productive because it both makes you healthy and helps your energy levels during other sessions of productive play. If it fits in with your goals, makes you a more full person, and you enjoy it, it's productive play.
Productive Play Is Not the End of the Story
It’s truly awesome when work becomes productive play. The goal is to get as much of the “work” one has to do to become productive play, for productive play is something that you want to do rather than have to do. That makes all the difference in the world.
One of the things that makes productive play so powerful and motivating is that the energy comes from an internal source — without sounding overly spiritual, productive play is a manifestation of your ideas, skills, and energy in the world. The problem, though, is that many of us are using the best parts of ourselves on projects that aren't really our own. It's draining when that piece of the world that's uniquely ours is taken by someone else and they profit from it, compromise on its excellence, or kill it because it doesn't match their plans.
This, I suspect, is the tension that Ali and Mike feel in what they're doing (responding to their comments from the last posts). They both love what they do, but they don't love who they're doing it for. It's the tension that almost every freelancer I know feels. At a certain point, loving what you do is not enough — we want that piece of us to be our piece to share with the world, not someone else's.
I'm leaving it here for today with a call to action. See what parts of your “work” are productive play and which aren't. Try to find ways to spend more time in productive play, pulling from both “work” and “play” to make it happen. And, perhaps most importantly, see what you can do to spend your time in productive play to advance your own projects and goals.
Returning to the awesome comment that lead into this post, moving more of your work to productive play and moving more of your productive play to your own stuff is possible. I'm doing it, and I'm currently a full-time University employee, completing my dissertation, an officer in the Guard, and running an internet business. I'm not saying this to brag, but rather to express that I understand what it's like to have a lot going on — but I also know that moving towards a more healthy and happy tomorrow starts with a choice and action today. Take the long view when you dream, but act on the short view today.