Play Hard. Work Better.

There is something wonderful and apparently completely illogical about baby sea lions – they have an insatiable appetite for play. They dive in and out of the surf, attack each other, play catch with sea urchins, chase fish. 

But here is the seemingly illogical part – baby sea lions who play die younger.

It’s not unreasonable that if you’re frolicking in the surf with your cousins, you are not going to be paying attention to passing predators. But despite the risks, sea lions still play.

Darwinian evolution would naturally seek to remove this sort of self-destructive behaviour from the gene pool; leaving sea lions that don’t play, or play less, to survive and reproduce. Yet after several millennia and despite the very real risks, sea lions still play.

Play is so deeply wired in the brain of a sea lion that it apparently sits outside the norms of evolution. It forms part of the sea lion OS. 

We call it ‘play’ but the word has no clear definition and for many people in business and education its perceived as negative. How many parents have uttered the immortal phrase: ‘stop playing and do some work.” We define play as the opposite of work but that is incorrect. According to play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith, the opposite of play is depression. What we should be saying to our children: “play hard and work better.

Play is how we learn, explore, understand and find out what works. 

Play is storytelling, it’s climbing a rock face, its football, music, reading, art, socialising, going for dinner. Play is something we deride pleasure from but that does not necessarily (need to) serve a specific purpose.

According to Jaap Panksepp of Washington State University, the desire to play sits in the brains stem where respiration and other key survival mechanisms sit. We are hardwired to play.

Our brains are designed to continually develop through play - a process called neoteny. We form new connections and new pathways as we master new skills. We are designed to play. 

Play is how we move forward as species, make new discoveries, create new products, understand how people might feel, create breakthroughs in science. It’s not by sitting in meetings and talking – its by taking actions, experimenting, learning on the job, using our hands, making mistakes, tripping up, starting over.

Play is how we put men on the moon. Created the iPhone. How Einstein discovered the theory of relativity. How Da Vinci created the world’s first flying machine. Play is how ING have gone about reinventing banking, how Spotify ensure a culture of continual innovation, how Tesla creates self-driving cars.

Using play transforms how we think, how we solve challenges and how we develop ourselves and our people. 

If play transforms people – how could it transform, reinvent, reenergise and realign our businesses.

Here are eight ways we can start to use play.

  1. Buy some boxes of LEGO and start using it to express, shape and model ideas. I had lunch with a CEO last week who keeps Lego on his desk to explain the Bank’s strategy.
  2. Perspective – shift where you sit, for meetings, in the office etc. Playing with different perspectives forces your brain to think differently. Try standing up or sitting on the floor.
  3. Improvisation – the key to improvised comedy is to say yes and agree. It leads to whole new worlds of theatre and comedy opening up. Try it in business. Say “yes, and…” and see what direction your meetings go in.
  4. Pictures – using words to describe thoughts and ideas can be incredibly difficult. Go old school – use magazines to cut out images to build a mood board or mosaic of your thoughts.
  5. Create a ‘Play Pen’ - a space with music, LEGO, pens, paper, no chairs. A space to go and doodle and daydream. Einstein was day dreaming about a car travelling at the speed of light when he came up with the theory of relativity.
  6. Play right brain games – the right side of the brain is considered the visual, intuitive part. Bring in the PS4 and play Horizon Zero Dawn
  7. Buy a set of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategy Cards – use them to provoke different responses or when you reach a block in a meeting
  8. Go back to school – try your next offsite in an elementary school. How does the atmosphere, the space, the flashbacks change your perspective on current situations and challenges?

For more information on play, or to set up a Play Date, don’t hesitate to get in touch.