I’d like to introduce you to my cat, Ava. At 15-20 pounds, 8-year-old Ava is one big Maine Coon feline. To say that she is a big as a raccoon doesn’t do her magnificent physique justice. When viewed from behind, the seated Ava is almost perfectly pear-shaped. When she spreads out on the ground, as she’s wont to do, Ava’s not just lying around the house…she’s truly lying around the house. And I say all this with utter love and affection. Ava is a sweet, big-hearted creature…rescued when she was 3, once feral and a mama, and now a full-time mini-panther, toy-chasing machine. You know that song by Meghan Trainor, “All About That Bass”? Well, my cat Ava is all about “that play”! Our living room has been completely taken over by Ava’s numerous “play-things”: her black mousey, her stuffed-catnip rainbow, her gray-furry rabbit’s paw… the wand with a string (“Da Bird”) that dangles anything from faux birds to ersatz dragonflies. But is the cat satisfied with all her store-bought swag? Oh no. Every wire in my office is up for grabs. How many times has my DSL modem suddenly gone crashing to the ground, with Ava looking up me with the expression, “What?” And what could be more fun than batting around the electric cord of my girlfriend’s sewing machine?! But I digress.

The point is, my cat, Ava, has this indomitable, internal drive to play, as do we all – or rather, as we all used to have. These days, though – and most especially at work – our sense of play is being systematically beaten out of us. How many times, for example, have you gone into the office, completed your tasks in an accurate and timely manner, clocked out for the day and wondered, “Why wasn’t that more fun?” This scenario plays out every day in corporate American (and beyond) and it makes me kind of sad. Why don’t WE get our own metaphorical “mousies” to bat around in the office, our own birds and our own dragonflies? Why can’t WE be ourselves and have fun?

All this begs the question: what exactly is “play”, and how can we inject more of it into lives and our workplaces? Alas, apart from a general agreement that we all need more of it, there seems to be a serious lack of consensus on what play is. Here a couple of notable quotations on the topic:

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.”
George Bernard Shaw

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with objects it loves.”
Carl Jung

“Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.”
Heraclitus

“Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.”
Abraham Maslow

And my favorite:

“Play is the highest form of research.”
Albert Einstein

Even the dictionary is fairly vague on the subject, defining play as:

“To engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.”

Clearly, play is linked to the creative process. It’s related to love. And it has something to do with keeping you young.

At risk of making a gross over-generalization, here’s my own stab at a definition of play – based on my very scientific study of Ava the Maine Coon cat (as well as 20 years of leading experiential team-building programs):

Play is a process of experimentation, of following your interests and creativity wherever they may lead, with no fear of failure.

Play is the full expression of your inner nature and personality

When Ava whacks that electrical plus into submission (I assume, because it looks like a snake), she is realizing her essential, predator nature. As well, she simply wants to see what happens if she hits it “just so”. She’s a scientist, a researcher. There are no mistakes, no errors…just experiments.

So what do we do at work to make things more “playful”—both for ourselves and for the teams we lead? How about these 3 ideas?:

Adopt a mindset that there are no “Mistake Makers”, only “Life Learners”. Try new things, make a mess of them, but learn, learn, learn. Taking the stigma of “mistake” out of the equation makes everything more playful.

Follow your intuition. Especially when it comes to innovation, most change comes from one trail blazer expressing himself and then everyone saying, “Hey, I like that, too”.

Create play zones. And I’m not talking about competitive activities like foosball or ping pong. I mean a section of your office where people can take a break and simply play around with puzzles, and finger paint, and fully-loaded Ipads with photo effect software, and Play-doh, and silly putty, and Rubik’s cubes, and whatever suits their personality and creative sensibility.

My dream is that one day every single employee across the land finishes their day of work, leans back in their chair and says, “AHHHH. That was fun today. I tried some new things and got to really be myself”. And, as John Lennon famously sang, “I may be a dreamer but I’m not the only one.”

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