The Power of Play. Or, is the work/life balance a lie?
"The opposite of play isn't work; it's depression." -Stuart Brown
I love this quote because it speaks to a conundrum I've been facing since I dropped everything to pursue my passion: What happens when something that was once play becomes your work?
I think, in general we think of work as something we do for money and play as something we do for fun. This frames money and fun as separate (and perhaps opposite)... not a great way to attract prosperity (if you give any weight to the idea that our thoughts create our reality) and not a great way to lead a life that is satisfying both creatively and financially (if you have any sense whatsoever). When I believe that things can either be work or play then the act of investing time and resources into something I did for pleasure, or asking to be compensated for it takes all of the pleasure out of the activity, by definition.
Indeed, its not surprising that I feel this way: here is the Oxford dictionary's definition of play:
"To engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose."
That is why I find it so valuable to actually deconstruct play and understand its profound effects. Stuart Brown does a fantastic job of this in his Ted Talk:
Understanding the essential role that play has in cognitive function, learning, creativity, exploration, and our ability to move through adversity leaves me in no doubt that having no "practical or serious purpose" in no way makes play anything less than essential. It's also worth noting that play is not synonymous with passivity, or even leisure (we watch TV; we don't play it).
It's equally interesting to me that work is defined as:
"Activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result"
I feel pretty confident in saying that every moment of play, in my experience, has involved some degree of "work". If I look at work and play as opposites, then most of the things I do for fun are disqualified from the category of play purely because they involve some sort of effort and usually have a result of some sort. Ride your bike and you get somewhere. Paint a picture and you get a picture. Both work and play are activities that involve effort and achieve a result. The difference appears to be in whether we think that that result has a "serious or practical purpose".
I can clearly see how my desire to take my play-state work seriously enough to devote time and resources to it has really interfered with my abitlity to access that play state at all. Since the problem seems to come from the label, the obvious solution (in my case at least) is to get rid of the labels. That's a little scary for me, because I've relied on these labels in order to control myself and my life (or should I say "attempt to control") and they make me feel safe. I use them to make me do things I don't feel like doing, to set boundaries, to manage my time. Work/life balance. Right? Work hard play hard? But I've always had a complicated relationship with "leisure" (I often find "fun" activities dull and restrictive. Fun is so subjective) and sometimes the hyper focus state I allow myself when a deadline is looming feels more restful than a day at the beach.
I do fundamentally believe I am a reasonable person who will naturally do what needs doing when it needs doing. I feel pretty confident that our natural human state is one of creativity, innovation and altruism. Trusting that in the face of a culture that tells me I will never leave the couch if given the opportunity is a little tricky.
I think that, at this point in my life, if I apply the work vs. play binary way of thinking, I'll either always be working or always be playing. Neither of those sit very well with me or feels entirely accurate.
To put it really bluntly: It seems like the only real difference between work and play is the amount of joy I allow myself to derive from the process. This brings us back to that quote from the beginning.
The opposite of work isn't play it's depression. Depression is the state of not being able to derive joy or satisfaction from the experience of your life. Play is the opposite of that. It is the state of deriving pure enjoyment from an experience or a task for its own sake. No "this so that.." just this is enough.
So, here's my re-frame: work and play are part of the same dynamic energy. They are signs that I am a happy, functioning being. Enough with "work/ life balance". I don't want to stop living every time some effort is required, or money is involved. If there is a balance to be found it is between rest and activity.