“The trickster (in all his cleverness) understands the one great cosmic truth that the martyr (in all his seriousness) can never grasp: It’s all just a game. A big, freaky, wonderful game.” – Elizabeth Gilbert
“You shouldn’t take life too seriously. You’ll never get out alive.” – Ryan Reynolds in Van Wilder1
Most of my favorite memories are playful. As a child, that meant building Legos and spending the summer at the neighborhood pool. In high-school, it included team sports and luring a large group of soon-to-be-senior-girls out of a house so that a large group of soon-to-be-senior guys could attack them with water balloons and super soakers. In college, it was building snow sculptures and coming up with new ways to combine the words “drinking” and “game.”
Almost everything I used to do was in the spirit of play. But somewhere between then and now, something changed. I set so many goals and expected so much of myself that things I initially did for enjoyment became something to check off a list. The more seriously I took myself, the more stressed I became, and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
Then, at the end of last year, Kristen recommended I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s brilliant book, Big Magic. That’s when it hit me: I had lost that playful spirit. So this year, I’m going to focus on getting it back. The theme for 2016 is “playful.” I’m still going after aggressive goals, but I’m going to do it with a sense of play.
When I told my close buddy and mastermind partner August Ritter about my theme for 2016, he immediately recommended Play it Away, a book by his friend Charlie Hoehn. (I’m noticing a theme here…) In the book, Hoehn shares how his desire to get ahead (including dream jobs working as Tim Ferriss’s Director of Special Projects and as co-founder of a successful app company) ultimately caused him to burn out and develop severe anxiety. The cure that ultimately brought him back to life – was play.
Playful Is Our Nature
What does it mean to play? There isn’t a universally accepted definition – it can mean different things at different times to different people. But we know it when we see it, and we feel it when we’re doing it. We play just to play, and not as a means to an end. As Hoehn writes, “our play is spontaneous, creative, heartfelt, and inspired. It’s a divine type of magic that we cannot replicate.”2
We’re all born playful. Kids play all the time, even when they aren’t supposed to, or when there’s nothing or nobody to play with. In fact, we love to play so much that we’re willing to pay good money so that we can watch OTHER people play. “Music, concerts, festivals, holidays,” continues Hoehn. “Storytelling, books, film, television, comedy, art, dance, sports, parks, rides, recreation, animation, transportation, exploration, engineering, architecture, design, fashion, cooking, toys, video games, technology, robots, inventions… We pay a premium for all of these things so we can experience the divine fruits of humanity’s play!”
Play’s divine nature is also explored by wisdom traditions. In Hindu cosmologies, play is a fundamental part of the cosmos as a whole, and creation itself is a playful dance. Have you ever seen pictures of someone who’s deeply plugged into a bigger picture? Someone like the Dalai Lama, one of the popes, or an enlightened Zen master? Don’t they have an inherently playful quality to them? That same quality exists in all of us – we just have to remember where to find it.
“In every real man, a child is hidden that wants to play.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Playful Is A Mindset (And “Work” Is NOT Its Opposite)
Being playful isn’t about doing some things and abstaining from others, it’s simply about changing the lens with which you approach the world. It’s a mindset that says, this can be, this IS, fun!
I love how Elizabeth Gilbert describes it.3 Since it can be hard to put our finger on exactly what playful is, she presents a series of contrasts between the serious martyr and the playful trickster, and the differences between their mindsets.
- Martyr says: “I will sacrifice everything to fight this unwinnable war, even if it means being crushed to death under a wheel of torment.” Trickster says: “Okay, you enjoy that! As for me, I’ll be over here in this corner, running a successful little black market operation on the side of your unwinnable war.”
- Martyr says: “Life is pain.” Trickster says: “Life is interesting.”
- Martyr says: “The system is rigged against all that is good and sacred.” Trickster says: “There is no system, everything is good, and nothing is sacred.”
- Martyr says: “Nobody will ever understand me.” Trickster says: “Pick a card, any card!”
- Martyr says: “The world can never be solved.” Trickster says: “Perhaps not . . . but it can be gamed.”
Gilbert concludes the comparison with the following:
“Mostly, the trickster trusts the universe. He trusts in its chaotic, lawless, ever-fascinating ways—and for this reason, he does not suffer from undue anxiety. He trusts that the universe is in constant play and, specifically, that it wants to play with him. A good trickster knows that if he cheerfully tosses a ball out into the cosmos, that ball will be thrown back at him. It might be thrown back really hard, or it might be thrown back really crooked, or it might be thrown back in a cartoonish hail of missiles, or it might not be thrown back until the middle of next year—but that ball will eventually be thrown back. The trickster waits for the ball to return, catches it however it arrives, and then tosses it back out there into the void again, just to see what will happen.”
Note that she never contrasts play with work. That’s because work and play aren’t opposites. In fact, some of the most successful businesses and talented people got that way by approaching their crafts with a sense of playfulness. “I’ve met a lot of incredibly talented and successful people,” shares Hoehn. “Guess what: Nearly all of them approach their career and life this way – they play.”
How I’m Going To Play More
I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about ways to be happy – strategies, tips, tools, practices, and mindsets. They’re simple, and they’re effective, and they have undoubtedly changed my life for the better. But we can’t forget one of the most natural and essential components of a good life: play! If this is truly the only moment we have, wouldn’t it be better playful?
Some of the ways I’m going to play more this year include chasing squirrels with Gus, hosting Euchre nights, playing guitar, chipping golf balls in the park, falling into laughing fits for no reason other than to laugh, drawing without judgement, riding my bike or electric longboard along the lake just for fun, going bowling (but still trying to beat Kristen – she always wins), cooking new meals, dancing in the living room, movie night dates, and telling more jokes.
Join in the playfulness! Grab your journal, or open up a blank doc on your computer, and make a list of your own.
- What are the activities you loved most as a kid?
- What are the things that you still enjoy doing as an adult?
- What were you doing the last time you “felt like a kid again?”
- Who do you wish you made more time to play with?
After you make your list of playful activities, make space for them! Call up playmates, schedule playdates, and get ready to crack a “wicked trickster grin.”
Now, Go Play!
“If you’re ready to play, then put down this book and reach out to a friend. Say this to them: Life has been feeling too serious lately. I want to take a break and do something fun. Want to play?” – Charlie Hoehn4
- Van Wilder written by Brent Goldberg and David Wagner [↩]
- Play it Away, by Charlie Hoehn [↩]
- Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert [↩]
- For more of Charlie’s work, visit http://charliehoehn.com/ [↩]