I’d rather be fishing.

Bumper Sticker

 

“The opposite of play is not work—the opposite of play is depression.”

Brian Sutton-Smith, The Ambiguity of Play

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FISHING ALL THE TIME

"Is it possible that work and play is nothing but a change in viewpoint?"

We could look at an activity like fishing and realize that we define it not by whether or not we caught a fish, but by whether we “went fishing”.

 

This is not structured game play, but the freedom of giving ourselves a space to be.

Our lives play out in dualities. We listen to and talk with ourselves – an interior world whose conversations and emotional states take place in secret – and we actively engage with the outside world. In the second dimension we are seen. We talk with people. We interact with the unknown. We leap over hurdles or succumb to the influence and power of outside forces.

 

So, we’re familiar with our world on two planes – within and without: What we see; what we feel; what we say aloud; what we refrain from saying; what we imagine - and what we actually do.

 

In addition to these two realms of behavior, we can divide our lives into two categories: work and play.

 

Normally we would think of work as an exterior activity. People see us driving our cars to a place of work, or they see us in activity around our professions, even if we work from home. Even the person sitting motionless in front of a computer could be seen as the prototype of the post-modern worker – obviously engaged in a mental activity while exerting minimal physical motion. They are “at work” working.

 

The same person, sitting in front of a chess board, would be “at play”. Since both are “obviously engaged in a mental activity while exerting minimal physical motion” we define their state as work and play based on criteria other than appearance. Intention is involved.

To be clear, the work I mean is the principle definition from Webster’s Dictionary:  “An activity in which one exerts strength or faculties to do or perform something; sustained physical or mental effort to overcome obstacles and achieve an objective or result.”

 

But is this not also true of playing games?

To go further, we could decide that the criteria between work and play includes whether this activity involves payment for services rendered. Even that category has nuance: a professional chess-player would be “at work” in exactly the same chair as the amateur who is “at play”.

 

To return to the person sitting in front of their computer in an office, what if that worker “at work” is looking at their personal social media account? Aren’t they temporarily “at play”? So, one of our first challenges is to define the words play and work. Indeed there is a continuing debate about what distinguishes one from another.

 

To be clear, the work I mean is the principle definition from Webster’s Dictionary:  “An activity in which one exerts strength or faculties to do or perform something; sustained physical or mental effort to overcome obstacles and achieve an objective or result.”

 

But is this not also play? Could you not also define playing the games of baseball, checkers or hide and seek in this same way? The players perform with skill, engage in sustained effort, overcome obstacles and achieve an objective.

 

Is it possible that work and play are nothing but a change in viewpoint?

Because of this ambiguity, we might give up the very notion of making a distinction between work and play. James P. Carse’s book, Finite and Infinite Games, does just that. Instead of defining living as a combination of work and play, he divides all activities as being two kinds of games:

 

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other, infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games

 

We have made progress from this shift in thinking because all the activities we have been describing can fall inside these categories.

 

Our goal can move away from winning and losing as the sole criteria of intention. We can also engage in whatever it takes to continue to play. In order to do so we must accept different outcomes as a result of our “game”.

In a finite game as Carse is defining it, we play to win. We are declared at the end of the game as a winner or a loser. We play within the agreed upon boundaries of the game, use our skills to the utmost, play to the conclusion and when an agreed upon moment arrives we stop playing and declare the winner. In finite games, winning and losing means ending the play.

 

In an infinite game, continuing the play means playing with rules in order to sustain the game itself. You play WITH boundaries in order to sustain the game. Rather than wishing to win, you wish to continue to play. The game is therefore protected from conclusion.

 

So, in order to play an infinite game, one must also give up on the notion of winning and losing. This is not small feat. We like to win. We don’t like to lose. To give up both is to relinquish something defining to us as human beings.

 

The danger here is that we might think we have to develop into an enlightened being in order to play an infinite game. This could not be more false. There is no development involved. This is an issue of understanding. It is instantaneous. We don’t actually give up on finite games. We simply fold them into the infinite category.

In a finite game we play to win, and when an agreed upon moment arrives we stop playing and declare a winner. In finite games, winning and losing means ending the play.
In an infinite game, rather than wishing to win, you wish to continue to play. The game is protected from conclusion.

How do we do this in context of our professional lives?

 

First, we work inside ourselves on us. We slow down, observe. It is more than thinking, more than feeling. It is opening, waiting and reflecting.

 

We could look back to childhood and remember unscripted, free play. Or we could look at an activity like fishing and realize that we define it not by whether or not we caught a fish, but by whether we “went fishing”. This is not structured game play, but the freedom of giving our selves a space to be.  One could learn much about fishing from Researcher Clark Moustakas, who defines play as “a form of letting go, merging freely into experience, immersing oneself totally in the moment so that there is not distinction between self and object or self and other. Energy, life, spirit, surprise, fusion, awakening, renewal, are all qualities of play.”

 

But when we see a bumper sticker that reads, “I’d rather be fishing,” we see play as being distinct from the rest of life.

 

In that life-view we divide play from work – in this context, work becomes an activity that we HAVE to do in order to live. But work is not coerced. Slavery is. We choose our careers. We interview for jobs we WANT. We hope to get them. We see ourselves as our careers, beginning our ice breaker conversation with, “What do you do?”

 

Carse addresses this issue be focusing on freedom with the phrase, “Whoever must play cannot play.” In order to be in a game, one must be free. One must CHOOSE to play.

 

Sport is the ultimate expression of choice. If there is sport in one’s vocation, it is because choice is involved. We play because it gives us joy to do so. There is volition, control, effort, challenge, but we are actors of our own dramas. We write our own lives in play. We are free players.

 

This understanding has enormous implications for the work place. Indeed if we want to understand human resource issues like retention, salaries, benefits, working conditions, and company culture we might look no further than the definition of work and an understanding of play.

 

Understanding of playful work recognizes the role of attitude in defining your activity.

 

But attitudes grow out of interacting with environments. Think about the following list of descriptions:

  • Clear goals that, while challenging, are still attainable

  • Strong concentration and focused attention

  • The activity is intrinsically rewarding

  • Feelings of serenity; a loss of feelings of self-consciousness

  • Timelessness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing

  • Immediate feedback

  • Knowing that the task is doable; a balance between skill level and the challenge presented

  • Feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome

  • Lack of awareness of physical needs

  • Complete focus on the activity itself

 

Those are phrases from Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s ground-breaking work on “Flow." Almost Zen-like in its descriptions flow is “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."

The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.

What if the qualities of our work lives were made in context of our understandings of play?

 

Exterior play would merge with our daily professional lives. Indeed, this would result in exactly the same definition of “work” as that with which we began this article. The difference would be our mindset.  If you do enough interior work, a space opens up for your viewpoint to change.

 

If the leader creates an environment that promotes flow, there must also be freedom to hold on to a playful point of view. Indeed, when this understanding fully blossoms, work will reveal itself to be one more form of play.

 

What could have been tedium may become joy.

In her book, Play Therapy with Families, Nancy Reidel Bowers summaries many theories of play as follows: "It is an avenue for freedom of movement within certain limitations; a link between imagined and real worlds; pleasurable; includes experimentation, control and autonomy; includes opportunities for self-expression; contributes to creativity, divergent thinking, problem-solving; and the abilities to develop and sustain relationships."

 

I have never read a better description of work.

 

The final sentence of Carse's Finite and Infinite Games reads: “There is but one infinite game.” Within that game reside all of the world’s finite games. Finite games include your work life.

 

You can get the raise, close the deal, win the case, and sell the house. All of those things can be worthy of your professional life. But when you think they are the Infinite Game, you have forgotten that the whole goal of life is to continue to play.

 

When we can see this clearly, rather than wishing we could be someplace else, we would be fully present where we actually are. Work and play would be distinct only in intention.

 

Actually, it is entirely possible to be fishing all the time.

©2020 John Thomas Dodson All Rights Reserved

No part pf this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the author.

℗ 2020 John Thomas Dodson All Rights Reserved 

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