“We don’t stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing.”
George Bernard Shaw
At what point do you stop finding childlike joy in your life? When does the expectation to “grow up” start constraining how you think and act? This is something that has been perplexing us recently as we have developed our Applied Improvisation offer to help businesses and organisations cope with uncertainty.
One of the great limitations that anyone new to improvisation places on themselves is that of self-censorship: the voice that stops you saying or doing something because you are worried about how it will be received, or whether it is “good enough”. This is only something that happens with adults. Children under a certain age throw themselves into things and deal with the consequences. Children don’t worry about failure. You learn to fear failure – and let it make choices for you - about the time you go to school.
Approach things like a child
It seems that adults want “one perfect go”, whereas children want lots of goes. Adults hesitate when you ask them to play a role – which is why everyone hates roleplay – because they don’t know what to say. I have yet to hear a child playing cops and robbers say “Hang on… can we stop this game? I don’t know what policemen say or do...”
If you read anything by the great expert on creativity, the sadly departed Sir Ken Robinson, you can see how the education system and the expectations of the workplace crush individuality, imagination and, dare I say it, joy. He gives the example of the student who, when tasked with a creative writing assignment, gets censured by the teacher for gazing out of the window in a quest for inspiration with the phrase “you’re not even trying.” We are conditioned to create the illusion of work as evidence of effort. It persists in the stock response that you hear when people say “Oh… I’m really busy…” when you ask them how work is, as if “being busy” is an achievement in itself.
Why taking yourself too seriously limits your options
One of the great examples of how people forget to play happened a while ago when we were working with a Business Development team who needed to refresh their thinking about the type of products they could be creating.
Once people had collected their traditional arrival coffee and pastries we gave each group a bucket of stuff – balls, string, cones, bean bags, balloons, bamboo canes – and instructed them to create a game with rules that they could teach to another group.
For ten minutes we watched as Very Serious Professional Adults looked at the bucket, sipped their coffee and talked about what they could do with the things in the bucket. Then, in one of the groups, one person tipped the contents of the bucket on the floor. Seeing this, others did the same. Next, one person went down on their knees and started putting things together… and then all the Very Serious Professional Adults remembered what it was like to be Imaginative Creative Children and they all pitched in with ideas and contributions. The energy levels went through the roof as everyone rediscovered what it was like to have fun and share ideas and make suggestions without worrying about whether it was a good idea or if it would clash with their role or status or job title.
Child-like doesn’t mean Child-ish
Just to be clear, we are not advocating that work should be like playtime or, God forbid, every organisation should follow the wacky idea of putting table tennis tables, climbing frames and swings in their offices so they “think like Google”. We’re just saying that people should loosen up a bit more.
Stop worrying about what people will think. Stop trying to project a carefully crafted professional image. Be more human. Be more vulnerable. Be more yourself. Be more like your inner child. Remember how to play.
You’ll have better ideas, come up with more creative solutions… and you won’t get old.