To quote Amelia Earheart, “Whether you are flying the Atlantic or selling sausages or building a skyscraper or driving a truck, your greatest power comes from the fact that you want tremendously to do that very thing, and do it well.” That idea touches on a theory by the late William J. Reilly, a career counselor who in 1949 penned How to Avoid Work – a work that underscores the value of doing what you love. The book came at a ripe time where in a decade teetering at the precipice of Mad Men, too many people were “caught in the hamster wheel of unfulfilling work.” A futurist far ahead of his time, Reilly broke down perceptions barricading work from play. He asserted how “most have the ridiculous notion that anything they do which produces an income is work – and that anything they do outside ‘working’ hours is play. There is no logic to that.” Sixty five years later, the conversation is more relevant today than ever before during the last century.
We’re immersed in a society that thrives on creativity. We foster it and reward successfully harnessed creative intuition. Emerging technologies, including start-up culture and even shifting sociopolitical trends exploring how we live and why we do what we do, reinforce these trends. I recently wrote another blog post here called “The Creativity-Productivity Paradox” that showed how this type of thinking is actually getting rewarded in business, noting that start-up and new media businesses able to successfully build playful work environments have been duly privy to record-breaking success.
The success isn’t just reserved for traditional companies either. Let’s take a look at two examples. The first is TED Talks, and the other is Oxford University. The underlying difference between these two idea tanks is that TED talk ideas circulate more virally and are more often referenced than just about any Oxford lecture you can recall. Sure, Oxford has the prestige but TED does the one thing Oxford never could: it plays. The Economist recently looked at how Ted revolutionized the ideas industry, adding that “TED has done more to advance the art of lecturing in a decade than Oxford University has done in a thousand years.” Oxford, on the other hand, takes itself very seriously.
Let’s shift back to brick and mortar companies to take a look at how play is integrated in a physical environment. Take Innocean for example – a global advertising agency that emphasizes branded content, the company’s own stomping grounds mirror a perfection pairing of work and play. Understanding that forward thinking work environments welcome the feeling of community within a place of business, Innocean has clearly invested considerable thought in kindling a lifestyle in the office. You won’t find rows of cubicles but you will find work spaces that offer natural opportunities to collaborate. As conveyed by on their website, there’s a presence that “conveys a spirit of optimism, creativity and freedom.” For a business that thrives on creativity, Innocean scores big points in walking the talk. The results speak for themselves. Not only do they have an impressive client roster, they’re key speakers at every event and conference that matters – including the recent SXSW. Like anyone how loves their job, you can bet their team members feel like they get to play everyday.
Innocean is part of a rising group of firms that recognize the role of “play” in “work”. Essentially, that’s what it comes down to. Our misgivings about play arise from century-old prevailing work-place attitudes that equivocated play with goofing off. Goofing off is goofing off; but play is experimental and innovative with paired with a strong work ethic that understand creative discipline.
A struggle with integrating play comes from a need to control work environments. There’s a strong undercurrent of fear that doesn’t want to risk losing control when play is introduced. Yet, some of histories greatest discoveries came from play, including penicillin, which was discovered by accident during a scientist’s “off hours creating petri dish sculptures out of bacteria.” The takeaway rule here is that even if you can’t structure a physical environment that promotes play, you can offer employees a set number of on-the-clock hours for experimentation – which is essentially what play boils down to.
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