When the heart’s song ceases to play

This TED talk by Shonda Rhimes underscores the importance of play:

[H]ere’s the thing: the more successful I become, the more shows, the more episodes, the more barriers broken, the more work there is to do, the more balls in the air, the more eyes on me, the more history stares, the more expectations there are. The more I work to be successful, the more I need to work. And what did I say about work? I love working, right? The nation I’m building, the marathon I’m running, the troops, the canvas, the high note, the hum, the hum, the hum. I like that hum. I love that hum. I need that hum. I am that hum. Am I nothing but that hum?

And then the hum stopped. Overworked, overused, overdone, burned out. The hum stopped. […]

But you know, you do, if you make, if you work, if you love what you do, being a teacher, being a banker, being a mother, being a painter, being Bill Gates, if you simply love another person and that gives you the hum, if you know the hum, if you know what the hum feels like, if you have been to the hum, when the hum stops, who are you? What are you? What am I? Am I still a titan? If the song of my heart ceases to play, can I survive in the silence?

And then my Southern waitress toddler asks me a question. I’m on my way out the door, I’m late, and she says, “Momma, wanna play?” […]

The air is so rare in this place for me that I can barely breathe. I can barely believe I’m breathing. Play is the opposite of work. And I am happy. Something in me loosens. A door in my brain swings open, and a rush of energy comes. And it’s not instantaneous, but it happens, it does happen. I feel it. A hum creeps back. Not at full volume, barely there, it’s quiet, and I have to stay very still to hear it, but it is there. Not the hum, but a hum. […]

I’m not perfect at it. In fact, I fail as often as I succeed, seeing friends, reading books, staring into space. “Wanna play?” starts to become shorthand for indulging myself in ways I’d given up on right around the time I got my first TV show, right around the time I became a titan-in-training, right around the time I started competing with myself for ways unknown. 15 minutes? What could be wrong with giving myself my full attention for 15 minutes? Turns out, nothing. The very act of not working has made it possible for the hum to return, as if the hum’s engine could only refuel while I was away. Work doesn’t work without play.

It takes a little time, but after a few months, one day the floodgates open and there’s a rush, and I find myself standing in my office filled with an unfamiliar melody, full on groove inside me, and around me, and it sends me spinning with ideas, and the humming road is open, and I can drive it and drive it, and I love working again. But now, I like that hum, but I don’t love that hum. I don’t need that hum. I am not that hum. That hum is not me, not anymore. I am bubbles and sticky fingers and dinners with friends. I am that hum. Life’s hum. Love’s hum. Work’s hum is still a piece of me, it is just no longer all of me, and I am so grateful.

Play and Consequences

Imagine a child playing in a sandbox, dreaming up elaborate stories about the castles they’ve built with their sandbox toys.  Now, imagine a group of eighteen adults, two teams of office co-workers, throwing around a baseball according to very precise rules.  Those adults are playing too.

It seems contradictory at first.  The elaborate rules of the baseball game are very different from the child’s freeform storytelling.  How can they both be forms of play?

What makes them play is freedom from external consequences. A child in a sandbox does not fear that their day dreams will bring harm to them. A softball player knows that to swing and miss three times will result in an out but nothing else.  Play can be elaborate and ritualistic or wild and spontaneous, it can be solitary or communal, it’s usually pleasurable but can also be painful, it can involve building things up or tearing them down.  What unites all these activities is the mindset of the participants: blissfully free from worry about unintended consequences.

Work is one of the opposites of play.  When we work, we’re striving towards a goal which matters, and everything we do must be measured against that purpose.  A job can involve both work and play, if care is taken to create environments where there is no pressure to get things right the first time and no negative consequences for the employee if they fail.  But some kinds of work can never be turned into play.  You would not want a surgeon to play during surgery, happily disregarding the consequences as they cut into your body. Most jobs require at least some periods of seriousness.

But no human being can go too long without play, without respite from the fear of consequences. A surgeon must take their surgery seriously, but the must also have space in their lives to play. And because we spend so much of our lives at our jobs, they’re one of the best intervention points when it comes to bringing play back into people’s lives. It is through play that we are able to take work seriously. Without those breaks, those moments of freedom, we are too exhausted to think through the consequences when it really matters. 

The famous Facebook philosophy of “move fast and break things” is fundamentally a playful one.  Paraphrased, it just means “go ahead, don’t worry about the consequences”.  The world is your sandbox.  But of course, not having to worry about consequences is a form of privilege.  And, insulated by that privilege, Facebook and other tech companies have played games with a great many very serious things.

The problem is not that Facebook encouraged playfulness, it’s when and how they encouraged playfulness.  They handed a scalpel to a surgeon and told them “move fast and break things” rather than creating a more appropriate space for play.