Play Is Productive
In 2013, an elementary school teacher named Timothy Walker moved from Boston to Finland to teach 5th grade. A year later he wrote a piece for the Atlantic about how his students in Finland had fewer behavior issues, were more attentive, and less likely to burn out before the end of the day. The difference he found wasn’t in their curriculum or home life. It was that students in Finland received two hours of recess per day. Every 45 minutes of classroom time was followed by 15 minutes of outdoor, unstructured play. Compared to the U.S. average of 27 minutes, two hours of recess is a whole lot of extra time for kids to just be kids.
Better performance. Less burnout. More play.
The author and play theorist, Brian Sutton-Smith nails it with the line, “The opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression.” And yet, most of us have grown to think of work and play as opposites. How many times did you hear it growing up: this isn’t a playground… Or, when you sat still and nodded along that you were, so well behaved? Even sayings like, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” that are meant to promote play, further separate the two in our mind.
There are obvious reasons for this. The older we get, the more there is to be taken seriously. More that should be taken seriously. But somewhere on the journey from grass-stained adolescence to 401K adulthood, many people trade in their dreams for goals. SMART goals. Goals that must be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timebound. Our inner child looks at this like a plate of vegetables…
It’s easy to accept that play helps kids learn and socialize, but humans never grow out of the need for it. Studies show that “playful adults” feel the same stressors as anyone else, yet they react differently when that stress comes along. Playful people are less likely to internalize stress and have a higher threshold for it when it arrives. Like children in the classroom, adults also learn faster through interactive games where the spirit of play is present. And let’s not forget—playfulness is attractive. Our evolutionary hardwiring interprets playfulness as a sign of safety, viability, and fertility.
It’s true that not all work can be play. But play doesn’t always have to be a verb. Play is also an approach. An ingredient to sprinkle over work, school, sex, and love. Being playful with the important things in our lives doesn’t mean we don’t take them seriously, but it does serve as a wise reminder that, as a whole, life doesn’t need to be so damn serious.
Perhaps the most fitting line about staying human belongs to Dr. Suess, who said, “Adults are just obsolete children.”
Our ability to imagine, create, and focus is connected to our ability to play. To be playful. To laugh, love, and just be. Play oils the gears. It waters the flowers and pulls the weeds. It’s the emotional time travel that reconnects us with our inner child. The inner child who’s waiting for us to ring the recess bell. The one watching as we chase endless hours of productivity, asking, “If the life we’re so busy creating doesn’t make time for play, then what’s the point?”
Play is a mindset. Play is productive. It’s that silly yet poignant message in the fortune cookie that says, “Don’t take life too seriously, you’ll never make it out alive.”
Purpose > Productivity
The celebrated psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl is best known for his perennial masterpiece, Man’s Search For Meaning. But Frankl had been obsessed with the question, “What is the meaning of life?” long before he was sent to the concentration camps. He studied psychology and philosophy in his youth and even gave a speech titled On the Meaning of Life, while he was in high school. In college, he was disturbed by the spike in suicides among students when final grades were reported. Frankl set up an initiative that provided free counseling to students, and within the first year of the program, student suicides in Vienna fell to zero.
Frankl then became the head of the Vienna Psychiatric Hospital’s female suicide prevention program, where he developed his theory of Logotherapy—founded on the belief that humans are motivated by the pursuit of meaning and purpose. During his time there, he helped save the lives of thousands of women on the brink of suicide.
Frankl wrote of this in a later book, The Will to Meaning:
“I repeatedly tried to distance myself from the misery that surrounded me by externalising it. I remember marching one morning from the camp to the work site, hardly able to bear the hunger, the cold, and pain of my frozen and festering feet, so swollen… My situation seemed bleak, even hopeless. Then I imagined that I stood at a lectern in a large, beautiful, warm and bright hall. I was about to give a lecture to an interested audience on ‘A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp’ (the actual title I later used…) In the imaginary lecture I reported the things I am now living through. Believe me, ladies and gentlemen, at that moment I could not dare to hope that someday it was to be my good fortune to actually give such a lecture.”
Our longing to be productive is connected to our primal urge for ambition. Our impulse to add value, produce, and be useful members of the tribe goes beyond our basic need for survival. To feel and act upon our ambition is what it means to be human. Ambition alone, however, does not create purpose. And without purpose, ambition becomes trigger-happy productivity—taking aim and firing at anything that moves.
There are many forces in the world today trying to convince us that life is nothing more than a series of experiences to be had, memories to be made, and adventures to document. We’re all just monkeys on a rock, spinning around a dying ball of fire, right? There are times when leaning on this idea can be comforting. It can certainly lighten the mood when we find ourselves holding the reigns of life too tight. But when we go on believing that life is just a collection of random experiences, devoid of any real meaning or magnitude, we end up lost in the tornado of movement—spread thin by options and jerked around by the fear of missing out.
A lifetime of being a productive human should provide more than freedom. It should provide fulfillment. Our hours of output and effort should be a vehicle that delivers connection, courage, and love. Without purpose, freedom is an arrow without a target.
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
Some people find their purpose through small acts of selflessness that produce big shifts in how they feel. Others time-travel back to their childhood and reunite with an activity they used to love. Remembering what used to occupy your imagination and tame your bedroom boredom is often a key piece of information in the search for meaning and purpose. There are also those who keep a steady stream of new passions in their life by simply pulling the threads of what makes them curious.
But no matter how one approaches finding purpose, one thing is certain: Purpose follows action. You won’t find waves of inspiration unless you’re in the water paddling. Try new things. Explore different ideas. Turn curiosity into a verb and you’ll discover new interests, passions, and a sense of purpose.
If you’re someone who is searching for their purpose, first be aware of the possibility. Know that there is something waiting for you. An outlet that will feed electricity into everything you do. Stay vigilant in your search, and remember that the search itself is part of the reward. Remember that inspiration follows action, not the other way around. Pull on the threads of your curiosity, take action, and you might wake up one day living your purpose. Life can be spent waiting for death or searching for truth. Find what is meant for you.
And if you already know your purpose, hold it close. Don’t allow the static of hustle and grind culture to steal your connection. Remove the blocks that stand between you and your escape from the ordinary world of meaningless movement. Remember what we learned at the beginning of this section: You don’t need to wait for a global pandemic to hit, win the lottery, or watch your country get invaded. Life is calling out to you right now.