If you want to excel at work, don’t forget to play

When we are kids we have so much energy and we don’t stop running from one place to the other.  We play and enjoy each and every moment. We experiment, explore and learn in a really intuitive way.  In this way we naturally learned how the world around us worked.  The challenge is that as we grow it seems that this capacity to play and discover the world starts to fade away, responsibilities and obligations seem to take all our mental space, and play suddenly disappears from our life.

Unfortunately, for many of us the adult world looks like we described above.  We can hear phrases like “game is for kids”, “work is not supposed to be fun”, and it seems that there is an unconscious assumption that play cannot be part of the world of work

¿But what if this vision of the world was wrong?¿What if also adults could have the ability to play in all areas of life, including work?

Recent studies actually point to the above.  This means, as we will see later in this article, that play is fundamental to maximize your career growth.

Before comparing adult and child play, its good to realise that not only humans play.  The animal world also plays, and anyone that has dogs will be very aware of this. Dogs are animals that love play, always checking if their master throws a ball or stick so they can run to pick it up to start all over again.

So let’s first have a look at play in the animal world.

Play in the animal world

Professor Bob Fagen and his wife Johanna have been studying animal play for many years, and have published many articles that proof that many mammals play. But what can be defined as play in the animal world?

If we have a closer look, we can many examples of play in the animal world.  An examples is a study made by Fagen with bears.  He showed how those bears showed the retracted ears, open eyes and mouth, and they lay down with the tummy up, which are all signs of play, and contrary to signs of fight or flight.

When asked why do animals play, doctor Fagen answers with a simple and provocative answer: because it’s fun!

But after further enquiry he explains that in a world of change and full of threads, play prepares the bears to adapt to a planet which is always evolving.

This makes sense, and could explain why we also see play in leopards, wolves, rats, cats, dogs and many other mammals.

Does play have any purpose?

One of the principles of play is that its spontaneous, and it seems to appear from nowhere, as it were magical.  But we should suspect.  If there is so much play in nature, there must be something important for the survival of the species that play.

And this is precisely what Bob and Johana Fagen in their studies: The bears that most played in their childhood were the ones that had more chance of survival, even when play took time from more survival oriented activities like hunting or reproducing.

If this seems counter intuitive, we can find the answer of the higher survival rate when we observe experiments with animals that been depraived from play.  When animals are isolated and they are not given the chance to play, the Fagens observed that those animals cannot distinguish friends from enemies.

In an experiment with rats, they observed that those depraived from play are either extremely aggressive or isolate themselves by choice.

All the studies made by the Fagens seems to suggest that play enables mammals to develop emotional intelligence. This is, the habit of being able to perceive the emotional state of other individuals and then adapt their response appropriately to each situation.

Bob Fagen tells us that play teaches young animals when to trust other bears and species.  They also detect when to play, and when play becomes too violent and they have to backup or attack.  

In summary, play teaches many animals to correctly interpret the world around them.

The dog and the wolf

CJ Rogers, another researcher of play in the animal world has been observing wolves with the same passion and perseverance as Jane Goodall studied chimpanzees.

Many times we wrongly think that dogs and wolves are the same, when in reality they are not.

Adult dogs, which have been genetically selected for centuries by humans, depend on us humans for their survival, which means they provide love and play.

Adult wolves on the other hand  have extremely different behaviours towards humans. Basically, wolves don’t play with humans.  And in spite of this, wolf puppies do play between themselves.

The distinction comes on how wolf behave inside the pack to survive.  When wolves become adults, they are fitted into a rigid hierarchical structure which they cannot get out of.  

This seems to suggest that when wolves are focused on survival the time for play is reduced to bare minimum.

Comparison between dogs and wolves is tremendously similar when we observe to close species: Chimpanzees and human beings.

Both play during the before becoming adults, but as we saw with wolves, chimpanzees also evolve a fixed structure and hierarchy bsaed on the need for survival. Their behaviour is more compulsive, rigid and oriented to survival.

All these findings seem to suggest that animals that retain certain level of immaturity have more chances of adapting and learning as their environment changes, but the price to pay is the less chance of survival in hostile environments.

A labrador would not survive one day in the jungle, but surrounded by humans, we might have a great life.  One behaviour is not better than the other, but in a non hostile environment it seems that playful beings can adapt better and have higher chance to adapt.

The psychiatrist Erik Eriksson explained this beautifully: “Being human means having a prolonged childhood.  It’s civilised to have a long childhood, but it leaves an emotional immaturity that will last for a livetime.”

The danger of not playing

If we stop playing, the risk we run into is the same as wolves and chimpanzees.  Our behaviours become fixed and we are not able to adapt and learn.  We don’t follow new ideas, and our behaviour is totally modeled by the structural group we are part of.  We don’t learn and enjoy from the world around us, we are only focused on surviving.

This leads to higher rate of fight or flight behaviours, and we see the world as two extremes.  Either enemies to attach or members of our pack that we must defend.

In the professional world, the scientists that see their lab as a enormous sandbox are the ones that thrive.  Same goes for sports professionals that enjoy their play, and engineers that love solving enormous technical puzzles.  

These professionals that follow the previous patterns not only earn more, but they also enjoy more their work and have more capacity to adapt.

Next Steps

If you want to learn more from this topic, please read the book Play, by Dr Brown.

Another step you could be to secure different times to play in your personal and professional life.  Tw

o hours of play  per week (one for your personal and another one for your professional) will make a great positive impact in our life.

And last but not least, do make sure you take play more seriously.