Move From “Work” Mode to “Play” Mode

Everybody loves self-improvement. We want to get smarter, be connected, balance our lives, and so on. And what if we didn’t think of self-improvement as work? What if we thought of it as play — specifically, as playing with our sense of self?

Whatever activity you’re engaged in, when you are in “work” mode, you are purposeful: you set goals and objectives, are mindful of your time, and seek efficient resolution. You’re not going to deviate from the straight and narrow. It’s all very serious and not whole lot of fun. Worse, each episode becomes a performance, a test in which you either fail or succeed.

In contrast, no matter what you’re up to, when you’re in “play” mode, your primary drivers are enjoyment and discovery instead of goals and objectives. You’re curious. You lose track of time. You meander. The normal rules of “real life” don’t apply, so you’re free to be inconsistent — you welcome deviation and detour. That’s why play increases the likelihood that you will discover things you might have never thought to look for at the outset.

Play fosters creativity and innovation. The same benefits apply when you are playful with your self-concept. Playing with your own notion of yourself is akin to flirting with future possibilities. Like in all forms of play, the journey becomes more important than a pre-set destination.

The problem is we don’t often get — or give ourselves — permission to play with our sense of self. The very experiences children seek out in play are the ones organizations are designed to avoid: disequilibrium, novelty, and surprise. We equate playfulness with the perpetual dilettante, who dabbles in a great variety of possibilities, never committing to any. This stifles the discontinuous growth that only comes when we surprise ourselves.

Paradoxically, often the most productive way to develop as a leader is the most seemingly inefficient. It involves adopting a stance of  “committed flirtation,” fully embracing new possibilities as if they were plausible and desirable, but limiting our commitment to being that person to the “play mode.”

Playfulness changes your mind-set from a performance focus to a learning orientation. Play generates variety not consistency.

Summing-up: People tend to flirt only with serious things — madness, disaster, other people. Flirting with your self is a serious endeavor because who we might become is not knowable or predictable at the outset. That’s why it’s as inherently dangerous as it is necessary for growth.

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