Issue #79
#79 - Playing at Work, With The Greatest Of All Time 🐐
August 18, 2023

#79 - Playing At Work, With The Greatest Of All Time 🐐

“What did you do as a child that made the hours pass like minutes? Herein lies the key to your earthly pursuits.” -- Carl Jung

As an Arsenal fan ⚽️, I hate to admit this, but Erling Haaland, the 23-year old Norwegian striker who plays for Manchester City, is one of the most electrifying and talented goal scorers the world has seen in decades.

Then there is Shohei Ohtani. If you haven't heard of him, my friends: it is time. Shohei is a Japanese baseball player who plays in the US for the Angels. ⚾️ He's technically a "pitcher" who takes the mound every 5 days like any other; but, he also bats in every game. And here's the crazy thing: he does both extremely well. The man is easily a top-3 pitcher, and a top-3 batter -- at the same time.

The most casual baseball observers will tell you that this is just...unheard of. Unseen. Unfathomable. Shohei's own peers will tell you, as they root around, flummoxed, for the right words to describe it: “Nobody does this."

Alas, I'm not writing about these athletes to increase sports IQ, or to alienate non-sports fans! I'm writing about them because the more I observe of them, the more struck I am by how, well...playful they both are. 🤾🏻‍♂️

They are two world-class competitors who perform at the very highest levels and dominate their respective sports. They are as driven and cutthroat as they are talented. (Ohtani struck out his own Angels teammate to beat the US and win the baseball World Baseball Championship for Japan this year).

But you watch these two, and you can't help but think that they're also just having fun.

Here is Shohei, sliding into second base, then disarming the second baseman, who can't help but break into a smile:

​Here is Haaland, in the light blue jersey, sliding into a straight-up brawl. Seconds later though, he's grinning ear-to-ear:

​Look, I get it, these men "play" sports for a living. But it goes beyond mere playfulness; when I compare them to hundreds of their more mortal peers (all of whose personas are now on social media display), I'm almost tempted to use the word..."goofy".

Then there's Leo Messi. Not someone I'd describe as "goofy". But back when the "G.O.A.T" 🐐 debate raged between him and Christian Ronaldo, I was always Team Messi. Not because of the stats or trophies, but because Messi just looked like he was having a good time on the pitch. His off-the-charts exploits were always infused with a tinge of wonder. His post-goal celebrations, by a sense of, "Did I just do that? I just did that! I just did that!".

Who knows then -- maybe there's something to this "play" thing? Even, yes, at work, where we're not "supposed" to play. Well, this week we challenge that idea. We ask you to "forsake man's wisdom for a child's". And we invite you to come and play for a bit:

🎯 Story #1 - Two inspiring and eye-opening books about play help situate it in the context of history, biology, civilization -- and what it means to be human. Once we do, we're able to challenge the idea that our work doesn't need to include at least some level of play. 🤔

🎯 Story #2 - A writer-entrepreneur with a huge tech following has an entire worldview predicated on the idea that we are all "playing games" -- and he uses it as the foundation of a set of fantastic career advice. We dig in.

🎯 Story #3- "Work is work", and "play is play" and never the twain shall meet -- right? Our last quote suggests that the language we use is preventing us from better weaving play into our work -- much to the detriment of both.

Thanks for reading, and playing, and have a fantastic week!

Aki + Usman


#Play@Work #WeAllNeedPlay #HumanNeedsAreWorkNeeds

Little did I know, as I started to burrow down the rabbit hole of "play" this week, that people have given the topic such serious thought. Two books, in particular, were chock full of insight, and completely upended my understanding of the concept in the best possible way. 🙌

The first -- "Play", by Stuart Brown -- is the source of the quote above, and establishes play as something we as humans are uniquely wired for; an elemental capacity that we have evolved over millions of years, and still need to nourish, even after childhood. Play makes us human -- and creative, and innovative (traits that organizations claim to crave, mind you):

Neuroscientists, developmental biologists, psychologists, social scientists, and researchers from every point of the scientific compass now know that play is a profound biological process. It has evolved over eons in many animal species to promote survival. It shapes the brain and makes animals smarter and more adaptable. In higher animals, it fosters empathy and makes possible complex social groups. For us, play lies at the core of creativity and innovation.

And now that we appreciate this, we want to add play to our growing list of "fundamental human needs which don't suddenly go away when we get to work". A list of basic needs which most "work" often fails to provide for:

  • Play
  • Meaning
  • Purpose
  • Transformation
  • Connection and belonging

Next up is "Homo Ludens" ("Man As Player"), widely acknowledged as the classic work on the topic, by Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga. If Brown's take is that play is fundamental -- and a biological and evolutionary imperative -- Huizinga would agree that it's elemental. But he argues this through a different lens: for Huizinga, play is a fundamental requirement of culture; one that has shaped our achievements in law, science, war, philosophy, the arts. You know, just the core of civilization as we know it. :)

Huizinga's book is dense and sprawling in scope. Its language, dated and clunky at times. In fairness, the thing was written in 1907, by an academic! But it has stood the test of time, and not just because of its profound insights, but because its language is often as stirring as it is clunky. For instance:

The spirit of playful competition is, as a social impulse, older than culture itself and pervades all life like a veritable ferment. Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in play and nourished on play; music and dancing were pure play....We have to conclude, therefore, that civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from arises in and as play, and never leaves it.

Or take:

If a serious statement is defined as one made in terms of waking life, poetry will never rise to the level of seriousness. It lies beyond seriousness, on that more primitive and original level where the child, the animal, the savage, and the seer belong, in the region of dream, enchantment, ecstasy, laughter. To understand poetry we must be capable of donning the child's soul like a magic cloak and of forsaking man's wisdom for the child's.


"Life must be lived as play, playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies, and win in the contest."

Johan Huizinga, folks! All about play -- but not messin' 'round! ✌️

Having made the case for play as a fundamental human instinct and need then, I hope you'll check out these other great quotes, and enjoy them as much as I did, before shimmying on to Story #2:

From Stuart Brown, and "Play":

"Of all animal species, humans are the biggest players of all. We are built to play and built through play. When we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality. Is it any wonder that often the times we feel most alive, those that make up our best memories, are moments of play?"

"What might seem like a frivolous or even childish pursuit is ultimately beneficial. It’s paradoxical that a little bit of “nonproductive” activity can make one enormously more productive and invigorated in other aspects of life."
"Life without play is a grinding, mechanical existence organized around doing the things necessary for survival. Play is the stick that stirs the drink. It is the basis of all art, games, books, sports, movies, fashion, fun, and wonder—in short, the basis of what we think of as civilization. Play is the vital essence of life. It is what makes life lively."
"Ultimately, this book is about understanding the role of play and using it to find and express our own core truths. It is about learning to harness a force that has been built into us through millions of years of evolution, a force that allows us to both discover our most essential selves and enlarge our world. We are designed to find fulfillment and creative growth through play."

Last, an exchange between the author and Bob Fagen, a scholar, and expert on animal play:

Fully aware of his encyclopedic knowledge of animal play, but filled with the spirit of the unfettered joyful moment we had just observed, I asked, “Bob, why do these bears play?”

After some hesitation, without looking up, he said, “Because it’s fun.”

“No, Bob, I mean from a scientific point of view, why do they play?"

"Well, why do birds sing, people dance — for the pleasure of it.”

“But Bob, you have degrees from Harvard and MIT, and an in-depth knowledge of bears. You’re a student of evolution, you’ve written the definitive work on all mammals at play—I know you have more. Tell me, why do animals play?”

After a long, tolerant silence, during which I felt as if he were a sensitive artist having to explain a sublime painting to a tasteless dolt, Bob answered reluctantly: “In a world continuously presenting unique challenges and ambiguity, play prepares these bears for an evolving planet.”
[Mind-blown emoji added: 🤯 ]

And from Huizinga and "Homo Ludens":

"You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play."
"The view we take in the following pages is that culture arises in the form of play, that it is played from the very beginning. Even those activities which aim at the immediate satisfaction of vital needs--hunting, for instance--tend, in archaic society, to take on the play form. Social life is endued with supra-biological forms, in the shape of play, which enhance its value. It is through this playing that society expresses its interpretation of life and the world.”
"The word "school" has a curious history behind it. Meaning originally "leisure" it has now acquired precisely the opposite sense of systematic work and training, as civilization restricted the free disposal of the young man's time more and more and herded larger and larger classes of the young to a daily life of severe application from childhood onwards.” ​
"Our point of departure must be the conception of an almost childlike play-sense expressing itself in various play forms, some serious, some playful, but all rooted in ritual and productive of culture by allowing the innate human need of rhythm, harmony, change, alternation, contrast and climax, etc., to unfold in full richness.” ​


#Play@Work #PlayToMeWorkToYou #ExpertiseAsPlay

Naval Ravikant is an entrepreneur and investor who's takes on career and personal development have amassed him a huge of mostly Silicon Valley-based fans. One of his recurring themes is the concept of "playing games", which he uses as a metaphor for how we approach our careers and lives.

In the quote-graphic above, he asks, "What feels like play to you, but looks like work to others?"

Here is another quote, along the same lines, framed as a statement instead of a question:

"To the experts, what looks like hard work from the outside, is play from the inside."

Naval's point is that whenever you pursue something that aligns with your interests and strengths, it energizes you rather than drains you. So you're more likely to enjoy that pursuit and excel at it. In a work realm then, the quest becomes less about "enduring" a job and more about engaging in something you enjoy.

This notion of our lives and careers as actually "one big game" is a provocative -- and, we have to say, resonant -- idea. We had fun thinking about what feels like play to us, but might seem like work to others -- and hope you enjoy the prompt, too!


#Play@Work #FalseDichotomy #WorkVocab #MakeRoomForPlay

We love this bold call from writer Justin Mares for a new term to describe "work". And we could not agree more with him: we do need a new term for it. Or a new set of terms, perhaps?

As is, the word "work" is just not nuanced enough. It's dated, and insufficient.

Decades ago, in a world of manual agricultural and manufacturing jobs defined by routine, physical labor, and even danger, "work" might have sufficed. And to be clear: work remains physically hard and unenjoyable for hundreds of millions of people all over the world.

But for those privileged enough to work in a knowledge economy -- one defined more than ever by flexibility, variety and creativity -- it feels like our language is trapping us in a false dichotomy: "I am either working, which is not fun; or playing, which is fun". And the implication -- which is a powerful and harmful one -- is that work has to be hard, otherwise, it's not worth doing.

We'll pose a few questions then (and would LOVE to hear from you on any of them):

  • The first relates to our overall theme: to what extent do you get to play, or weave fun and play, into your work?
  • If we all need some form of play, and if play is a requirement of creativity and innovation, then as a leader in an organization, is part of our role not to make space for play? Is it not, even, to try and actively ensure that the work incorporates some element of play?
  • Last, if the term for "work" hasn't kept up with the changes and content of today's work -- what do you recommend we use instead? 🙃

Reply to the email, and let us know what you think!

Thanks for reading. 🙏

Work moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
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