work is play – what I learned from kickball

When I get the opportunity to work with larger, corporate clients I often hesitate, even cringe. My main reason for deciding to pursue a non-traditional career was because most corporate cultures are just too dysfunctional for my tastes. Bad behavior, internal politics, and power plays are often rampant in corporate environments, and no matter how long I usually succeed in avoiding them, I eventually either get pulled into them or fed up with them. Besides, I have my health to consider. Even though corporate gigs tend to pay well and offer more perqs, what good is it if I’m increasing my stress and blood pressure in the process? In short, I’m not dying to work.

Which is why I often prefer to work as an independent contractor (aka, freelancer). As an independent, I’m essentially a company of one, so any dysfunction is all my own. I can deal with that. But the downside is that, as a freelancer, I usually work alone. In my home office. With no one else for company other than the voices in my head.

As entertaining as those voices are, I like working with other people. Especially if they’re smart and talented. There’s something very motivating, inspiring, and well… fun about working on a common objective with people who have the talent and the drive to make it happen with you. I guess you could say, I like working with people who take their work seriously but don’t take themselves seriously.

That’s the basis of my primary philosophy about work: ‘work is play’.

I tend to view work very similar to the way I viewed recess in elementary and middle school. Back then, the playground game of choice for me and my classmates was kickball. We’d play every day without fail. It was less a game, and more like a recurring chapter in the ongoing daily saga of our pre-teen lives. Two people would be appointed team captains, and the captains would choose teams, making sure each team had a couple of really good kickers, a pitcher, at least 1 person with a good throwing arm, and some really, really fast runners. Once the teams were decided, the rules of play were agreed to – no bunting; you have to tag somebody out, not hit them with the ball; the foul zone was between the edge of the pavement and the monkey bars. Eventually, play would begin. Each game had its high points and low points, conflicts and petty arguments. There would be hilarious moments when something ridiculously funny would happen, and when recess ended, we’d recount the game’s highlights long after that day’s winner and loser had been decided.

Reflecting on those playground sessions has helped me realize some important facts about work and working that I consider fundamental principles of my ‘work is play’ philosophy. Namely:

The best teams have a diverse mix of people.

If everyone on the team were the same type of player, it wouldn’t be much of a team. The teams that I’ve had the most fun with and learned the most from were those that were made up of people with backgrounds, cultures, and interests quite different from my own. Besides, it makes water cooler conversations a treat, to say the least.

Be clear about the rules can you live with / without.

In kickball, some of the rules were standard for the game itself, others evolved as we played the game repeatedly. It’s only by playing a few games that you get a feel for which rules you prefer and which ones you absolutely have to have. I tend to prefer working in situations where the rules of play aren’t as rigid as most. Flexible work hours, casual attire, a short commute – these are some ‘rules’ I prefer, but aren’t absolute deal-breakers. But frequent travel, lack of autonomy, and weekends in the office are work rules that just don’t work for me.

It’s just a game.

Play stops being fun when games are taken too seriously. The game is a part of life. It isn’t life itself. You are not a great person because you are a great kickball player, anymore than you are a great person because you are a high-level executive. The position you hold in the game is not the source of your power or strength or worth. It is the qualities and traits that you bring to the position. If and when the game ends, you will still possess the qualities and traits that make you who you are. In short, the game should neither consume nor define you.

The game can go on without you.

You don’t always have to be in the game. I remember a period during middle school when, instead of playing during recess, I would sit by myself and read or write in my journal. This went on for months. Then one day, I decided I’d had enough and went back to play. Not much had changed with the game since the last time I’d played, and I returned to the daily routine as if I’d never left. It’s okay to sit out a few rounds, if you need and want to. Take time away from the game to do something for yourself, with yourself, or by yourself – especially if it’s something that will make you a better player when you return to the team. Not only can the game go on without you, but you can go on without the game.

After-game reflection is almost as important as the game itself.

Conflict was an inevitable part of almost every playground kickball game. Occasionally, tempers would flare so high that there would still be tension after recess was over. Fortunately, the class immediately following recess was one in which our teacher would take time to help us work through any unresolved issues. Because our class was so small and close-knit, it was important that our relationships remained intact. Our teacher (a truly wise woman), gently forced us to reflect on our own behavior and that of our classmates, so we could grow in our understanding of each other, and ultimately go back to play another day. Taking time to reflect after every job or project is essential. It gives me the chance to assess how well I performed, what I might do differently next time, and what lessons I learned from any conflicts or issues that arose during play. After-game reflection is the #1 way to get better each time you play.

When I think back on those childhood kickball games, I realize that all of those playground maneuverings, all of the wins and the losses, and the occasional accidental injuries were teaching us how to work together, how to navigate relationships, and how to achieve a common goal with a group of not-so-common people. For me, work serves the same purpose – it’s the ‘playground’ where I show up to contribute my talents, to learn something, and to have fun in the process.

Once you’re able to approach your work with the mindset of play, you open up the potential for some serious learning experiences, simply by not taking everything so seriously. In work as on the playground, you have the ultimate say in what game you’re playing and what rules you play by.