Get Back in the BoxThought Virus #4: Follow the Fun

Here’s another thought bomb from the upcoming book: work should be fun. And the more fun it is – the more truly and rewardly and deeply fun – the more good it will do for the world, and the more prosperity it will bring the player. I mean worker. Don’t follow the money; follow the fun!

In a renaissance society driven by the need to forge connections, play is the ultimate system for social currency. It’s a way to try on new roles without committing to them for life. It’s a way to test strategies of engagement without being defined by them forever. It’s a way to rise above the seemingly high stakes of almost any situation and see it as the game it probably is. It’s a way to make one’s enterprise a form of social currency from the beginning, and to guarantee a collaborative, playful, and altogether more productive path toward continual innovation.

And this play begins at work.

Establishing a playful career or company isn’t as easy as it looks. It doesn’t require expensive consultants, trips to the woods, or the reinvention of a company’s culture based on some abstract ideal. But it does mean going against much of what we’ve been taught about competition and survival – not just in business school, but for the past five centuries! Still, just as people have stopped relating as individuals to their brands and opted instead to become members of brand cultures, producers in a renaissance era must come to think of their companies as collaborative minisocieties, whose underlying work ethic will ultimately be expressed in the culture they create for the world at large.

A Harvard Business School professor told me that more than half of his students leave their corporate jobs within two years, disgusted not just by the company for which they worked, but “the whole world of business.” Invariably, they choose jobs or start their own companies in order to participate in projects they feel offer meaning and fun. In a recent study of American workers by the Radcliffe Public Policy Center, 64 percent said they would prefer more time to more money, and 71 percent of young men said they would give up pay for more time with their families.

In their crude efforts to make work more fun, however, most companies are missing the point. Employers are busy installing foosball tables, hiring chefs, and building gyms for their increasingly disgruntled employees, but these are just ways of trying to make a bad situation more tolerable. (or to coax employees into spending long hours away from home) A foosball table is not the sign of a fun place to work; it’s a glaring symbol that work is not fun and employees need a break. Why would they rather be playing foosball than doing whatever it is they’ve been hired to do?

Many have argued that it’s immature and idealistic to believe that everyone,or even a majority of people,should be allowed to enjoy their jobs. In the words of one dark New York TimesOpEd piece, “We’re still just means of production….Work is often more bearable when we don’t, in addition to money, expect it always to deliver happiness.” The same might be said for life itself, particularly when our duty to perform an economic function extends from what we can produce to what we can consume. Both work and life should be much more than “bearable.”

Luckily, renaissances celebrate immaturity and idealism. The growing field of “neotany” looks at the extended childhoods of species as a sign of their development. The longer an infant is helpless, the more advanced the species to which it belongs. Fish are fully developed from birth, dogs depend on their mothers for a few months, and human beings are helpless for several years. Likewise, the extended time for youth and exploration our society now offers (a full 90 percent of American residents now graduate high school, and more than a third make it through college) means more time for practice, development, and play. Growing up should not mean an end to this freedom to expand and innovate. It can be its rebirth in an entirely new context: that of playful work.