Let's Play!

The intricate dance of work and play in the creative process

I came across this quote two weeks ago and couldn’t stop thinking about it.

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”

– L.P. Jacks

A child of immigrants, the “work hard, and you’ll succeed” ethos became a fixture of my childhood. When I floundered in math class during middle school, my father drilled me on the multiplication tables every morning. Every time he held up the flashcard, I yawned and gave him an answer that was usually wrong. No matter how I tried, 8 x 7 = 56 didn’t stick. (I had to Google that.) To my father’s eternal disappointment, I never mastered the multiplication tables. Always a mediocre student, my math teachers would smile and call me a hard worker without further comment.

Something changed when I took an advanced calculus class my senior year, a course I squeaked into by taking a placement test that required me to spend my winter break studying. Calculus captivated me in a way that trigonometry and geometry had never done. It was … fun. Derivatives, logarithms, and integrals, oh my! It was all fascinating to me. Part of the appeal came from their sheer spatiality of it with all of the graphs and dynamic changes. Another part was my teacher, a hilarious man who let me place bets on soccer matches during class. The most important part, however, was the fun of it. I could finally play—fiddle with my TI-83 to get cool graphs—instead of rote memorization. Perhaps this is why I scored top marks on my AP exams after finishing an hour early. I felt relaxed about math for the first time in my life, and I finally figured out how the multiplication tables worked.

I didn’t become a math whiz or even close, but I learned the importance of play and fun in learning.

Play is far more than trifling games. It imbues you with a sense of wonder and enthusiasm, giving you the energy to pursue whatever you want. Momentum is everything in a creative pursuit. Without it, how can you sustain yourself through the arduous process of achieving mastery? A playful mindset also allows you to take risks and experiment since things aren’t so outcome-dependent. An experiment gone awry isn’t a mistake, just something that didn’t work out as planned (and something you can learn from!). This sense of—dare I say it?—whimsy gives you a mind free of anxiety and self-consciousness. Play, in this way, is an essential ingredient to creativity.

The word work inspires nearly the opposite sentiments. Work is serious business where results count for everything. Goals must be set and met. Schedules to which you must adhere. With someone monitoring you, you start to think of mistakes as bad things to be avoided. Productivity! Just looking at these sentences makes me feel anxious and uptight. Don’t believe me? Just go to any performance evaluation at a large corporation. Work means diligence, commitment, and efficiency. All these productivity self-help books say so.

Work bad, play good, right? My inner brown-noser rebelled at that thought. Maybe it’s my immigrant stripes showing, but I can’t help thinking, “That can’t be right! Work must be important or everyone would shut up about it, right?” Had my father swallowed the Kool-Aid of American success and given me a healthy cupful? Or was I oversimplifying things?

I realized that I had somehow developed a false dichotomy where you must be all work and no play or all play and no work. The minister L.P. Jacks would vehemently disagree with that. What he suggests is that a true master does both. They both serve important purposes. Levity allows for experimentation and creativity while maintaining a sense of serenity. A more work mindset lets you persevere when the going gets hard and develop the skills of a fine craftsperson. Too much of one won’t get you anywhere. Too much play will leave you with scores of unfinished projects. You grow anxious and risk-averse if you stay too long in the work mindset, neither of which helps your mental health or long-term output. (Constant anxiety is a recipe for burn-out.) The trick, of course, is figuring out when to play and when to work.

I imagine that the ideal scenario will involve me oscillating between the two. At the beginning of any writing project should be full of playfulness. I can tinker with different approaches and ideas, knowing that there’s no such thing as wrong at this stage. When things get more difficult as they always do and messy, I put on my work cap and keep on marching. My inner play comes back as I revise my writing, keeping things light so I don’t get mired in self-doubt. My work hat comes back out at the final stretch of any writing project: the tedious work of removing unnecessary words and polishing my language. All of the above elements are key for any successful writing (or creative) project. Too much play means that you might not be polishing your work enough. Too much work means that something’s wrong–that maybe you’re going in the wrong direction or haven’t experimented enough.

Play and work give you very different mindsets. One focuses on experimentation and momentum. The other gets stuff done, even if it’s really, really not fun. Both have their time and place. It takes true discipline to master the balance.

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