The Division Between Work and Play
We stop understanding Pinguish when we forget how to play. This loss is why we are so depressed and restless when we have nothing to do, no work or task to complete. While play behavior has historically dominated human consciousness and defined human values—in exploration, innovation, or invention—modern society has systemically removed play from the equation by manufacturing and maintaining a dichotomy between work and play.
We have all been participants and accomplices in the organized death of imagination after childhood by removing play from everyday life and work. In doing this, we have created regulated channels where play as profession is subcontracted to specific adult groups—professional athletes, artists, or musicians. They are socially allowed to play, though it is not without a cost to society.
For the rest of us, play and profession do not mix. But without play, the imagination dies, and without imagination, creativity dies. We do not know how to live outside the controls of society or the controls of time. This comes from forgetting how to play. In play, there is no time limit. One of my students recently observed that the Western adult is an “extension of the clock,” and when the clock is not present—say, after retirement—we feel lost and useless. We feel lost because we have no way to search for imaginative possibilities, and useless because imaginative play is considered unproductive in our efficient society. We have taken ourselves too seriously to play as adults.
One possible reason for this lies with the industrial state. When judged from a developmental perspective, the industrial state halts the growth of individuals by erecting barriers all around them after the age of five—barriers that in essence prohibit free play, and with it, the learning and growing opportunities that play affords. The slogan for the industrial state might simply be:
Don’t play with your food!
Observe our lives: At the age of seven, some of us learn how to wear uniforms; at eight, we learn what is work and how it is different from play; at 11, we start learning what kind of work we might do when we grow up; and from the ages of 17 to 24, we learn the specifics of our future work. Once we go to grade school, our imagination is purposefully killed off in an organized and systematic fashion to prepare us for a lifetime of “productivity”—and this is by a group of thoughtful people who have only best intentions and genuine concern for our future.
We are then ready to graduate in the world of “workers,” where we labor five days a week until the age of 65. We work believing in the promise of the Industrial Revolution: productivity, and less labor-intensity leading to more leisure time. Leisure time carries with it the implicit expectation of doing something—of being engaged in something nonproductive. Of being engaged in play.
We are surrounded by devices that we use for repetitive daily chores and leisure. Used for leisure, devices such as automobiles, boats, and home entertainment systems are our tools for nonproductivity. But our adult toys, as they are now popularly called, have atrophied our imaginations. By the age of 65, we may have lost, irretrievably, our ability to play. And we are not talking about physical skills here, as play is mostly an imaginative skill. This—the death of imagination after childhood—is where and why imagination becomes a challenge for adults.
When we as a society tell people what can and cannot be done, we further remove them from possibility, and from the possibilities all around them. There needs to be a balance between what we allow and what we disallow—to teach limits and structures while allowing play to thrive.
People as Outputs
Does all this sound too drastic?
Well, let’s look more closely at how things change as we move from childhood to adulthood. In the kindergarten environment, round tables, cooperative and creative activities, sharing, and looking at one another’s work for inspiration are the norm. The kindergarten is a place that sets limits, but these limits are based on cooperation, imagination, creativity, and play.
After kindergarten, we move into a world in which work and play have been predefined for us—a world where imagination is imprisoned by the system of traditional education and traditional parenting. Don’t play with your food. Recess is playtime. Don’t skate on carpets using plastic bags on your feet. These are just symptoms of a much deeper problem.
Most of us grow up aspiring to work in an office, which is amazing because an office layout, just like that of a factory or prison, is designed to set limits. From job titles to narrow job responsibilities to cubicle workspaces, the norm is to discourage people from using their imaginations, as they were encouraged to do in kindergarten, and to concentrate everyday experience to the performance of tasks that support the larger construct of the organization. Organizational hierarchy defines people by their roles in the performance of tasks. Thus our society defines people as outputs.
In the adult work world, Sophie will not be encouraged to skate on carpets with plastic bags on her feet; she will be told to take the bags off and stop being silly. She will be defined as output. Children like to define and reinvent themselves. The challenge is to continue to do so as adults.
Have you noticed how often we ask people we meet, “What do you do?” As if the person who performs a task is defined by that task. Some people may wish to be defined as the output of their work life, but most do not. Individuals have a richer definition of themselves than that which we attribute to them. Try to define yourself the way you would like people to talk about you. It is not that easy, but worth a try. You will have to reach deep into what is most important to you, and into what symbols represent who you are, rather than what you do—your personal brand, in the most generous and expansive sense of the word.
David Bond, for example, is an upper-level manager in human resources at the U.S. Department of Labor, and a longtime civil servant. David is excellent at what he does. If you met David at a party and asked him what he does, he would probably say, “I’m a human resources manager at the U.S. Department of Labor.” But if you asked him to describe himself the way he would like others to speak of him, the answer would be completely different.” I am an obsessive collector,” he would tell you. “I collect almost anything. My largest collections are of Japanese block prints, Japanese cast iron pots, and almost every DVD ever produced that has anything to do with Japan. I fell in love with Japan early on in life. I speak Japanese and visit there twice a year. Before working in civil service, I taught economics at the University of Tokyo.”
How much of what we feel passionately about—the things that inspire or excite our curiosity and imagination—is found in our daily jobs? For many of us, a gap exists between our role as outputs and our role as humans. As adults, we must retrieve our imagination, integrating it into work by redefining what work can be.