Play in the Life
Sarah Filman is a leadership coach, facilitator, improviser, and Topknotter. She founded Playful Perspectives to help individuals, leaders, and teams thrive by dissolving the work/play divide.
As someone who leads with playfulness as a foundational aspect of my work identity, I will admit that I am not feeling very playful lately. I am frequently grumpy, occasionally whiny, and likely depressed. So on top of all the uncomfortable feelings of downness, I worry I’ve added a layer of inauthenticity to my work, too. A fake! A fraud! A true sad clown.
But then, through the heaviness, a voice in me channels my mentors in play. They remind me that play is about discovering and co-creating with what is actually present, not what I wish or think should be there. It’s certainly not about fixing. Fixing is outcome-oriented and even the word coming out of my mouth feels harsh and like work.
Play is about exploration, curiosity, and experimentation. Play doesn’t have to imply feeling happy or being surrounded by others with their heads tilted back in unbridled laughter. The stock photo of play is very one-dimensional (technically, two-dimensional, but definitely not three).
So meet my new playmates: Meh, Blech, and Ugh. Meh is the resigned “not today” as my eyes and pen pass over the todo item to check in on my credit card statement. Blech is the frustrated “seriously?!” as I mindlessly open Instagram again mere seconds after closing it. Ugh is the sad sigh every time I open the bathroom mirror and reach for my orange bottle of pills.
With my true definition of play in mind, I focused on Ugh. For context, I have Crohn’s Disease and a couple of months ago I was prescribed a new medication that I’ll have to take three times a day for the rest of my life. I’m used to taking medication twice a day, but that third afternoon slot was new for me, and I felt deflated every time I had to stop what I was doing, squeeze my hand down on the safety top, and throw a couple back. At the heart of it, I felt sick.
After a few weeks of this and deciding that I could not sustain this spike in angst during the workday, I asked myself the question of “how can I approach this more playfully?” Taking my cue from a classic improv/theater game, I met up with Ugh for a playdate and told myself that what I was looking at was anything BUT medicine. So what was it instead? The bright blue pills became:
- float tanks for fruit flies (gross 🤢)
- time capsules for a family of squirrels (better 🧐), and
- a handful of Mike and Ike’s Candy (tasty! 🤤).
Yes, they definitely looked like candy. With that in mind, I imagined how much more eager I’d be to reach for the pills if I felt like I was reaching for a box of candy. One trip to CVS later, I had an empty box of Mike and Ike’s that I was filling up with my pills and returning to my medicine cabinet in my (important detail) child-free home.
Do I really believe that the pills I’m taking are candy? No, of course not. And I also didn’t eliminate or “fix” my feelings of being sick with a chronic illness. Both because there wasn’t anything broken with those feelings to begin with, and also because there’s an invitation in those feelings to further process what the diagnosis means for my life and what needs to change to best support my health. But now, when I open up the medicine cabinet, I’m also reminded of my creativity, my playfulness, and my agency. My power to experiment and move beyond stuckness. My ability to look beyond either/or thinking and embrace the beautiful complexity of the both/and. It’s brought me more towards a sense of balance.
Tag, you’re it 😉
It’s your turn! For the situations that are dragging you down and leaving you feeling anything but playful, here are a handful of powerful questions and activities that can help you create new possibilities for yourself and others around you. If some seem silly, that’s because they are! Say hello to the silliness and see what it has to say.
- How can I approach this more playfully? 🤸♀️
- If a creature from outer space was witnessing this situation, what would they guess is happening? 👽
- If a cave person time traveled to this moment, how would you describe what is happening in simple, one-syllable words? ☝️
- Write a poem or haiku about it! ✍️
- Create or craft something related to your situation e.g. a sticker chart, a bedazzled box, a post-it note for your mirror 🎨
- If your situation was a game, what are the rules? How do you win? Are there cheat codes? 🎲
All of these questions and activities support solo or multi-player mode, so grab a buddy if you’re feeling stuck and see what you can come up with together! To play is to be human, and you deserve some more “play in the life.”
What about play in the (work) life? If you’re looking for purposeful play in your leadership practice, join Sarah for Leading with an Improv Mindset, a small-group coaching experience kicking off in May 2023 to support your development as a confident and resilient leader.