I hammer on my piano in a juvenile fashion. I create a sonic ruckus, play two G♯’s octaves apart, and bask in their harmonics. And then I do the same but with a different note. And I do this for a while, and then I stop, and I return to work. During meetings, I paint using watercolor or create caricatures of the faces I see on my screen. Over the past two years, I’ve emphasized the need for this playful attitude to be activated throughout the day — it has become a mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual elixir to turn to.
This past week, I had the week off of work, and I contemplated the concept of play. We know play in terms of sport or recreation, but those attributes seem to be embellished with connotations subject to fabricated interpretations. It is, what I call, for-profit play. This play typically includes an outcome and revolves around an economy, and its vernacular spews from industries and exploitation.
The play I am referring to is open and flexible, and I do not wish to define it; instead, I seek to understand it and offer it some recognition and tribute. And perhaps inspire you to contemplate what play means to you. Sometimes we must deconstruct definitions in order to reclaim them.
If we observe a dog or a child at play, we notice that to them, there’s an apparent suspension of time and place — a complete submission to the present moment, an impromptu dance. When this play becomes diluted with accolades and recognition, this impromptu dance is stripped of its essence, thus becoming cold and lifeless.
I am reminded of the musician Nick Cave who once rejected a MTV Awards nomination. In his letter he wrote:
Having said that, I feel that it’s necessary for me to request that my nomination for best male artist be withdrawn and furthermore any awards or nominations for such awards that may arise in later years be presented to those who feel more comfortable with the competitive nature of these award ceremonies. I myself, do not. I have always been of the opinion that my music is unique and individual and exists beyond the realms inhabited by those who would reduce things to mere measuring. I am in competition with no-one.
There is something admirable about this self-awareness to deem your playfulness, your work, so precious.
Imagine a singer pursuing a singing career only to be faced with a competitive political industry that favors the charismatic and normalizes a burnt-out culture. Or the painter who is now forced to prioritize marketing in return for success. Indeed, this for-profit play is counterintuitive to the naivety and play witnessed in the child or dog. And while there is value in for-profit play, we should remain vigilant that playfulness isn’t wiped out and replaced with something else. When play is only seen as a means to monetization or capital — it becomes a paradox, a form of treason against itself — a creative blasphemy.
On the other hand, the authentic form of play is an energetic activity free of notions or pressure. It is vital, liberating, spontaneous, wild, ordinary, adventurous, and so forth. It moves beyond a verb to an adjective — it activates an attitude that rejects the irrelevant for the intrinsic. This not-for-profit play is a collaboration between the subject and object(s) and, and it isn’t concerned with victory or status. It arrives from an abundance mindset, totally unafraid. You might dare to call this playful attitude, enlightenment.
It is like the dog fetching a ball, it does what comes naturally to him. You throw the ball, it leaps over fallen trees, ducks underneath branches, jumps into the air, opens mouth, catches ball, drops and rolls, and runs towards you. There’s nothing intellectual in this — it is natural. It is play.
Years ago, I had an idea to start a book club at work. After several rounds of pitching it to leadership, it was approved and running. One of our discussions went so well that it led to a firm-wide initiative. This book discussion included very little planning. It intended to function as a meeting space, a rendezvous, through which to think critically and honestly with a playful attitude.
But because I could not quantify my efforts in true corporate fashion, further book clubs were prohibited because they didn’t (on paper) guarantee tactical outputs. Thus, this playful space died because pressure and expectations were placed upon it. This was, and is, a sort of gaslighting thrust upon play. We will only advocate for you IF you can deliver value. If you can’t, then goodbye.
And the thing about play is that it is non-binary; it doesn’t depend upon success or failure — instead, consider it a process — a gateway into something. What that something is, who knows? The less we know, the more surprises we are bound to encounter and the more dog-like we can be — bringing forth our own set of aerobics and natural responses.
Learning this playful attitude requires embracing ambiguity and naivety with an embodied sense of wonder and curiosity, not for the destination but for the journey. The playful attitude isn’t attached to answers, questions, language, or outcome. It catalyzes ideas, beginnings, and connections. It leads to a shift in our environment that can drive a shift in culture.
This playful attitude runs parallel to what might be referred to as enlightenment or waking up. It is coming to terms with the realization that the alternative to this attitude is: defensiveness, withdrawal, selfishness, resistance, aggression, resentment, the list goes on. It leads to a jadedness in which we forget the reason why we started singing or painting or catching balls in midair. So go out, arm yourself with a medium, plop yourself before a canvas (any kind) and see what comes forth. And then carry this attitude in everything you do (even the quotidian).
Question for you, the reader
What does play mean to you?
It’s good to stay out in the rain today
Cos nothing matters
When everyone else is crazy
Fierce wind blowing everything
Let’s play a game in the rain
Grinning like an idiot
Out In The Rain • Michael Rother
Beginner’s Mind | A Playlist
This newsletter has a playlist that accompanies each issue. If you follow the playlist on Spotify, it will regularly update with the latest tracks.
Out In The Rain Michael Rother
Mirror Lake Angus MacRae
Pinô Otto A. Totland
Gone The Cure
Thank you for reading.
Excellent essay. I enjoyed every bit of it.
I have thought of play as being akin to a state of flow that is not result oriented, the focus being on the process itself instead. Your emphasis on positive attitude is spt on, and I would assume that it has something to do with pleasures of being in the flow state. Enjoyment the self experiences in interacting with the world while remaining as a liquid (and not stiff) yet process bound being.
Thanks for this food for thought!