Columns, Imagine That

How about if …

Grayson (age seven) led five adults outside for a compelling sidewalk game involving sticks, rocks and totally improvised rules. You could be “declared a millionaire” if, on one toss, you could get your rock to bounce into and out of two squares, outlined by sticks, and have it continue over a long stick at the end of the sidewalk. Grayson was in his element orchestrating game interaction. New rules were prefaced with the phrase, “How about if…” To some this may have seemed idle play but for a healthy brain of any age, this is important work.

Nearly every one of us starts out playing quite naturally. Whatever “rules” there are to play, we learn from our playmates or we make them up. And from our play we learn how the world works, how to collaborate, and how to create. We learn about the mystery and excitement that the world can hold in a tree house, an old tire swing, or some sticks and rocks.

Michael Mann

Successful play

At some point as we get older, we begin to feel guilty for such “non-productive” activity, so our play evolves to things that are mostly very organized, rigid, or competitive. The demands of daily living begin to get in the way of “free” play.

The beneficial effects of getting just a little true play can make us more productive and happier in everything we do.

The beneficial effects of getting just a little true play can spread through our lives, actually making us more productive and happier in everything we do. Play is becoming increasingly recognized as an important component of success.

For example, Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has been the United States’ premier aerospace research facility for more than 70 years. You might say that JPL invented the Space Age. These researchers could always be relied on to say, “We can do that.”

As the lab neared the millennium, the group of engineers and scientists who had started in the 1960s — those who put men on the moon and built robotic probes to explore the solar system — were retiring in large numbers. And even though JPL hired the best from top engineering schools, the new hires were often missing something. They found that the newly-minted engineers might excel at grappling with theoretical, mathematical problems at the frontiers of engineering, but they didn’t do well with the challenges of taking a complex project from theory to practice. The new engineers couldn’t spot the key flaw in one of the complex systems they were working on, toss the problem around, break it down, pick it apart, tease out its critical elements, and rearrange them in innovative ways that led to a solution.

The capacity to imagine

JPL management analyzed the problem and concluded that, when hiring, they were looking at the wrong data. The JPL managers went back to look at their own retiring engineers and found a pattern. They found that in their youth, their older, problem-solving employees had taken apart clocks to see how they worked, or made soapbox derby racers, or built hi-fi stereos, or created complex games. The young engineering grads that had also done these things were adept at the kinds of problem solving that management sought. Those who hadn’t, generally were not. From that point on, JPL made questions about applicants’ youthful projects and play a standard part of job interviews.

The JPL managers discovered there is a kind of magic in play. A little bit of “nonproductive” activity can make one enormously more productive and re-energized in other parts of life. Once we understand what play does for us, we can learn to bring a sense of excitement and adventure into life, make work an extension of play, and engage fully with the world.

That is the genius of a healthy 7-year-old boy. Imagine that!

Mike Mann is an award-winning storyteller (www.storymann.com), a speaker for the MediaWise Movement, and a father of four, including daughter Laura, with whom he regularly collaborates on “Imagine That!” She is a student in Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas. This column was written by Mike.

© Michael Mann, 2010, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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