The Powerful Play is Improvised

Errors, mistakes, unexpected problems for which we not only are unprepared but could not possibly prepare come up time and time again in my work as I help people to build stronger relationships with creativity. Today I want to share one of the techniques I've used to explore this challenge.

Several weeks ago I lead a workshop for a group of young people at Trestle Arts Base, in partnership with my good friend Shayla Maddox. The concept was simple – we asked the children to draw a circle in a single stroke, similar to the Japanese enso in that you must complete the circle without removing your pen from the paper and without going back and cleaning up any imperfections. It's worth noting that even this unchallenging request was met with some anxiety, so deeply ingrained is our need for perfection.

The next step was to ask the children to draw inside and around the circle any image they wanted to draw, importantly, to use the flat bits, the wobbly bits, the "mistakes" in the circle as the basis for what they chose to draw. The desired insight was that the children would come to see errors as opportunities for creativity rather than value destroying limitations.

I had three experiences on the day that stuck out to me and I want to recount them here.

A little boy in the group looked despondent when he was finished with his circle. In his words it was "rubbish". A young girl, similarly, was very upset with how flat her circle was at the bottom, how lopsided it was. Finally another girl was irritated by the way her circle spiralled in on itself. At this point all three of these children felt very unhappy with their artistic skills.

This is when I got to feel like a hero (yeah, that is why I do this). To the little boy who's circle was full of irregularities and lumpy bits I said that all those imperfections made his circle, as far as I was concerned, the best one in the room. He was taken aback by this but I told him that I knew he would be able to see something great to draw in that shape. By the end of the workshop he had drawn a giant rhino, the nobly bits serving as his horns and ears.

The girl with the squashed and lopsided circle needed something a little more analytical so I asked her why her circle might be flat at the bottom and leaning to one side. Immediately she brightened and said that it must be sitting on something and, she added, leaning because it's falling off of the edge. By the end of the workshop her circle was indeed sitting on a table and being pushed off the edge by a small figure.

The girl with the spiral circle actually didn't need my help at all. By the time I spoke to her she had already decided that spirals were beautiful and had chosen to draw an intricate pattern growing from that one, inadvertent spiral with which she had begun.

All of these children and the rest who took part, it is my hope, took one lesson away with them; that mistakes can lead to something beautiful. And I have some evidence that at least some of them did internalise the concept.

We were carrying out this workshop specifically because the next weekend these children would be performing at the Fun Palace, a weekend activity for school children. Four of the girls, Erin, Elyse, Elizabeth and Fola, would be performing a show about the early days of midwifery. I was fortunate enough to watch their hilarious rehearsal and I was sure they'd be fine on the day… but disaster struck! Fola was sick and unable to attend (ironic since she was playing a doctor). So the group had to improvise a new show on the spot.

Improvising a show is hard. And they found it hard. But they used the unexpected challenge and, by the end of the day having performed this new show three times, what they had created was possibly better than the original show. This creative challenge might have stopped a group with less robust relationships with creativity.

I'd like to think that, in a small way, being able to think about their circles and how imperfections lead to beauty might have played a part in helping them roll with the changes and make something great out of the unexpected.

Creativity means solving problems under conditions of uncertainty. That's a very nice definition of life, too – solving problems under conditions of uncertainty. In this sense, being strong with creativity is about being powerful in life. I feel very confident that these children, if they maintain their present relationships with creativity, will have no trouble dealing with whatever life brings their way.

Quick Tips for Adding Playfulness to your Playbook

On Monday we discussed playfulness and how being around young people can help bring out your playful side. I argued that simply getting more playful can and does release creativity that would otherwise be locked away, unused; even unsuspected.

If you're following the Hard Not Complicated method then you'll already have at least the start of your Playbook (if you're not then pop me an email and I'll help you get started on it with a free 30 minute consultation). Your Playbook might be a real book or something virtual, it could be in a file full of clippings and a task list or managed in a high tech productivity management app, what matters is that it contains everything you need to start bringing about change through simple games, drills, meditations, simulations and any other habit shifting actions you can imagine.

I call it a Playbook, in part, because I want to remind people that your persona transformation should be fun. But you could just as well infer that fun should be something you should seek to have more of. Here are some quick tips for how to add a bit more play to your Playbook.

  1. Do Things Wrong

Play, in the purest form, let's go of the idea of correctness and enjoys exploring without judgement. But life has, in most cases, squished the joy of this sort of thing out of us by the time we're in our adult years.

Consider adding something to your Playbook that pushes you out of your comfort zone in a completely safe way – like playing a game you've never played before, trying to cook a meal you don't know the first thing about, or taking up a new hobby – and then just relax and do it wrong! See what happens when you throw away the recipe and the instructions and just play.

  1. Join an Improv troupe

Improv is playfulness incarnate and a great way to bring out some serious silliness in yourself. Contrary to what many believe, improv isn't random. It has rules. But when you follow rules in a group, responding with openness and an attitude of support to those around you, what emerges is play.

If you don't fancy joining an improv group, why not just add some improv games to your Playbook? For these you'll need partners to play with but it's well worth it and you can certainly liven up a family dinner or night in with friends with a few rounds of Backwards Interview or Letter Number Name.

[Check out the Improv Encyclopaedia for these and other ideas http://improvencyclopedia.org/games/

  1. Just play more games

It's entirely acceptable for your Playbook to include simply playing games. Board games, computer games, sports – anything that makes you feel more alive, connected in the moment and brings out elements of your personality and thinking style that are otherwise untapped by your daily life can be a way to get more playfulness into you and more creativity out.

I'm particularly fond of games like Charades, Pictionary and Linkee as they each require thinking around obstacles and creative leaps – how to turn words into actions or images and how to find non-obvious connections between answers.

We don't stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing

  • George Bernard Shaw

When you watch a toddler playing with her food or child doodling images on a piece of paper, focused in a way that almost no adult can seem to achieve, you're seeing learning and growth at a fundamental level. And the joy of it is that we enjoy this stuff. Play is how we most naturally learn and playfulness is how we most naturally solve problems.

So play. It's what you were born to do and it's how you discover what you live for.

Quick Tips for Adding Playfulness to your Playbook

On Monday we discussed playfulness and how being around young people can help bring out your playful side. I argued that simply getting more playful can and does release creativity that would otherwise be locked away, unused; even unsuspected.

If you’re following the Hard Not Complicated method then you’ll already have at least the start of your Playbook (if you’re not then pop me an email and I’ll help you get started on it with a free 30 minute consultation). Your Playbook might be a real book or something virtual, it could be in a file full of clippings and a task list or managed in a high tech productivity management app, what matters is that it contains everything you need to start bringing about change through simple games, drills, meditations, simulations and any other habit shifting actions you can imagine.

I call it a Playbook, in part, because I want to remind people that your persona transformation should be fun. But you could just as well infer that fun should be something you should seek to have more of. Here are some quick tips for how to add a bit more play to your Playbook.

  1. Do Things Wrong

Play, in the purest form, let’s go of the idea of correctness and enjoys exploring without judgement. But life has, in most cases, squished the joy of this sort of thing out of us by the time we’re in our adult years.

Consider adding something to your Playbook that pushes you out of your comfort zone in a completely safe way – like playing a game you’ve never played before, trying to cook a meal you don’t know the first thing about, or taking up a new hobby – and then just relax and do it wrong! See what happens when you throw away the recipe and the instructions and just play.

  1. Join an Improv troupe

Improv is playfulness incarnate and a great way to bring out some serious silliness in yourself. Contrary to what many believe, improv isn’t random. It has rules. But when you follow rules in a group, responding with openness and an attitude of support to those around you, what emerges is play.

If you don’t fancy joining an improv group, why not just add some improv games to your Playbook? For these you’ll need partners to play with but it’s well worth it and you can certainly liven up a family dinner or night in with friends with a few rounds of Backwards Interview or Letter Number Name.

[Check out the Improv Encyclopaedia for these and other ideas http://improvencyclopedia.org/games/

  1. Just play more games

It’s entirely acceptable for your Playbook to include simply playing games. Board games, computer games, sports – anything that makes you feel more alive, connected in the moment and brings out elements of your personality and thinking style that are otherwise untapped by your daily life can be a way to get more playfulness into you and more creativity out.

I’m particularly fond of games like Charades, Pictionary and Linkee as they each require thinking around obstacles and creative leaps – how to turn words into actions or images and how to find non-obvious connections between answers.

We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing

  • George Bernard Shaw

When you watch a toddler playing with her food or child doodling images on a piece of paper, focused in a way that almost no adult can seem to achieve, you’re seeing learning and growth at a fundamental level. And the joy of it is that we enjoy this stuff. Play is how we most naturally learn and playfulness is how we most naturally solve problems.

So play. It’s what you were born to do and it’s how you discover what you live for.

Healthy Creative Relationships Through Play

Creativity is a really serious thing. I mean proper serious. As I often say, it’s a survival skill. But evolution is a genius (if by genius we mean entirely lacking in any form of intelligence and working through random mutations within a weighted system that favours mutations which infer a survival and/or breeding advantage on the biological entity in question that is) which is why so many things that are vital for our survival are also fun!

Consider some of our favourite childhood games.

– Hide and Seek

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how the capacity to hide would be a boon to survival. The ability to seek things, be those things our friends, food or potential threats, is similarly useful if passing on your genes is something you’re into.

– Tag

Hiding and seeking here too, with the added layer of acting either as lone hunter or prey within a flock. Why is there such a thrill in evading the one who is “it” in a game of tag? It’s essentially training for evading predators!

– Bulldog

Now, instead of being a lone hunter you get the chance to be part of a pack, hunting down your dwindling prey. What better game to practice collaborative hunting skills?

Fast forward to adulthood and we find creativity boosting habits all over the games we play. And, that is to be expected. We are hard wired to enjoy play that simulates survival skills. Creativity is a survival skill, ergo play that simulates it is fun! QED. Case closed. Hast al vista baby… Etc.

But in this way not all games are created equal, so I’ve compiled a quick list of some of the creativity boosting games I’ve come across to help you choose the best ones and pointed out, to a degree, where they relate to different elements of creativity.

– Taboo

Taboo is a game that calls on players to describe a thing without using the sorts of common words that one would normally use. The aim is to get your partner to say the thing on the card without using those band words.

This is a great way to practice oblique, lateral thinking. Anything that provides you with clear constraints and then requires you to find a different path to your conclusion is exercising your lateral thinking muscles. And since this game is fun and light hearted, it lets you do this without feeling under pressure.

Similar: charades, Pictionary.

– Linkee

This game works through both general knowledge and abstract thinking, neatly exercising both recall and creativity. You’re asked a four questions the answers to which all connect or “link” in some way. You can attempt to make the connection even if you only have two or three of the answers. Sometimes the connections are by type (all types of car, for example) but frequently there are more oblique connections based on homophones or synonyms.

We sometimes use a technique in creativity where we try to force connections between seemingly unrelated things. Linkee similarly works our connection finding muscles. The game also rewards both broad knowledge and deep thinking since you need to not only know an answer but have thought enough about the answer to find different ways to use it in combination with other answers.

– Scrabble

Yeah, this is something you probably didn’t expect to see on this list but let me tell you why Scrabble is a creativity boosting brain builder: functional fixedness.

I talk about this a lot. It’s the mental phenomenon whereby once you see something as one thing, it’s hard to see it as something else. If I hand you a glass with water in it your brain places the label “water holder” on it. This is what it is. If, from that moment, you can’t see it as a thing to shake dice in, a way to listen through walls, a trap for spiders or any of the other uses you could put it to, then you’re stuck in functional fixedness land. Learning to overcome this self imposed mental limitation allows you to see a tree as something both for growing apples on and for climbing, a stick as something for walking and for play acting a sword fight or a paper clip as both a convenient way to keep paperwork tidy and part of a home made jewellery kit.

What does this have to do with Scrabble? To be great at Scrabble you need to see every combination possible. You need to see all the letters in your hand as well as all the combinations on the board as parts in an ever changing and endlessly complex jigsaw. This requires you to hold lots of competing possibilities in your mind while remaining open to seeing new ones and not fixating, making some letters or some combinations stuck in their current configurations, unable to be used as new opportunities arise.

These are just a handful of examples where popular games hold specific value for the creative brain. Over time I’ll add to this list which will be compiled in the “Resources” section of my website.