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.

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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.

Maybe being a mum really would make you a better prime minister

Those following the turbulent political goings on in the UK over the last few weeks may be forgiven for not catching every little controversy, conspiracy or cockup. There have been rather a lot. One particular faceplant got the chattering classes chattering extra chattily and that was one the then candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party, Andrea Leadsom, made a rather silly comment.

In an interview with The Times Leadsom suggested that, being a mother, she would make a better PM than her rival, Theresa May, who is childless. She felt that motherhood gave her a greater and more direct stake in the future of the nation.

This assertion was, to put it mildly, frowned upon by pretty much everyone. Feminists, mothers, unmarried and childless men and women, Tories, liberals, socialists. It didn't go down well.

But I'm starting to believe she may have had a point. Not the point she thought she had (which was utterly stupid) but a different one. I'm thinking that maybe, being a parent, could make you a better leader not for any silly reasons like "a stake in the future" but simply by dint of making you more creative.

Just over a week ago my wife and I hosted three of our niblings; Rya, 15, and Max and Amy, 12. We took them to an event called Hyper Japan, a celebration of Japanese and Asian culture. I'm rather proud that Rya has grown into such a little geek and helped bring her younger siblings along for the ride. I feel it's my influence at work. I showed her her first anime, you see. But I digress.

During the visit I learned a lot about Japan, the broad differences between J-Pop and K-Pop and how, despite my best efforts, I have definitely grown up (or at least some version of it). But I also noticed how being around young people and new helped reawaken my playfulness. This manifested in something entirely trivial which I will illustrate below.

This is a small wooden kitten that lives in our conservatory.

This pose is supposed to look playful and cute but I've always hated it because, to me, this looks like the kitten has just been shot in the chest and is currently bleeding out while calling for help.

I had never realised that it was possible for this kitten to look any way other than this. But for some reason, on Sunday morning, the day after Hyper Japan and having had my head filled with playful, strange and interestingly youthful behaviour for more than a full 24 hours, I had a breakthrough.

I did this.

I realised that I could make the kitten breakdance.

I told you this was trivial but stay with me here.

I often talk about the easy relationship children seem to have with creativity. In children this is manifest in playfulness most often. Playfulness lightens things, loosens them, broadens them. And it rubs off. Just spending a weekend with my nieces and nephew helped me to feel playful. Just a moment of playfulness helped me to see something differently. Something trivial but then that's what I was focused on. I've no doubt that, had I been trying to solve a big, crunchy problem at the time, I would have found this playful feeling helpful there too.

Which brings me back to my initial thought – perhaps parents really do have an advantage when it comes to leadership?

We know that leadership is a creative activity. Remember our working definition of creativity: problem solving under conditions of uncertainty. Well, you can't get much clearer an example of that than leading people. People are, above all else, complex and unpredictable, that's some uncertain conditions for you.

Since playfulness is a key component of creativity, and if spending time with children makes you more playful at heart, it would follow that being a parent might indeed make you a better leader and, potentially a better prime minister.

Of course, if there's even a smidgen of truth in this whole thing then that sets up an interesting imperative; not only do we need to do more to get more parents into the workplace, we also need to do more to get more leaders to spend more time with children – their own or otherwise.

That means valuing and celebrating family time and lots and lots of mentoring and educational outreach work in schools, including with younger children. It's not just good for the kids to get exposure to accomplished professionals. In fact, the adults might be getting the better end of the deal.