The Fun Paradox

I’m writing a book on fun at work, and I’ve never been satisfied with the draft title: Fun NOW! My brother and partner in business jestingly added “You will have” before and or die, fool!” after to highlight its silliness, but we were still at a loss to come up with something better.  Fun NOW! referred to the question raised by my Fun Manifesto:  Why wait?  Why wait for fun when you can have fun NOW? But it’s still a silly title.

I have a new draft title, The Fun Paradox, and it’s the subject of this post. It popped into my head one evening as I was examining my previous writings on fun at work and noticed that contradictions and paradoxes were the rule rather than the exception. I think that viewing fun at work as the resolution of a paradox – a paradox in appearance and practice but not in fact – has helped me organize and effectively communicate the power of fun at work.  But what is the Fun Paradox?

The Stereotype is Worst – the Reality is Best

Think back to a memorable occasion where you had fun at work. What were you doing? Was it by yourself or in a group? Was it associated with a notable success, or just another day at work? Do you think your boss approved, and should he have?

If you’re like the majority of people I’ve interviewed, your most memorable fun at work happened while you were working with other people rather than alone, and it happened while you were doing a particularly good job that your boss would have been proud of.  This contrasts markedly with the initial impression most of us have when we think of having fun at work. The stereotype I’ve encountered most frequently is a cross between Pike Place Fish Market and the movie Waiting, a hybrid of burly fishmongers tossing huge salmon across a crowded room combined with busboys hiding in the walk-in sucking the nitrous oxide out of whipping creme cans or smoking ganja by the dumpster.  A cross between desirable but inaccessible playtime and frightening misbehavior – you can’t imagine how you’d turn your workplace into a fish-throwing funhouse, and you really don’t want to encourage the screwups who have fun at everyone else’s expense.

My recent memory of fun at work was sitting at a lab bench when I should really have been parked in my office, working with my crew.  As usual in science labs, we were each working on an independent project, almost completely dissociated from our colleagues except during the weekly lab meeting.  But that day we were all working together while separate, which gradually turned into working together.  Despite the periodic caustic comments of our lab bummer dude, the doubtful “reality” remarks of the lab doubter, and my own focused, uncommunicative efforts of questionable managerial caliber, during the course of that day the total became greater than the sum of the parts.  Later I realized that it’s difficult to not be a group when you’re working as a group:  we can stay alone and seemingly unaware by sticking to our computers, minimizing real human contact, and taking adversarial roles in mandatory contacts, but once you really sit down and start working together, that sort of artificial separation is nearly impossible – and feels stupid – to maintain.

The paradox became clear when our associate, and head of the next-door lab, came out of his cubicle and made disparaging comments about our fun.  We’d become louder as we worked more closely together, there was laughter, and we’d started up the clothespin game.  The clothespin game is an awareness exercise, the point being to clip a clothespin on a player without them noticing it, ideally for long enough that someone outside the group points it out (highest score is given to ‘pins that make it all the way back home before being detected).  Our associate, Rainer, focused very intently on his work with his back to the cubicle opening, and so was a perennial target for clothespinning.  On this occasion he tore apart the ‘pin, broke it, and threw the pieces down, and left saying  some variant of, “Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?”  He saw our fun at work as a complete waste of time, and bad for us (and him) as well.  I, on the other hand, noted that by the end of the day we’d accomplished more than any other day that month, and had gone some way towards mending the damage that the lab doubter, bummer, and I had done over time to lab morale.  We ended up together at a local watering hole after work (including a member of my team who is a Mormon), celebrating the events of the day.  While we did talk quite a bit about the ‘pinning, we also had a more open and productive discussion of our work than we’d had in months of previous lab meetings.

“Laugh While You Can, Monkey Boy!”

If my interviews are any guide, when you walk by a room at work filled with laughing, happy people you assume they’re having a party, taking a break, or getting ready to go out to lunch – anything but working at peak performance.  This cultural bias recurs frequently when we examine fun at work, and is the primary obstacle to overcome if we’re to make work fun and reach our greatest potential.  This bias is far from universal, even within the corporate culture in America,  and many organizations have found through experience that workers having fun are happier and more productive.  I invite you to check out Fun.Com, a company I ran across when I was searching for an available web address.  Admittedly, they’re in a fun business (Halloween costumes), but they get it.  Fun works.

If you still don’t see the Fun Paradox as a paradox, I invite you to take the following challenge:  when you visit a business, as soon as you walk in the door make a guess about how much fun it is to work there.  Don’t wait – go for a snap judgement.  Now do your business, and note how well the place functions.  Is the service snappy, helpful, and good-humored?  Did you get what you want at a good price for great quality?  How was the followup?  Repeat a few times, and I claim that you’ll find a clear association between your snap judgement of how fun the workplace is and your detailed assessment of performance.  I’ve been doing this for a while now, and I find that a single sniff of the air as I walk in the door is enough to give an amazingly accurate measurement of whether I can expect good service, quality products, and great customer support.

We’re amazingly accurate fun detectors, and this is for very sound evolutionary reasons.  Fun is a meta-metric, encapsulating a whole pile of human factors, performance measures, and intangibles into a simple gut feeling.  To use Kahneman’s term from Thinking, Fast and Slow, fun is detected by System 1, and it’s fast.  In my experience, it’s incredibly fast – within a few seconds I can accurately assess fun at a business.  I’ve only had to reassess on a handful of occasions, and invariably to make a harsher judgement after finding that my first contact was a rare flower that could bloom in bad soil.  Try it yourself, and you’ll have taken the first step to resolving the Fun Paradox.

Computer Fun

One day I walked through my old institute, a large, modern laboratory building, meandering the passage that separated the lab spaces on the interior from the study carrels on the outside. Like many modern labs, the outer walls were glass, silhouetting the forms of lab workers at their computers as I walked by. I was shocked to realize that, at any given time, almost 90% of people were at the keyboard, not at the bench.

I shouldn’t have been shocked, since I ran one of the labs in the same building and had experienced this in my own lab, but it had never really struck me how much the computer dominates the workscape. When I went to graduate school, which was a lab apprenticeship after the first year of coursework, the personal computer was a rarity. In the last year of my 6-year stint, my boss bought a Macintosh SE, one of the first cute little beige boxy ‘classic’ Macs, but it stayed in his office, though I did end up using it to write my thesis. Lab work meant working in the lab, manipulating tiny volumes of fluid, applying electrical fields to Jello-like contraptions for separating molecules, and treating sorghum root tips with massive quantities of radioactively labeled amino acids. We wrote in our lab notebooks with a pen, not a keyboard, we plotted our data on graph paper, not in Excel, and we took a break by catching a cup of coffee at the industrial-sized coffee maker in the break room, not by surfing the web.

I suspect that your job has changed just as much as mine did, whether you are old enough to have lived through the change or not.  From retail to manufacturing, maintenance to construction, keyboarding, mousing, or poking a touchscreen has become a significant part of our workday – or all of our workday.  The computer has eaten our lives just as the robot has taken many of our jobs. And, for most of us, it’s not fun.

How do you have fun with computers? How can you make your life as a keyboarding mouser, with the attendant aching wrists, numb fingertips, chronic lower back pain, and bleary eyes, into something other than degrading torture – much less fun?

First, as I discovered during one particularly painful multi-day late-night session writing a grant, sit up straight!  Head up, suck in that gut, and tighten your gluteus maximus (tightening your belly and buttocks muscles straightens your spine). Pull your shoulders UP, and then drop them. Let your arms hang loose, then draw up only your forearms and hover your hands over your keyboard. Keep your wrists straight, both horizontally and vertically, and hover your hands over the keys and mouse – don’t rest your wrists on the table or a pad.  Now go take a walk on the grass.

Then, before you start working, ask yourself if you really must be doing what you’re doing on the computer, or whether you should be doing it at all. When I surveyed my institute – and we’re talking highly trained, Ph.D.-level scientists – the majority of the computer use I observed was dicking around.  Surfing the web. Much of what looked productive – graphing data, reading scientific papers, shopping for labware – could have been done by a secretary, or on a break, or avoided altogether. Having fun with your computer means using it when you choose to, when you need to, or must, or, preferably, want to, not simply staying in your chair because its the default state.

I often ask people whether their job is fun, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to hear that most say their job is at least sometimes fun. I always follow up by asking what’s the most fun part of their job, and the answer invariably includes the word “people.” In one lab I worked in, two guys in adjacent labs and I would play Unreal Tournament on the lab LAN. It was fun, especially when we got one of the guys to smash his desk in frustration and stalk out in a huff, and the reason it was fun was that it was about people. People were on the other end of the Ethernet cable, not a microprocessor. If you want to have fun with your computer, make it about people, not about data entry or web surfing. Bring your colleagues into your digital realm, make a game out of how fast you can punch up your order on the touchscreen or how long it takes you to look up the auto part, show your co-worker your latest data, move the desks together and the cubicle walls out of the way and make it a team party.

Computers have given us many methods to connect to people, and could be a blessing in an increasingly alienated and fragmented world. During my training and professional career, I lived in five different cities and moved more than twenty times. I lost contact with my old hometown friends, made new friends and lost contact, made new friends and repeat. Computers – email, Skype, web pages, Facebook – have helped me connect up again with people I thought I’d lost, but mostly computers have been a lonely solace. A place to interact with something that never goes away unexpectedly (at least now that operating systems are less prone to crash), never denies you, never objects, and never dies. Computers never act hurt, but they also never talk back – though I have had a couple cool, if bizarre, conversations with Siri (try asking her, “Where’s the fun place?”). Don’t ask too much of your computer – put it to sleep and ask a friend instead.