The Most Important Part of Writing

Is your own voice . . .

. . . and no more

14 03-23 Boring Man

I’ve been writing professionally for many years, but in a very specialized field.  Academic science.  It’s like writing for a Noh play, or in an especially restrictive and complicated form of poetry like the sestina. Formulaic just doesn’t do it justice.

There’s very little place for your voice in a scientific manuscript or grant.  In fact, the ideal is perfect objectivity – no “I” allowed.  Now that I’m no longer in academia, I’ve had to make a huge adjustment.  I must be in my writing.  I must be my writing.

My new work is to help people bring their work to fun.  Predictably enough, we’ve taken a scientific approach.  Our team does research, surveys, proposes and tests hypotheses, and analyzes. It’s no coincidence that the first part of “analyze” is “anal.”

But I ran into a wall.  Fun is the opposite of objective.  The best definition I ever came up with is:  Fun is what’s happening when you know you’re having fun.  Uh oh.  We can measure subjective data, and analyze it, but you can’t send a series of methods for fun across the country and have it work the same way in San Francisco as it did in Columbus.

I tried.  There are common factors, general principles, perhaps even a Grand Unified Theory of Fun (not).  It was uncomfortable for me to confront a challenge that was truly different from my previous work, so I just went on doing it the old way.  Pick it apart, define it rigorously, be as objective as possible.

It wasn’t fun.  And the writing was boooooooooring!  It was Captain Fun telling you how to have FUN!  I had some fun writing it, but less and less as I got tired of those three keystrokes.  It was preachy, and bossy, and not very fun.

Late one night I had a flash of insight.  Here’s part of what I wrote to my partners:

I’ve sat and thought, and realized I’ve made a basic mistake.

I’ve mistaken intellectual understanding for personal knowledge.  I’ve forsaken the power of the personal narrative for a scientific analysis.

Today a 26 year old French journalist was killed in Africa.  And hundreds – nay, thousands – of other Africans died today before their 26th birthday.

We need to speak to people in the midst of tomorrow’s famine, abominations, or . . . just the anticipation of a maybe tornado.

My suggestion is that we speak directly, personally, and unabashedly about what we think needs to happen to have fun.

My writing needed me, not my objective opinion.  I realized too that my former writing was not objective – it was formulaic and boring.  Machines didn’t do the science, or pick through the data, or make the conclusions.  I did.  My colleagues did.  Human beings did.

Human beings live by stories.  We organize our thoughts in stories, make sense of the world as a story, and remember our experiences as stories.  Stories have heroes, and challenges, and a plotline, and an ending that flows from those elements (along with the boy-meets-girl part).  They don’t often involve sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture.

Stories need a storyteller.  The voice that comes across the campfire out of the darkness.  The most compelling stories are told in the voice of someone who was there.  Listening to my father tell of meeting my mother, or fighting in the Philippines during World War II, was better and more compelling than any great short story.

I realized that it was my voice that was muted.  I had to come out of my scared little shell and speak my self.  I might be rejected.  Boo hoo.  But I’ll never be accepted until I tell my own story.

The Simplest Way to Have Fun at Work

Just Be Polite

and that means giving your time.

Polite Sticky Holds the Door for a StrangerI now live in central Ohio. Just after my move from Michigan, the first thing I noticed was how friendly everyone was. How polite. Michiganders are also friendly and polite, but Ohioans are more so.

I saw how polite affected people’s mood, enthusiasm, and work ethic. For example, in Columbus people of both sexes and all ages hold open doors. Try it. I do it all the time now – pointedly hold open a door for whomever follows me. A few people seem put off or ignore me, but most crack a smile and say, “Thanks!”

I recently saw a friend of mine walk into a store and drop the door onto the woman who followed. I’m sure my friend didn’t notice the woman behind him, wasn’t being intentionally rude. And it wasn’t as if the door hit her. However, the look on that woman’s face was brief but priceless. There was dismay, disgust, and a flash of feeling rejected.

That’s the reason polite is required for fun. Polite is the difference between, “Thanks!” and dismay, a smile and feeling rejected. The door woman knew my friend hadn’t done the drop on purpose, but the effect was almost as powerful as if he’d slammed it in her face. To her, the unintentional failure to make a polite gesture was the same as being intentionally rude.

But my experiences in Ohio were more than simple politeness. More than saying, “Thank you.” “Please.” “Have a nice day.” Ohioans, or at least Columbians (that seems a natural term for natives of Columbus), show a sincere interest. More to the point, they take the time to show their interest.

Others have noted the relationship between time and polite, have noted how hustling New Yorkers are less polite than drawling Texans. However, the time I’m talking about doesn’t mean you have to be late for your appointment. The time I’m talking about is your time. You have to give away your time to be truly polite.

Giving your time means not being on the cell phone, or wrapped up in your thoughts, or worried about whether you’ll make your destination on time. Or simply not caring. Giving your time means that the strangers that move through your life are not mannequins, or obstacles to be avoided on the way to the big prize. They’re fellow travelers, and worth your attention.

I’m on a first name basis with everyone at my local gas station, grocery store, and every other establishment I enter more than once. And many I only enter once. It’s as simple as making eye contact, smiling, and being polite. In fact, I think it’s pretty much just making warm eye contact. You know what warm eye contact is. We’re all very good at reading eyes.

Be a jerk, and people treat you like one. Be anonymous, and you will be. But try holding the door for a dude (it doesn’t matter whether you’re one or not), and he’ll look at you. And, if you make eye contact and smile, so will he. And he’ll say, “Thank you,” and you’ll nod and smile. He’ll walk in first, and you’ll probably pointedly avoid each other’s eyes (so you both know it wasn’t a come-on). Nevertheless, a little bit of your day is now a treasured memory.

Or, you could be a jerk. Slide in ahead, and open the door just enough to make a tiny impression on him. That you don’t care. That he’s furniture in your world.

You may think, “Why should I care? Who is this random stranger to me? I’ll never see this person again.”

You’ll also probably never again see the big black bear that wanders into your backyard. But, if he did, you’d certainly pay attention, and be polite. Why do we treat our fellow man less respectfully? And why treat our colleagues with less focus than a wild animal?

The Fun Paradox – Some Exercises for the Reader

The Fun Paradox

Solving the Paradox of Fun (at) Work

This post is a chapter (or other small section) from my new book, The Fun Paradox.  I’m posting my book in advance of publication because I want to hear from you.  I want your fun thoughts, your fun experiences, your fun expertise – your help!  I believe that fun is one of the most powerful forces for good in the Universe, and that we need an army to conquer the forces of no fun to bring more goodness and sunshine into an increasingly dreary world.  I hope you will join me, and the first step is to read a post and make a comment.  Or contact me, or write your own post!  I can’t do it alone, and welcome your contributions.

This post is a couple of exercises for the reader.  I tell you beforehand that they’re designed to invoke fun, something we’ve discovered is essential to make it real for individuals.    If you want to go back and read from the start of the book, click here.  As always, I welcome your comments and contributions:

STicky the FUNman in

What’s YOUR story of Fun?

This is the first appearance of STicky the FUNman in ‘print,’ and he’s here to help you have fun while telling your own story of fun at work.  Take a look at the STickys:

STicky the FUNman

How to Select Your Own STicky the FUNman Fun-at-Work Story

Look over the STicky at Work panels and pick a few that resonate with your own memories of fun at work and the process you had to go through to get there.  Then pick three panels and give them titles:

  • Panel 1: _________________________________________________________
  • Panel 2: _________________________________________________________
  • Panel 3: _________________________________________________________

That’s it!  You can write more to make it more of a narrative, but don’t do it if it isn’t fun.  Now think over your STicky STory and imagine how it could inform your next effort to make work fun.  You may be surprised at how much you already know about making fun happen.

The Magic List of 15

Another exercise that I highly encourage, both for its usefulness and because it really can be fun to do is the Magic List of 15.  It’s really simple (most fun things are) – just write down 15 things that were fun for you at work.  They can be general (“Talking with my colleagues”) or specific (“Writing TP reports”), but get them down.  The first five are usually easy, the second harder, and that last five is where you really drill down.  Try it.  You may be surprised by what comes out when you look deep.

 

The Fun Paradox – Fun on the Label Isn’t

The Fun Paradox

Solving the Paradox of Fun (at) Work

This post is a chapter (or other small section) from my new book, The Fun Paradox.  I’m posting my book in advance of publication because I want to hear from you.  I want your fun thoughts, your fun experiences, your fun expertise – your help!  I believe that fun is one of the most powerful forces for good in the Universe, and that we need an army to conquer the forces of no fun to bring more goodness and sunshine into an increasingly dreary world.  I hope you will join me, and the first step is to read a post and make a comment.  Or contact me, or write your own post!  I can’t do it alone, and welcome your contributions.

This post is the start of a section that talks more about what fun at work is (and isn’t).  If you want to go back to the start of the book, click here.  I welcome your comments and contributions:

 

When it says Fun! on the label

what’s inside usually isn’t.

When I made my last move to Columbus, Ohio to start a position as a research scientist, I rode with a friend to pick up a new Toyota Prius from the dealer. We’d arrived in the late afternoon, and by the time all the paperwork had been completed (and the inevitable hard sell for the extended warranty refused), it was well past dinner time. While they did the final prep on the car, we dashed over to a nearby sports bar to grab some pub grub and a couple of beers. Neither of us were particularly jolly by this time, and I remember that we joked about the “A Fun, Casual Joint!” motto on the large and garish sign over the entrance. The joke lasted all through the meal and beers, since the bar had nothing whatsoever that evoked any real fun in us, or, going by behavior, in any of the other customers or staff. The service was slow and inexperienced, the food was bad to indifferent and lukewarm at best, and the beer tasted like it had been sitting in the lines for a week. “A FUN place!” kept circling around until we were almost falling off our chairs laughing at the absurdity. The bar turned out to be fun for us, but only in an inverted, ironic way.

Trying to invoke fun by slapping on a label is the reason that most efforts to make work fun fall flat. On the flip side, it’s the reason that many things we do to bring fun to work are briefly fun, but don’t change anything once the party is over. I call this external fun, the kind of fun that arrives (or doesn’t) when the special party hats are distributed, the pool table is installed, or the whole department takes their two day retreat for ‘team building.’ It’s fun that comes from objects or activities that are stereotypically fun: googlie-eye glasses, bright paint schemes, whimsical interior decorating, a volleyball game. They work in the short term because they invoke internal fun, shifting our relationships, attitudes, and motivations to match our expectations. If everyone has a party hat on, it draws us into a different state of mind. Unfortunately, that state of mind is transitory in the absence of real changes in the structure and relationships in the workplace – once the party hats get put away, there go the cues that drew out the changes in behavior.

Think of Dickens’ Scrooge from his A Christmas Carol, the epitome of a bad boss. If Bob Cratchit had walked into their cramped, cold office on Christmas Eve to see the place decked out in cheerful decorations, his spirit would have lifted. However, if Scrooge’s behavior was unchanged, that state would have evaporated before he picked up his pen. Real fun, lasting fun, is like the Christmas spirit in Dickens’ immortal tale: it takes a real change of heart.

Internal fun is a rather cumbersome piece of jargon, and I won’t be using it after this chapter ends – but it does accurately describe the kind of change that’s required to make work fun. Making work fun is no quicker or easier than making your work more productive, effective, creative, or innovative, and it requires changes that are just as deep – because fun is essentially synonymous with more productive, more creative, &etc. You can get a more productive workplace without invoking fun, but if you get the whole package at once – more productive and creative and innovative – it will be associated with more fun. And vice versa. And just as you wouldn’t expect to be able to bring in party hats and have that yield a 10% increase in bottom line by month’s end and a boost in employee retention and progress on new projects, you shouldn’t expect a series of small and surface efforts to yield significant differences in the amount of fun in your workplace. It takes hard work, sustained effort, and belief by the whole organization that it’s desirable enough to warrant the expenditure of significant time, effort, and resources.

Beware the sign that reads, “Fun!” If your place isn’t fun, reminding people of fun just highlights how little they’re having there. I suggest you take down the sign and work on the basics instead. You might start by giving the next person you meet a compliment: it will make you more fun than tattooing your face ten times with “Fun!” Actually, tattooing “FUN!” on your face might work – and if you do, please send me a photo.

The Fun Paradox – A Definition of Fun

The Fun Paradox

Solving the Paradox of Fun (at) Work

This post is a chapter (or other small section) from my new book, The Fun Paradox.  I’m posting my book in advance of publication because I want to hear from you.  I want your fun thoughts, your fun experiences, your fun expertise – your help!  I believe that fun is one of the most powerful forces for good in the Universe, and that we need an army to conquer the forces of no fun to bring more goodness and sunshine into an increasingly dreary world.  I hope you will join me, and the first step is to read a post and make a comment.  Or contact me, or write your own post!  I can’t do it alone, and welcome your contributions.

This post is the second chapter that deals with the concept of fun itself.  We all know what it is, but it’s hard to define.  I define it.  And elaborate on it.  If you want to go back to the start of the book, click here.  Let me know what you think:

 

A Definition of Fun

In which the Human Brain is Revealed as the Best Fun Detector

What is fun?  I’ll tell you what I think, but try coming up with your own definition.  Go ahead, take a few seconds.

 

+         +         +         +         +         what is fun?       +         +         +         +         +         +

 

I suspect you thought first of fun activities, recalling memories of fishing, partying at the rave, or having great friends over for the evening.  Activities that are ways to get to fun, but aren’t fun by themselves (and sometimes aren’t fun at all).  You probably had a hard time defining fun beyond vaguely similar concepts such as enjoyable, amusing, or funny.

Maybe Google™ knows what fun is.  Try it.  Google “fun.”  The I’m Feeling Lucky result for “fun” in May 2014 is the band called Fun.  Maybe Fun is fun, but in my experience things labeled “fun” aren’t, at least in and of themselves.  According to The Free Online Dictionary (Google’s #6), fun is:

1. A source of enjoyment, amusement, or pleasure.

2. Enjoyment; amusement: have fun at the beach.

3. Playful, often noisy, activity.

Dictionary definitions of fun are too broad, at least if we want to understand how to get to fun.  Dictionary definitions of fun lead authors to write books about how much fun it is to raise ferrets (Ferret Fun by Rostoker-Gruber), or even to die (The Fun of Dying: Find Out What Really Happens Next! by Grimes).  It’s fun as enjoyable, as if anything that isn’t actively unpleasant is fun.

Here’s my definition of fun:

Fun is what’s happening when you know you’re having fun.

That’s it.  Fun is completely subjective – but at the same time it’s unmistakable.  Ask someone if they’re happy (are you happy?), and they’ll usually have to think it over for a second.  Ask them if they’re having fun, and it’s yes or no.  We know when we’re having fun, which is why advertising your business as a “fun” place is such a bad idea.  I can persuade myself that I had a good time even if it wasn’t that thrilling, but fun is either there – or it isn’t.

We don’t know what fun is, any more than we know what anger is, but we can break it down into useful (and individually powerful) parts.  Fun is three kinds of fun, and we need them all if we’re going to make traditionally un-fun activities (such as work) fun.

Everyone knows about what I call relaxing fun:  it’s finally (finally!) relaxing on a beach, airline hassles and hotel check-in and getting the kids into the pool all safely behind you, a cold umbrella drink in your hand, and no schedule whatsoever ahead of you for a few blessed moments.  Relaxing fun is sometimes solo, sometimes in groups, but it’s not participatory – just being there is the experience.  It’s a synonym for pleasure.

We’re also familiar with solo fun:  it’s losing your self-consciousness in the building of the world’s most beautiful box kite, stick by stick and carefully glued joint by carefully glued joint – and then taking that puppy out and rocking it into the sky while your kids dance around and demand a chance to grab the string.  Solo fun, or flow, is when your work takes up your whole attention.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (me-HI-cheek saz-me-HAI-ye), who coined the term flow, originally studied the intense attention achieved by chess players, dancers, surgeons, and mountain climbers, and went on to a long career studying the phenomenon.  Considerable research has also been done as a result of the success of the video and computer gaming industry (see McGonigal’s Reality is Broken and Chatfield’s Fun, Inc.), since games that are more fun make more money.  Flow is by its nature solo and participatory – it’s about being where you want to be, doing what you most want to do, with no distractions.

The third kind of fun is both participatory and social, and I simply call it fun because it’s the primary focus of this book.  The greatest accomplishments in human history came through either fun (or flow) – and I bet the fun ones were the most, well, fun.  Michelangelo carving the Pietá, a Capablanca vs. Corzo chess match, LL Cool J struttin the stage were all about masters crafting solo greatness.  However, there’s no experience like working together with your people to make something bigger than any of you could do alone (and all of the above examples were actually team efforts).  There is a special electricity that comes with a crowd, a true synergistic effect when you’re having fun together.

We need all three kinds of fun to make our work consistently fun.  We need relaxing fun to take a break, marshal our energy for the next task, and integrate what we’ve done previously.  Solo fun is how we get the most out of our work alone, and we need uninterrupted space to attain and sustain it.  Social fun is how we make our teams and workplace as a whole fun – leaving space for relaxing and solo fun, and bringing people together to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  We needn’t draw neat borders between the types – I mention them here largely to get you thinking about fun as something more than a vague concept – and the methods I define for getting there don’t treat them as discreet entities.  You need to be aware of the differences, and how we need them all to build a robust culture of fun at work – because, in the end, it’s you who will be building it.  I’ll help.

The Fun Paradox – Why Fun?

The Fun Paradox

Solving the Paradox of Fun (at) Work

This post is a chapter (or other small section) from my new book, The Fun Paradox.  I’m posting my book in advance of publication because I want to hear from you.  I want your fun thoughts, your fun experiences, your fun expertise – your help!  I believe that fun is one of the most powerful forces for good in the Universe, and that we need an army to conquer the forces of no fun to bring more goodness and sunshine into an increasingly dreary world.  I hope you will join me, and the first step is to read a post and make a comment.  Or contact me, or write your own post!  I can’t do it alone, and welcome your contributions.

This post is the first brief chapter, and in it I need to convince readers that it’s worth bothering with the whole concept.  Most of us seem pretty happy with jobs that aren’t much fun, so what’s the big deal?  This chapter addresses that directly.  If you’d like to read from the start of the book, click here.

Why Fun?

Isn’t a job supposed to be no fun?

I could start with a huge list of reasons why you should make your work more fun, but I don’t need to.  I don’t need a hard sell because you’re already sold.  We all want a job that’s fun, even if we’ve come to expect our jobs to be no fun.  We want a job that makes going to work a pleasure and that fulfills our need to do something meaningful with the eight or more hours of every weekday we spend at work.  I don’t need to make you want what I have to sell.  No one wants a job to be no fun.

But I do need to convince you of three big things before you’ll make a purchase and buy some fun at work.  You need to know that fun is worth the trouble, that fun won’t get you into trouble, and that I know what I’m talking about when I say I can help you make your job more fun.

The first big thing is probably the easiest, since a lot of the most successful organizations have already embraced fun as an essential part of their winning strategy.  They know that fun is one of the most powerful human motivations.  I go into greater detail later, but here are the main reasons why fun is worth it:

  • Fun work is more creative, innovative, and productive than work that’s no fun. More fun means better performance, morale, enthusiasm – and more money in your pocket.
  • Fun is the best way to measure the performance of your organization, because fun is a meta-metric – fun takes into account all of the aspects of performance.  If your organization is more fun, and the fun is spread around evenly, it’s doing better.
  • Fun is what makes success feel like success.  Success that’s no fun can hardly be called success, while work that’s fun is already successful.

Together, the benefits of fun add up to a complete package for improving performance.  Fun work is better work, measuring fun is a powerful metric that clearly identifies opportunities and obstacles, and fun is itself motivational.  Most other metrics, goals, or initiatives have little real impact on day-to-day work life, and often distort the rest of the organization.  If you emphasize efficiency, a sales target, or quarterly bottom line, what does that do for your sales people, marketing guru, or the lonely guy on the front lines?  How does putting all your efforts into increasing sales this quarter affect your ability to create and promote a new product for release next year?  In contrast, fun is flexible and holistic while remaining tangible, measurable, and inherently desirable.

The second big thing, is fun worth the trouble?, is likely the most difficult sell.  In his Thinking – Fast and Slow, Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman described his ground-breaking, but intuitive and simple, prospect theory, which essentially states that we feel the pain of loss more than the pleasure of gain.  We’re not rational actors:  when confronted with an equal-value gain vs. loss, we’re heavily biased against the loss.  I can claim that making your work more fun is worth a 20% increase in performance (and that’s a conservative estimate), but you’re likely to say no if there’s a chance you’ll look silly.  Looking silly may be a poor excuse for giving up on a path to a 20% (or even 50, 100, or 1000%) increase in your performance, but that’s how we’re built.  Why take a risk on fun when you can do something that seems more sensible and is less likely to make your boss raise her eyebrows – even if it doesn’t work?

I’ll help you sell yourself, and your colleagues, on fun at work by describing the fundamentals required for fun and supplying you with simple, sensible methods.  I won’t just give you examples and urge you to do the same – you don’t run a fish market, so you can’t copy the fish-tossing fun of the Pike Place Fish Market (see my previous post).  Even if you do run a fish market, making your work fun is not about fish-tossing, painting your workplace in bright, primary colors, Casual Fridays, or installing foosball tables, though they may help.  Making work fun is about small steps that change how people are organized, motivated, judged, and rewarded.  Some of the changes will seem counter-intuitive or even paradoxical, but they aren’t silly or frivolous.  They don’t need to be applied all at once, so the risk is small – you can try before you buy.  In fact, I guarantee that just announcing that you value fun at work and are giving people permission to have fun will be worth an immediate performance boost.

The third big thing, do I know what I’m talking about?, you’ll have to judge for yourself.  I hope what you’ve already read makes you want to turn the page and read more.  I care, and I’ve risked a lot by pursuing fun as a career, and it’s because I’m truly passionate about fun.  I’m passionate because I believe that fun is an incredibly powerful, yet largely ignored, tool for good.  And because I was sick and tired of jobs that were no fun, and I wasn’t going to take it any more.  I’ve done the research, and tested the methods, and I know I can help you have more fun at work.  It worked for me – I believe it will work for you too.

The Preface to The Fun Paradox

The Fun Paradox

Solving the Paradox of Fun (at) Work

This post is a chapter (or other small section) from my new book, The Fun Paradox.  I’m posting my book in advance of publication because I want to hear from you.  I want your fun thoughts, your fun experiences, your fun expertise – your help!  I believe that fun is one of the most powerful forces for good in the Universe, and that we need an army to conquer the forces of no fun to bring more goodness and sunshine into an increasingly dreary world.  I hope you will join me, and the first step is to read a post and make a comment.  Or contact me, or write your own post!  I can’t do it alone, and welcome your contributions.

This post is the Preface to the book, and I’m posting it first because it will be the first thing a new reader will see.  Please help me make it as compelling and inviting as possible:

Preface

Why Paradox?

Think back to a time when you had fun at work – not on vacation, or after work, or at home – remember a fun time you had while on the job.  What were you doing (or not doing)?  Was it alone or with others?  Remember as you read on . . .

The most obvious reason I called this book The Fun Paradox is that we often see fun as the opposite of work – the opposite of being serious, mounting a sustained and difficult effort, and grinding through to a successful finish.  I ask questions about fun to nearly everyone I meet, and when I ask What is the opposite of work? the answer is always Play.  When I ask What is the opposite of fun? the answer is often Work.  I wrote this book to show you that fun is not the opposite of work.  Indeed, it’s the best kind of work, the most productive, creative, innovative, profitable, and pleasurable work.  It’s easier to see when you flip it around:  work that’s no fun is work that’s the least productive, creative, &etc.  I hope to convince you that if your work isn’t fun, you’re missing one of the most powerful tools ever evolved to drive positive human behavior.

Another reason to call this book The Fun Paradox is that I’ve discovered that many of the concepts and methods needed to make work fun seem paradoxical, or contradict our “common sense” and much of what’s been written and taught about fun at work.  For example, in one of the better books written about fun at work, Fun Works by Leslie Yerkes, one of the eleven principles she defines is Be Authentic.  In this book, one of my core principles is Be Inauthentic, a concept that appears on the surface to be the opposite (and to rub many folks the wrong way because it implies deception).  Like the work/fun dichotomy, the paradox is more a matter of semantics, cultural biases, and leftovers from the Puritan era than a true contradiction.  However, as I’ve researched fun and worked with people on making their work more fun, the seeming paradoxes and contradictions became the rule rather than the exception, and thus the title.

The third reason I called this book The Fun Paradox is that fun work is paradoxical.  Fun lives at the lively, sometimes-chaotic edge between silly and serious, rebellious and conservative, creative and careful.  Fun is a result of the tension between freedom and restriction and rides the razor-thin border between boredom and frustration.  Fun isn’t the opposite of work: fun is hard work.  This paradox is easier to see when you realize that most people would complain if their boss required them to work as hard at their job as they do in their recreation.  Fun as hard work is also most visible in high pressure jobs such as a busy restaurant kitchen, where morale (and fun) is often greatest during the rush, not afterwards.

Finally, I believe that the first and most important step in making work fun is confronting and dispelling – or embracing – these paradoxes.  It just doesn’t make sense that the group that’s laughing and acting like they’re at a party is more productive and effective than the group next door that’s quiet, diligent, and serious.  However, despite our tendency to stop laughing and look serious when the boss walks by, I’ve built a business on the fact that the group that’s consistently laughing is working better than the group that looks like a funeral party.  Though I don’t want you to focus on our stereotype of having fun – for many people and groups, having fun does look more like a funeral than a party.  Fun is diverse.   But, however people have it, more fun means more money, better morale, less turnover, greater creativity and innovation.  And more money.  But, despite how we all feel about money, the most important aspect of fun work is that more fun means more success, because fun is what makes success feel like success.  Fun work is its own reward, so if we embrace the fun paradox we guarantee success.  What more can you ask for?  Guaranteed success and more money!

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.