Why a Fun Survey is the Best Survey

Fun Surveys are (at least) 100 times better

Because people want to have fun – so they want to take your survey

When did you last take a survey willingly? I shop on Amazon, and after each purchase I get a pop-up and a follow-up email asking for my opinion. I never take their surveys.

Why?  Because those surveys suck. Most people would rather do dull and tedious work than take a typical survey. Because they’re boring.

Funshop makes fun surveys. Fun both ways. They measure fun, and they’re fun to take. That makes them (at least) 100 times better. Why?

Boring surveys ignore your core customers

Here’s a familiar graph – a bell curve. It plots how much fun your customers had (the bottom, or x-axis) versus the number of customers (the side, or y-axis). The shape of the curve is like a bell. Many things in life, when plotted this way, would have the same bell-like distribution:  height of men (or women, or boys), attractiveness of faces, how long your commute takes, &etc.

Typical Boring Survey Bell Curve
How a typical (boring) survey covers the customer bell curve.

The arrows pointing down show the sampling you’d get from a typical (boring) survey. The red arrows are responses from customers who took your survey because they were really unhappy with something. They needed to tell you how bad their experience was.

The green arrows are responses from customers who loved their experience, and wanted to share that with you. And the gray arrows are responses from people who just love to take surveys, no matter how boring.

The gray part of the bell curve in the middle are your core customers. Most of them got what they expected (the middle of the bell curve), and quite a few had a significantly better or worse experience. Boring surveys miss these customers, because they only get responses from the tiny fraction who love taking surveys.

Your total response from a typical survey is, at maximum, 15%. You’ll only hear from the 5% at the extremes, and the 5% who love taking surveys. And you won’t even hear from all of them. You’ll hear from about 10% of them.  That means 10% x 15% = 1.5%.

And the responses will be very, very biased. Most responses will be either love or hate. You’ll never be able to cut the bad end off the bell curve – and why waste all your efforts on the 5% of customers who hated your business? Why not focus on your core?

Why a fun survey covers the whole bell curve

Now check out the next graph:

Fun Surveys Cover the Whole Bell Curve
Fun surveys sample your entire customer base because they’re fun to take

We broke the bell curve into more sections, each showing a different customer experience. The purple arrows are the responses you can expect from a fun survey. They cover the whole bell curve. You’ll hear from a representative sample of your customers, not just the extremes.

Why? Because people love to have fun. They’ll take a fun survey willingly. And even if the survey isn’t much fun for them – we know everyone has fun in different ways – they’ll take it because they hope for fun.  And they’ll still appreciate the effort you made.

Fun surveys are great marketing – they leave a great last impression

Most surveys are offered to customers after they’ve had their experience. It’s their last impression of your business.

A large body of psychological research has explored how we remember experiences.  (I suggest reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow for it’s clear summaries of this research) Boiled down to the basics, we remember three things:  1) the initial condition (our first impression), 2) the peak experience (the best or worst part, whichever is greater), and 3) the final condition (our last impression). Most of the experience is not part of our memory.

In one experiment, researchers had subjects put their hands in painfully cold water. One group had to suffer for 60 seconds, and the other group suffered for 90 seconds. For the 90-second sufferers, researchers added just enough warm water to make participants feel slightly less pain for the last 30 seconds. The last 30 seconds were still painful – just a tiny bit less painful.

The researchers had the subjects do both the 60- and 90-second tests, and asked subjects to rate the two experiences.

The vast majority preferred the 90-second treatment. Even though it was 50% longer, and painful all the way through, the slightly better experience at the end was enough to make their memory of it more attractive (or less repulsive).

Now think of that survey. Do you want your customer’s last impression to be a boring survey? Or paying their bill and then being invited to take a boring survey online?

Fun surveys market your business in two important ways: they invoke fun, and they are fun.

First, our fun surveys ask your customer to remember the most fun part of their experience. Fun becomes the last thing they remember about you. They may still remember things that are less pleasant, but at least that all-important last impression is of fun.

Second, even if your customer’s best experience with your business wasn’t that great, a fun survey means that the last thing they did was fun. Fun is the best last impression you can make. And they’ll remember it.

Fun surveys lead to opportunities, not problems

Fun surveys measure fun. Unlike positive states of being such as happiness, satisfaction, comfort, and contentment, fun is an action. Sometimes ‘fun’ is used to describe a state – she’s a fun person, or this restaurant is fun – but what we really mean is that fun happens when she is around, or when we go to that restaurant.  Fun is a verb.

That’s why measuring fun is different, and more effective. A fun survey defines what your customers are doing that brings them back. And that’s the memory you want to create. We remember having fun, not being happy, or contented. Try it. Remember a time when you were happy – we’ll bet that what you picture in your mind is having fun, and that fun was what made you happy.

Focusing on creating fun guides you to new creative opportunities. Rather than stooping to the bottom to deal with the problems, fun is about starting at the top and climbing higher. People come back to your business because of what you do best – not what you fail to do worst.

And it’s surprising how many businesses don’t know what they do best. Is it the food? or the service? The price? or the quality? Or is it something you’d never thought of?

The motto of a business I once worked for is, “Everything Matters.” The business is a children’s hospital, so I’m sure that motto is reassuring to worried parents of sick children. But does everything matter? Is the decor critical? The quality of the cafeteria food? Does trying to solve every problem lift the whole enterprise higher, or does it suck all the oxygen out of moving forward and innovation?

Fun matters, because fun is what you’re doing right. Fun guides you to why people love you, and invites you to do more of it. Be a problem solver, and all you’ll do is deal with problems. Have fun, and you will create.

Of course, fun surveys also find out where it’s no fun. In fact, measuring fun is an incredibly potent method for finding serious problems, even problems no one is willing to talk about. If you ask what’s the most fun, and no one points in a particular direction, in that direction lies a problem. People have fun in many different ways, so if none of them think something is fun, it’s no fun. If fun work is your best work, what is work that’s no fun? Measuring fun leads you forward, and can also tell you what’s holding you back.

Just caring about fun is huge

People really care about fun. What do you spend your money on after you’ve paid the bills? We believe your business must care about fun.

Just showing you care about your customer’s (or employee’s) fun is huge. It shows you care about one of the most desirable things in life. If you say it, and mean it, and show that you’re trying, it will make a difference. A tangible, bottom-line difference.

Try it. Tell your customers that you care about their fun, and do something you think will make your business more fun for them. Even if it doesn’t work, your profit (or however else you measure your success) will be greater. Just showing that you care about fun will increase your productivity.

> 100 times better

Fun surveys get more responses. The responses are less biased.

Fun surveys are great marketing. They focus your customers on the best part of their experience, and leave one as a last impression.

Fun surveys identify opportunities, the part of your business that brings in the customers. Fun surveys guide you in building up, not drilling down – though they tell you where to drill if you need to.

And fun surveys show you care about fun. Your customer cares, your employees do too – shouldn’t you?

Let’s be conservative. Our surveys get responses from more than 50% of people offered one. Most surveys get less than 5%, unless they’re mandatory or offer a direct reward. Let’s call that 10 times better. Our surveys are less biased, so call it 20 times better.

Most surveys have zero marketing value (or even a negative value). That means a fun survey is infinitely better. But let’s just say 10 times better.

We’re already at 20 x 10 = 200 times better.

Try one.  It’s fun.

The Five Reasons Why Fun is Essential to Business Success

If you pay attention, you’ll often hear “fun” used to describe why something was so successful. However, if you read books on how to make your business succeed (I’ve read at least a hundred), you won’t find any chapters on fun. Here are five reasons why this is such a terrible omission:


Fun 1: Fun work is your best work.

This is the motto of Funshop, and for good reason.

Think of a time when you were having fun doing work. Having fun doing the work you get paid for. Were you doing better or worse than average? My guess, based on hundreds of interviews, is better. Much better. Most people say they’re doing their best work when they’re having fun doing it.

It’s hard to understand why fun is so often rejected in the workplace if fun work is our best work. Were you having fun when you did your best work?

Fun 2: Fun is the best motivation.

Perhaps you disagree – when I ask, many say that money is the best motivator in business. Cold, hard cash.

In the developed world, we no longer work simply to feed our families and put a roof over their heads. The vast majority of us could work at the most menial, poorly paid job and still have money for cable TV. Why do we want more money?

In my interviews, the answer boils down to fun. From game consoles to yachts, once we’ve paid the rent and for the new riding lawnmower, the rest of the cash is for fun.

It’s sad that so many of us work to live, and that so many employers settle for workers who do their jobs without having any fun. The fantastic power of fun to motivate is ignored, or sublimated to the dream of having fun after work, on weekends, or on the (rare) vacation. What a hideous waste of human potential!

If you have fun while working, you’ll have a lot more fun. And more energy for having fun when you’re not at work. You’ll be motivated to kick some ass, not wait wearily for five o’clock (or whenever you finally get to leave). Fun work is work you want to do for its own sake.

Fun 3: Fun work inspires teams.

We’ve all been to one of those meetings. A meeting where the only contribution was to global warming: hot air, and oxygen turned to carbon dioxide. A meeting that’s no fun.

Besides wasting time and contributing to coastal erosion, how did you feel after one of these meetings? Inspired, or exhausted? What was the effect on your team, and its morale? How much damage was done in that hour?

I’ve held many meetings that were fun, though few of them were formal meetings. You could tell they were fun because everyone walked away inspired. Filled with fresh energy, scheming and dreaming new possibilities, eager to get back to work.

No fun drains your team, and kills morale. I’ve been to meetings that lasted less than an hour, yet put my team the equivalent of a month behind. And meetings that lasted just a few minutes, yet doubled our productivity. Because they were fun.

Fun 4: Fun work inspires customers.

I used to blacksmith at a 17th century historical recreation, and one of the smiths in our group was a crusty curmudgeon. He was gruff, curt, with hardly a good comment or compliment for anyone. But you could tell he was having fun pounding iron.

And despite the prickly crust, people could smell that from a mile away. He always drew a crowd. People are drawn to fun. They hope some will rub off on them. And this blacksmith was proof it worked. He was almost the opposite of a “fun guy,” but when he was having fun, people wanted to see, and connect, and be involved. To be part of the fun.

That smith was the last person you’d want to have selling iron directly to customers, but he sold a lot of iron just by being there and having fun. People have very sensitive fun detectors. When you walk into a fun business, you can smell it. Immediately. And it smells like quality products, and friendly, fast service.

Your mouth would water if you entered a restaurant that smelled like fresh-baked bread, savory grilled meat, and fragrant spices (or their equivalent, if you like other food). Don’t let your business be the one that smells stale, dirty, or rotten.

Fun 5: Fun keeps it human.

The famous mathematician, and one of the fathers of the computer revolution, Alan Turing, devised a simple test to determine whether a computer was conscious (self-aware). A computer was conscious when a human being couldn’t tell the difference between the computer and another human being in a conversation. If you could talk on the phone with the computer for an hour (Turing actually said five minutes), and it sounded just like a person, it was a person. A conscious being.

Not bad, but there are computers that can do just that, or almost. I have a better test. Perhaps it will become famous, and be called the Ransom Test. It’s simple. When a computer has fun, it’s conscious.

I don’t think ants are conscious, or honey bees. They aren’t self-aware. But squirrels are. I watch squirrels every day off my porch, and they certainly have fun. That means they’re conscious.

Everyone hates being an interchangeable cog in a faceless, soulless machine. And the only way you can be treated that way is if no one cares about fun. The central hypothesis at Funshop is that putting your personal stamp on your work is the basis of fun work. Cogs don’t put their stamp on things – they get stamped.

If the people in your business have fun work, and that fun work is spread out to everyone from the CEO to the after-hours custodian, no one will feel like a cog. I think it will be a long time until a computer has fun, but I bet the first thing it will say is, “Why are you treating me like a machine?” Because machines don’t have fun.

So why model your business on one?

Why Fun Work is Being a Hero in Your Story

It’s been a month since I last posted, and that’s because it’s been a busy time for Funshop. We tested a new survey, and I’ve worked a lot on making fun surveys a successful product. I believe it’s revolutionary (have you ever had fun taking a survey?), and we’re out to prove it. But here’s a month’s worth of Fun Thoughts in one long post:

Why Fun Work is Being a Hero in Your Story

. . . and how to make cleaning the toilets fun.

You want fun work. If you don’t think so, turn it around. Do you want work that’s no fun? Are you more productive when you’re having fun working, or when you’re not?

Our paradigm for fun work is a story. Fun work has characters with individual and necessary roles, goals to strive for, obstacles to overcome, accomplishments (and failures, if you take our advice) to celebrate, plot twists, and sometimes a surprise ending.

One important insight of the story paradigm is that fun work is meaningful. Fun work has meaning that motivates and makes you part of a greater community, just as stories are driven by the meaning that supports the plotline. Frodo in The Lord of the Rings works to destroy the Ring of Power – is there something meaningful driving your work?

For many of us, the complexity and dissociation of the modern corporate world has separated us from the deeper meaning of our professional lives. Your duty is to higher productivity, greater efficiency, zero errors, or a similar abstraction. Monthly progress meetings are no substitute for meaningful work, for a plotline that features you in a starring role.

However, it’s hard to see a path to meaning when your work is finishing this month’s TP reports by Monday (nod to Office Space) or cleaning the toilets. How do you make the mercilessly mundane meaningful?

Let me tell you a story.

The Woman Who Got Lost in the (Middle) Distance

Once upon a time . . .

. . . there was a woman walking through the foothills toward a mountain pass. Beyond the pass there was a beautiful lodge, where she expected to spend the evening having cocktails while soaking in the outdoor jacuzzi.

It was mid-morning under a hot sun, and the woman struggled up a steep slope to the crest of a ridgeline. She was almost on hands-and-knees until she noticed an easier path leading around a boulder, giving her a chance to hike normally. As she climbed, all around her tiny golden flowers were blooming in the short turf, and she stopped a moment to catch her breath and admire them.

As she neared the top, she could see another line of foothills ahead. The hills on the left were higher than those to the right, and she assumed that the path would lead her over the easier slopes.

As she proceeded over the crest and down, she saw what appeared to be the path, as expected, cutting across the foothills to her right. Suddenly she tripped over a stone, hitting her knee on a boulder as she fell. Her pants were ripped, and she had to stop to clean and bandage the cuts on her knee. Luckily, though stiff, she could still walk.

She stepped carefully down the slope, looking ahead to the path across the next foothill. When she looked down, the path she followed had dwindled to a meager trail. Still believing that the path led over the hills to the right, she hiked on, angling towards its beginning in the valley below.

When she reached the bottom of the hill, even the meager trail had disappeared, and what she’d believed was the path up the rightward foothhill was revealed to be a dry streambed, a gully filled with jagged boulders.   She could no longer see the mountain pass , or any trace of a path – and, high above her, gray clouds had appeared, moving swiftly on a freshening breeze.

The Middle-Distance Fantasy

. . . and how it kills your story (and the fun).

I tell you this story to illustrate the middle-distance fantasy. It’s a common fallacy that can keep us from finding meaning in our work – and, when addressed, gives us a method to find the path to meaning again.

In my career as a academic researcher, the middle-distance fantasy was the rule. While our work had profound meaning – my group did research on the mechanism of action of glucocorticoid hormones, with huge potential benefits for the many patients with diseases treated with synthetic versions of these molecules – that meaning was obscured behind the middle distance goals of publishing manuscripts and successfully applying for grant funding.

Just as in my story of the woman hiking in the foothills, both our day-to-day research and the greater meaning behind it was lost in the quest for middle-distance objectives. And those objectives, like the trail across the rightward foothill, were always fantasies! Of course we produced manuscripts and grants, but they never turned out the way we’d planned. An experiment we expected to work one way gave an entirely unexpected result, or a tool we needed wasn’t available or didn’t work. We ended up on the equivalent of the higher leftward foothill, following a path we’d never expected to take.

And pursuing middle-distance fantasies often led us to the same sort of disaster that the woman in my story experienced. Lost, in danger, and with no guide to moving forward. I saw it again and again – results that were bent to support a fantasy hypothesis, or discarded because they didn’t. Alternative approaches to the same problem taken despite clear evidence that the original approach led nowhere. Countless hours and dollars spent in pursuit of a mirage.

The lesson from my experience is not rocket science, and perhaps that’s why it’s so often ignored in favor of more sophisticated (and less effective) approaches. The lesson is to keep your eyes on your feet and on the destination, and to largely ignore the middle distance.

I’ve illustrated this metaphorically in my story, where the woman scrabbling on hands-and-knees finds a shortcut to the top of the hill. Keeping your eyes on the trail keeps you in the present, aware of the opportunities that pop up right in front of you. In case you missed it in your education, the present is the only time that exists. The past is dead, and the future is a fantasy. Don’t let your focus on the middle distance blind you to the shortcuts, or keep you going right when the trail turns to the left.

Keeping your eyes on your footing also gives you a series of little victories, short-term and immediate accomplishments that are essential to morale and motivation. Waiting until you climb a whole mountain to celebrate makes the climb difficult and daunting, as each step or little slope climbed is only a miniscule fraction of the whole.

And those little victories include the victory that is being alive in a beautiful world. The woman in my story never noticed the beauty around her after she took her eyes off her immediate surroundings, and that’s true for us too, no matter what setting we’re in. Most of us spend almost all our time in comfortable settings surrounded by beauty – how often do you notice them on your way to work, much less at work? Eyes on the trail means you see the trail.

Your destination is in the far future, and so it’s a fantasy. You may never get there. If you do, no one may care. However, unlike the middle-distance fantasy, it gives your life meaning, and even failing to get to your dream is a victory. You tried, and the goal was important enough that it kept you moving in a positive direction. That’s a win.

And you never know whether your failure may later turn into a victory. History is filled with people whose accomplishments were laughed at during their lives, only to be recognized later as fundamental. That’s another reason to both pursue the fantasy of a destination and to celebrate failure. I’ll discuss celebrating failure and its important role in fun work in another post.

We can’t avoid looking into the middle distance. But we can recognize it for what it is, rather than puffing it up into something it isn’t. Building a successful company is real – meeting a quarterly budget target as a means to that end is almost always a fantasy.

The middle distance is actually most useful in the negative. Pausing in your hike to check the weather may save you from a soaking, or hypothermia. Pausing in your day-to-day work to reassess may show you’re on the wrong path, and help you find another. But spending too much time with your eyes away from the task at hand or the prize you are working for is likely to lead to wasted effort, low morale, and even disaster.

How do you make cleaning toilets fun?

. . . it’s spelled out in a song by Otis Redding.

How does all this sophomoric-sounding philosophy help us with fun work? With making cleaning the toilets, or the equivalent, fun?

Let’s call the work we doubt will be fun cleaning the toilets. You (even if you’re a custodian) likely see toilet cleaning as the bottom rung on the ladder, the most menial of menial labor. From our story example, in order to make it fun you need to keep your eyes on the work at hand and on the prize.

There’s a seeming paradox that lurks in the gulf between you cleaning a toilet and you as Superman, flying through the skies in pursuit of lofty goals. The Fun Paradox here is that it’s actually easier to give greater meaning to a custodian’s job than to Superman. A custodian is starved for meaning (or for quitting time so he can go home), while Superman is filled to the top and probably overflowing. Superman’s life is all about meaning, and the slightest slip is catastrophic. The custodians have probably given up on meaningful work, and punch the clock so they can find meaning in the outside world.

How do you give meaning to toilet cleaning? You could hire Superman, who probably assumes his alter ego as mild-mannered Clark Kent to get away from all the respect and meaning he’s normally burdened with. Failing a superhero hire, you must give toilet cleaning respect. As in R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

How do you feel when you enter a stall and the toilet has – poop particles? Is that meaningful? How much would it affect your day-to-day experience at work? Your respect for your workplace? How would the star recruit feel when she stopped off between interviews to use the restroom? You don’t think of the importance of clean bathrooms until they aren’t – or until they’re exceptionally nice.

One of the custodians at the research institute I worked at brought in a large dried-flower arrangement in a tall, attractive vase, and a wicker basket filled with towels and bars of herbal soap. This was a men’s restroom, remember. This little gesture had a significant effect on how I felt about my workplace, and my work. It was a big gesture. A demonstration of how focusing on the immediate can build greater meaning.

Greater meaning is a result of the three R’s:  recognition, respect, and reward. In the case of the custodian, toiling away cleaning toilets, we typically fail on all three. Custodial work is rarely recognized, except in the negative, and thus is hardly respected and meagerly rewarded. How can you give meaning to toilet cleaning without paying the custodians huge salaries and convening feel-good meetings where false smiles and forced applause ‘recognize’ the their accomplishments?

First, please tear those plexiglas panels off the back of the restroom doors, the ones that hold a (usually outdated) calendar of boxes to be checked to confirm that the custodians, well, checked the boxes. These devices stifle and reduce meaning to the lowest possible denominator – checking off boxes. Can you imagine going home to tell the story of how proud you are to have checked every box right on time all week?

Next, set the current standards as a baseline, a given. And make that given a real priority in your organization. Falling below the baseline should be an emergency. An alarm should sound, and tangible measures should be taken immediately to solve the problem.

As part of that, give the people who do the work both the authority and the responsibility for meeting the baseline and for monitoring. They should be responsible for sounding the alarm if necessary, and central to deciding how to solve the problem.

And that autonomy should be harnessed to exceed the baseline. Not by top-down plans and demands, but by giving the front-line workers the authority to change, improve, and innovate. Does glass cleaner work just as well on porcelain as a stronger, more toxic toilet cleaner? Does a jury-rigged sponge on a stick work better than a mop to clean floors? What is the quickest way to clean a urinal without an increase in microbe counts? What would make people who use this restroom happier?

Recognize the importance of the tasks, and support and encourage efforts to change, improve, and innovate. Give inexpensive digital cameras to custodians, and time for them to take pictures in the area that illustrate other organization’s innovations, and time to discuss how to incorporate them into their own work. Distribute an occasional survey to other staff, and have them rate the work of the custodians on their floor. Have custodians from one floor rate the work on another. Limit the critiques to compliments only. Remember, dropping below the baseline is an emergency.

How about partnering with a research group to study cleaning effectiveness? Microbe counts, levels of toxic cleaning residues, effectiveness studies of alternative cleaners. Treat your custodians with the same respect you’d give a famous scientist, and they may become famous scientists. Your organization could be famous and build a new revenue stream – from the work of your custodians.

And even if you don’t, your workplace will be cleaner, more attractive, and your custodians will have stories to take home. Meaningful stories that build pride in their work and motivation to do better tomorrow. Because their work will be more fun.

The Bottom Line of Fun . . .

. . . isn’t.

I use that phrase (‘the bottom line’) because it’s familiar, but I dislike the image it brings to mind. In my work, which is fun (in both senses), I’m not concerned about the bottom line. The bottom line, the cash in hand, the outcome – they all derive from the top. The meaning. The passion. The fun. Fun isn’t the bottom line, it’s the whole picture. When your crew is having fun – all of you, from CEO to custodian, worker bee to top-level manager – your organization is rockin’. There’s no need to measure other metrics.

The nature of my work has mixed meaningful and fun. The meaning of my work is fun. Fun is the reason I get out of bed, the metric I measure my work by, the goal I aspire to professionally and personally. I’m biased by the nature of my work, but I believe that fun may be the unrecognized Meaning of Life. What do you work so hard for?

In this post I’ve emphasized the importance of story to making work fun. One of my favorite authors, Neal Stephenson, wrote that corporations have stolen all of our good stories. In a properly functioning corporate world, the good stories are all gathered up by the corporation and turned into the quarterly budget, the production target, the efficiency mark. No one goes home to tell the spouse and kids about meeting the quarterly budget target.

In this world, we go home and tell the bad stories. The story of Steve spilling his latte into the copier, or how the IT people screwed up email. We hunger for meaning in our lives, and we’re left with the dregs.

But even corporations have discovered that this doesn’t work. Not in the new world where innovation isn’t optional, where staying one step ahead means getting the best from your people. Even Microsoft is discovering that no fun means bad business.

I’ve told you how we would approach making something as mundane and beneath our notice as cleaning toilets fun. Not by adding foosball tables for the custodians, or painting their break room in bright primary colors. By making the work itself fun.

I’ve mixed up story and the middle distance fantasy. I did it because the middle distance fantasy is a story (and fun) killer. The concepts behind the middle-distance fantasy seem obvious, but examine your own work and tell me you’ve taken them to heart. If you think I’m making too much of the fantasy, tell me how many of your six-month (or six-week, or six-day) plans came off the way you expected – versus how many went straight off the rails.

In the end, story is a unifying principle for fun work. At Funshop, we measure fun by gathering people’s stories. We know we’re succeeding when they take home good ones. We market our business when those good stories spread.

When was the last time you took home a good story from work?


Fun Alone

How to have fun alone

without feeling lonely.

14 06-18 Fun Alone

I sat on my deck tonight, under the stars, the warm, moist air of an Ohio summer sighing over me, the zizzing of the night song of crickets –or whatever insects sing around my house late at night – filling the darkness.  I was alone.

I’ve been alone a lot lately.  I come home from work to a house that’s lit only where I left on the lights, to dishes cleaned only if I’d cleaned them, to floors vacuumed only if I’d vacuumed them. To no welcoming voice, to no questions about how my day had been, to no one to lie with me when it was time for me to sleep.

I’m a self-professed Funman, and to me that means that every time you approach a task you must ask: “Why isn’t this fun?”  A merciless metric, a tough row to hoe, a difficult reality to face in the wee hours of the morning.

How do you have fun . . . alone?

If I asked you what was fun about your job, or your life, I suspect that that your answer would involve other people: chatting around the water cooler, or playing volleyball with friends or a group of folks you’d just met at the volleyball court, or having a beer with co-workers after the shift. With people. Not alone.

Alone is not fun, or at least it’s not normally what we think of when we think “fun.” Alone leads to lonely, and loneliness isn’t fun.

I’ve struggled with Fun Alone. It isn’t easy, it doesn’t come naturally. It means you have to face yourself in the mirror rather than depend on your friends to buoy you up, or distract you.

My house is filled with mirrors, or at least things that reflect me if I pay attention. The sliding door to my deck. The window in my kitchen. The mirrors in my bathrooms and dressing room. The rearview mirror in my car, at least when I don’t just look backwards into traffic.

I see myself, or, most often, don’t. I see myself most often when I don’t expect to, at least in the sense of really seeing myself. The border that is, “Why isn’t this fun?” makes me see myself more often, and more deeply, makes me ask myself very deep questions. It makes me pay attention to who the hell I am.

One of my favorite authors, Robert Heinlein, died and left the outline of an unwritten manuscript. Another favorite author, Spider Robinson, was tapped to complete it (and called it Variable Star).  It was about a young, talented man who ended up on an interstellar spaceship, leaving the Solar System on a one-way journey to a distant planet – all as a result of his emotional response to a failed love affair. Weeks into the voyage he felt the real psychological effects of his hasty decision.

He made a hash of it, and ended up in therapy. His therapist told him that he must answer four questions about himself to regain his mental health. The questions were: who, what, where, and why (the answer to when was always, “Now.”).

These are the questions you must answer if you are to have Fun Alone. Who the hell are you? What the hell are you doing? Where the hell are you, really? and Why? Most of us don’t bother with all this introspective stuff, because we’re too busy working hard to make the mortgage payment or striving to manage the kids so they won’t drive us crazy. We lurch back and forth from crisis to crisis, and typically end up somewhere surprising, unexpected, and not at all where we intended to be.

When you’re alone, most of those distractions are gone. We’re very good at finding other distractions to divert our attention, but when alone we frequently have those empty minutes when there is no activity to turn our hands to in order to keep . . . on . . . moving. We’re alone.

The Talking Heads had a great line in their song “Once in a Lifetime.” It was “How did I get here?” and it seemed incomprehensible to me when I first heard it.  Of course I knew how I got here, and why. Of course I followed along in the story and knew my role, and what had happened and why.  Of course.

I was 19 years old when “Once in a Lifetime” was released, and I thought I knew the answer to, “How did I get here?”  I’m 53 now, and I know I didn’t then.  I still don’t, but I have a better grip on it than I’ve ever had.  Because I’ve had to look into the mirror and ask myself those four questions. Or be alone and not have – any fun.

There’s more to Fun Alone that knowing who you are, and what you’re doing, and when you should (or shouldn’t) be doing it, and why.  But it’s late, and I have to work tomorrow, and those questions are enough for you to think of now. They certainly occupied my mind for months and years before I had any decent answers.

Look in the mirror. Really look. Study yourself. Recognize yourself. Reach back with one hand, over the top of your head and as far behind you as you can manage . . . and pat yourself on the back. You’re doing a great job. Keep it up.

Listen to the song of the night

You are a butterfly’s wing

We all live in gossamer shells, and around us is the fear.

I love the word gossamer.  It means something thin, very thin.  The skin of a balloon, the glistening surface of a soap bubble.  If you look at it from the wrong angle, it doesn’t even exist.  But it is.

The fear.  Ah, the fear.  Our life as a firefly blink against the darkness, a meaningless gesture swallowed by chaos.  The car accident, the tragic failure, the big C that kills your life just as you’ve learned to live it.

We are gossamer shells against the dark.  We are so little, so thin, and the universe is so large, and dark, and it doesn’t care.  We could burst and nothing would be left.

We are together on that surface.  We are incredibly unlikely, and that we’re together at all is even more unlikely.  Think of your friends, and their history.  How many places on their path could they have made one tiny decision that would mean you’d never have met them, that they’d be total strangers?

Celebrate that improbability.  Take joy in every smile you exchange with a stranger, with every intimacy you find with a sympathetic soul.  We are the skin of an infinitely thin bubble, and our neighbors are all that we have.  No substance.  No future.  But we expand, and one day we burst.

No one will remember us in a thousand years.  And a thousand years is an eyeblink in the history of the universe.  We are gossamer, but so is the wing of a butterfly.

Watch a butterfly.  How does it fly so fast, and so well?  Why can’t you just reach out and grab such an unlikely contraption?

Because gossamer is subtle, and agile.  It lives in the now, and has no past.  It’s as empty as a bubble, and has the same life expectancy.

It isn’t worried about the bottom line.  It wants to shine in the light, and strives against the dark.  Not because the dark is evil, but because it came from the dark, and it wants to live and touch and shine before it goes back.

So be gossamer, and fly against the dark, and shine.  Shine.

Why You Should Be Afraid of Biological Research

This post isn’t about fun.  It’s written in response to my partner Josh’s admonition that I should write from the heart on what I’m passionate about.  Write my own story.  This isn’t an easy story, or one that will further my fun agenda.  But I feel that it needs to be told.  Let me know what you think.

Note:  I use profanity pretty freely in this post, and for a reason.  Profanity supplies the only words strong enough. 


Should We REALLY Be Discovering the Secrets of Life . . .

. . . In an All Balls to the Wall, Full-Tilt Boogie, Damn the Torpedos and Full Speed Ahead Way?

14 03-23 No Fun Man

I was an academic scientist for almost my entire life. I decided to become a biochemist when I was 12 years old, mostly because my older brother was a physicist, chemist, and had the world’s most awesome chemistry set. A chemistry set that was all chemicals that burned, made colored flames, and blew up. My brother made fireworks, and what better lure could you dangle in front of a boy to make him bite on science?

I can’t remember why I decided on biochemistry, but I think it had to do with people saying it was the hardest discipline. If you were a biochemist, you were smart.

I was smart, one of the smartest people in every school I attended until I went to college. There I discovered girls, fellow students that played Dungeons & Dragons every single night, computer programming, recreational drugs – and that I was no longer the smartest guy in the school.

Michigan State University isn’t the best school in the world, and, even in Michigan, the University of Michigan turns its nose up at Moo-U. Nevertheless, there were a lot of brainiacs wandering the campus. Many looked like they’d just crawled out from under rocks. Some made me feel the same way I’d made a lot of my former classmates feel.

I dropped physics. I stopped taking mathematics. I stuck with biochemistry once I’d balanced my recreation with my future. I graduated, worked in a lab that studied the kidney, and went to grad school.

I worked on fungal diseases of sorghum for my Ph.D., bacterial diseases of tomatoes for my first post-doc, and finished post-doc work on fungal diseases of corn. Then I ended up in a job that led to a faculty position and running my own lab working once more on the kidney.

I grew up in science through the DNA revolution. As I started, the tools to manipulate DNA had just been developed, and they were perfected as I moved through school and my various jobs. By the time I finished, the process of making genetically modified organisms, especially microorganisms and transgenic mice, had become routine.

In the early seventies, scientists got a bit spooked by the abilities they’d developed. Abilities that look pretty pokey and crude today, but that had grown in power really quickly. The discovery of the structure of DNA, and that it was the genetic basis of life, had only happened 20 years before. And then – suddenly – we could change it. Scientists decided to stop. They did stop, and all together. It was unprecedented.

They got spooked. There was a big-deal conference in 1975 at Asilomar, CA, where policy makers, lawyers, scientists, and anyone else who could get a ticket got together and talked it over. Stopping made a big point. Should we stop technology, was it too scary, should we think it over?

The conclusion was:  No. Let’s keep going. Here’s a quote, the concluding paragraph from a perspective piece in a prestigious, top of the Google search list article on the Asilomar Conference:

In retrospect, very few of those attending the Asilomar Conference foresaw the pervasive, complex, robust, and rich ramifications of recombinant DNA technology. Nor could most have predicted the pace at which fundamental understanding of biology has deepened. As with all changes in human thought and technological developments, we are left with new and unanticipated issues. And, as so often in the past, science, which itself is a uniquely human endeavor, is challenging traditional ideas and values.

Let me put this simply. Bullshit. Yes, we have robust. Complex. Pervasive. Yes, indeed. But with focus on “rich.” Genetic engineering is worth a pile of money.

And so it’s all balls to the wall, full-tilt boogie, damn the torpedos and full speed ahead. Worst of all, it’s devil take the hindmost.   If we don’t do it, they will. And then we’ll be behind, and what does that mean for our economy?

Shut. The fuck. Up. We’re not talking about a better way to make Hershey bars, or steel, or even nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons don’t reproduce. They don’t have their own agendas. We don’t have to worry about whom they breed with, and where that delightful biological technology might wander off to because they didn’t breed the way we expected.

I’m scared of my field. I’ve wandered that field, run my hands through the ripe seed heads bowed under their own weight. I’ve played with them, and smelled them, and weighed the pregnant seeds in the balance of my own desire.

We want to cure disease. And have cheap energy. And save the whales. And live forever. Emphasis on live forever. And biotechnology might offer all this, and more. But it has its own agenda. It’s alive.

We don’t have the foggiest idea of how DNA works. Okay, we do have some foggy ideas. We can understand some basics about how it’s regulated, what the broad outlines of the machinery that makes it work looks like, we can manipulate it and sometimes get what we want.

But we don’t really understand how the nucleus of a cell (where the DNA is) works. It’s really, really complex. It’s like understanding New York city. We don’t even really understand how all the food that people in NYC need gets there over only a few bridges. We don’t understand shit.

But we’re not just strolling, or walking purposefully towards something . . . we’re running. We’re hustling, sprinting – we’re dashing as if all the devils of hell were whipping us forward. It’s a race with the Chinese and their billions of dollars. A desperation sprint out of a crumbling American dominance of science to catch up with a dream.

Nassim Taleb wrote a book called The Black Swan that speaks very directly to our current approach. No, not that Black Swan. Nothing to do with ballet. His message in a nutshell is that you want to open yourself to beneficial black swans and protect yourself against bad black swans. Black swans are very very unlikely events. Asteroids hitting the Earth. Stock market crashes. Winning the lottery.

Which means we should buy the occasional lottery ticket, and avoid single issue stocks. We should use medicines that have been around for two hundred years and avoid the most recent pharmaceutical – unless, of course, we’re dying and the alternative is, well, dying.

Most biotechnology is tested, peer-reviewed, thought over by the best and brightest, and brings us benefits. Let’s assume that 99.99% of biotechnology is just wonderful. Makes us 1% better every time it’s applied. 10,000 x 1% means we’re 10,000% better.  Or something like that. Like many of us, including us scientists, I’m not all that great at probability and statistics.

The problem is the lonely 0.01%. The Black Plague. The Great London Fire. The San Francisco Earthquake. Now imagine a San Francisco Earthquake that acts like the Black Plague. It spreads. Earthquakes in Madrid, Borneo, Portland, and Poughkeepsie, NY.  Pretty soon the whole world is shaking itself apart.

This is the black swan of biotechnology. And the swan won’t be a terrorist, or a demented scientist getting back at the cruel, unfair world by making something awful and devastating (e.g., Herbert’s The White Plague). It will be an “Ooops.” And that Ooops will be a lot worse than a 10,000% increase in your stock portfolio could ever balance.

The best exemplar of what I’m talking about is a Farside cartoon I remember (not exactly) picturing a street corner. A typical Farside fat scientist is leaning out of the upper story window of a building, the sign outside reading something like “Unnamed Rare Diseases Institute.” On the sidewalk below is some broken glass. The caption is, “Ooops.”

I can’t remember where I read it, but someone wrote something like, “What I fear is the efforts of well-meaning, dedicated, ambitious, innovative, and persistent people.” What I fear is people like that who are whipped forward, driven by the fear of imminent failure (and if you don’t think science is like that, look again), who – with the best of intentions ­– make an, “Ooops.”

Let’s take a deep breath. Take a step back from the furious action. Let’s think about this, and then talk it over. And think some more. What’s. The fucking. Hurry?

Even if you believe in The Singularity, the emergence of a technological transcendence that can carry us all away forever into an immortal future, you should think carefully about unbridled, unregulated, and intensely driven biological research. Is it to your advantage to upload into the Universal Computer Intelligence only to be corroded down to digestible molecules by the creeping biotechnological crud?

And even if you don’t worry about doomsday scenarios, I think you should worry about anything that’s generating change at an ever increasing pace. Change that you have to live through, and deal with. Change that may carry a few of us up, up and away into Techvana, but leaves a lot of trash to be picked up and dealt with by the hoi polloi. Which means you and me, unless you’re Ray Kurzweil.

I’m scared of my field. Help me feel less scared. Help you feel less scared. Less like you’re watching helplessly as everything spirals out of anyone’s control. Let’s chill out a bit.

I don’t mean government regulation – though we should have some. What we have now is guidelines. The government won’t fund some research – like embryonic stem cell research using human embryos. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. There are no regulations on biotechnological research with any real power.

Let’s fucking talk about it. Yes, fucking. As in, what the fuck? There are a lot of smart people doing this, and they have questions, but if they express them – they don’t get funded. This means they lose their jobs.

If they stop doing recombinant DNA work – they lose their jobs. Do it or die.

I did some really good work on plant diseases, and in understanding how therapy for kidney diseases work.  I’m proud of my work, and it was hard.  I respect science, and the people who dedicate their lives to it.

But dedication and intelligence doesn’t excuse irresponsibility.  If you make a new smallpox virus that can kill 98% of people who are infected, the intelligence and dedication required to get there doesn’t excuse the outcome.  Bright people are well informed, and should be part of the decision making process.  But, all too often, they’re stubborn, arrogant, self-centered, and scared of stopping even if what they’re doing is scaring them.  Let’s help them.  Help me.  Put your stubborn horse sense into the service of your fellow man.  Pull back on the reins and say, “Whoa, horse!”

I don’t have the answers, but I do have a lot of questions. Shall we sit down and talk about it, or are you too busy making tomorrow for me?

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.