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.

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:


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!

Mining for Fun

. . . in the Hard Crust of Technical Documentation

by Desmond Rutherford

In my work, I seek fun every day. It’s not as easy as flicking a light switch or dialing up my furnace to warm my home. It takes focus, mind games, heart games, and empathy. I must dig deep, turn over odiferous diatomaceous earth to reveal shining nuggets of fun to brighten up my gray cube walls, inspire my coworkers, and whistle through the day as a motivated Funman. But too often it’s pickaxe hard to break through the barriers of the daily chores.

I do instructional design consulting work for a utility company. A typical day can include several hours of reading technical documents and complex procedures, and while eyeball deep in this reading I don’t feel very fun and sometimes forget what fun can be. I travel in my mind through large natural gas transmission lines, under several hundred pounds of pressure, trying to develop training for workers who cut into these lines in order to tie in new paths for gas transmission and distribution. This is the work that ultimately results in my ability to turn a dial and heat my home, something I took for granted until I started to do this work. I’ve developed a deep respect for the people that make this happen. It involves isolating, at times, miles of pipeline, purging the gas from the line, and cutting out an old section to create new paths. Because it can be gravely dangerous to isolate a gas line (e.g., the control valves leak, or the landscape is too severe to work safely), work must be performed “hot.” Working hot means using a welding torch to cut into a pipeline while it is still filled with pure natural gas. The right mixture of gas and air is incredibly explosive. I try to be empathetic.

It’s empathy that changes the game for me. I imagine what it must be like to do this work. Truly, I can’t – these linemen are a tough breed and work under conditions I haven’t the courage for. However, I do appreciate their commitment in the midst of a complex, difficult, dangerous, and volatile environment that can turn catastrophic. Real fast. While I may not be the guy to perform these feats, I can create training to keep them safe and potentially save their lives. It’s more than just a motivation – it’s literally a matter of life and death. The better I understand the conditions, the more I can make that difference.

It helps that I also get to interview people who have been doing this work, in some cases for more than 30 years. They tell hair-raising, blood-curdling stories of things gone awry, of people on fire. Breaking down each moment, each movement, and isolating the second when something goes wrong is what I do to improve how people do this work and ensure that they get into their cars again at the end of a shift. I’ve discovered there’s nothing more fun than being focused on a task you have deep empathy for, a task that has real purpose.

Not every job I do is about saving a life, but keeping my mind and heart centered on who benefits from what I do is central to having fun at work. We all do (or hope to do) work that, in some measure, helps our own species. This is true whether we prepare food, sew a garment, create art, write code, tune an engine, or prepare a serum to keep a disease at bay. We work to serve the purpose of helping each other. Having empathy helps us to see how we do that and hold each other up. It fuels our drive, and our ability to appreciate the bigger picture. With a clearer aerial view, it’s easier to understand how even seemingly innocuous activities are the scaffolding for a bigger structure. I chose to inject empathy into the daily grind to soften the hard crust I must drill through to cultivate purpose – and to harvest fun.

Fun with Pain

We’re all familiar with pain, and most of us are blessed to be free of it for the vast majority of our lives.  I personally have a high pain threshold, and I’m often asked, “What happened to your hand?” and am unable to summon a response.  I don’t know.  I’m sure I bashed it against something sometime, but I don’t keep track.  It doesn’t matter much, or make an impression.

But pain.  Real pain, pain you can’t ignore.  Pain that reaches out of your soul and says, “Hi!” and no mistake about it.  My worst was an earache when I was a child, an earache that lasted for days and just pushed everything else out of my consciousness.  Pain that went on and on and nothing else mattered.  I’ve also had telescope bowel (you ladies imagine giving birth through your belly button), second and third degree burns over almost half my body, and other bowel-shaking painful episodes, so I have credentials – but I think we’ve all had at least a few moments of monumental pain.  Real pain.

Pain is the opposite of fun – at least that’s how we play it.  Break your arm, hurting and a bit spiteful, and you’ll likely underplay the pain when asked with a response like, “This is no fun.”  Pain isn’t fun.  But you can have fun with pain.

Okay, this seems over the top.  Here’s Richard with his New Age, groovy, Zen master take on pain:  we can make it fun!  Woo-hoo!  Let’s march right over to the terminal cancer ward and cheer those folks up!  Get them enjoying their Parcheesi and dancing the tango instead of suffering with pain that opiates can’t help!

That’s not fun with pain – or at least it’s not the core of what I’m trying to say.  Fun with pain is making a victory.  Not a victory from defeat, but a victory in the face of defeat.  Pain will win, pain wins and you lose, but it doesn’t have to win everything.  You can be injured or suffering a chronic disease that leaves you in constant physical pain, or depressed or despairing and suffering the tortures of the psychologically damned – and still snatch a fragment of food from the devouring maw of misery, still grab a scrap of a win from a sure loss.  Fun with pain is beyond the usual range of deciding between a state that’s nice and one that’s not so nice – it’s a metaphysical, existential battle for yourself with the inevitable forces of the universe, or, more cruelly, with your own body.  Fun with pain is suffering but not failing to notice that the sunset is particularly fine, or bantering with your nurse because you notice she’s suffering and your tiny drop of unexpected happiness from a sufferer means a lot.

Fun with pain is real fun, fundamental fun.  Fun is easy with friends at the bar, or watching a gorgeous Hawaiian sunset after snorkeling, or celebrating success after your latest hostile takeover.  Fun in the midst of misery is a flag that everyone should salute, a testament to belief in the beauty of being a human being on this planet.  It’s showing respect for the many, many moments that you weren’t in pain – or that you were, and could forget the pain for a moment to hear the waves going rhup rhup rhup on the shoreline and know that life is good, even if you aren’t really.

Fun with pain is making your box very very small.  It’s shrinking your moment down to the point that you can notice potential pleasure despite the onslaught of unrelenting pain.  I’ve seen it in my family, friends, and most clearly in my father, who suffered perhaps the most existential torture of all – Alzheimer’s disease.  The pain of loss of self, gradual but while self-aware – even as self-awareness took on a whole new meaning in the face of loss of self.  Near the very end, days before my father died, I looked into his eyes and saw little of the awareness that made him what he was – sharp, a bit unforgiving, but warm – but there was a little.  A tortuously little, enough to know that inside this husk that used to be the man I looked up to more than anyone in the world lived a homunculus of him that knew what was happening, and was so sad.  But within this hopelessness and pain could emerge moments, little teeny eeny weeny bits of victory.  In the forbidding face of clumping proteins and neurodegeneration were real moments of laughter and touch.  I touched my father before he died, and it was good.  He couldn’t remember my name, or really recognize me in the way we usually know the word, but he did feel happy to be with me.  He had a little teeny eeny weeny bit of fun in the face of disaster.  I did too, even if I cried.

Don’t forget that.  I’ve never, and I never will, forget that it’s never, ever, ever too late to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  And that victory in defeat is the best success . . . perhaps a victory that will never be celebrated, or even noticed, but a victory that is fun at it’s purest. It’s laughing at the end of it all and shaking your fist at the sky, it’s poking your great-grandchild until she cries and making her have nightmares about wrinkly faced old guys with bad breath (that’s how I remember my grandfather – but I do remember). Have a little bit of fun now, even (especially) if you aren’t in pain.  And later, maybe just a teeny bit more.  And repeat.

Have fun.