I’ve struggled with fun in business. The stress, the distractions, the tedium of unpleasant tasks, and the disappointments have all taken a toll. Fun has seemed trivial in the face of shrinking bank accounts, blank pages that need to be filled, spreadsheets, and the hope of shaping the world to my own vision.
I’d like to share a few of the ways that I’ve applied fun to my own business. After all, I’m building a fun consultancy, and if I’m not having fun myself at work then I shouldn’t expect success helping others to get to fun. I’ve never believed the old cliche, “If you can’t do, teach.” The teachers I’ve had the most respect for were masters of their field, with deep passion for their subject and broad and deep expertise and experience. Teaching is itself a distinct profession – but it’s a double profession. Teachers must be experts at teaching and in their subject matter.
I was developing materials for my consultancy, setting up workshops (actually, funshops), coordinating all the minutiae of running a small business, and conducting research on fun in the workplace when I realized that I wasn’t having much fun myself. I was overwhelmed with my career change, I was trying to do everything at once, and I was worried that pursuing my dream was a big mistake. I resolved that evening that I would make my workplace my best laboratory. Much of my work is done alone, or via long-distance collaboration, so my focus was on solo fun, and that’s what I’ll describe in this post.
My first experiment was with fun stuff. Cute toys. My friend Angie had always referred to me as Dexter (from Dexter’s Laboratory), and she’d given me a number of Dexter and Dee Dee toys. I had them on a shelf in my lab office, where they collected dust. My hypothesis was that putting fun stuff in my workplace would do essentially nothing. I dug them out of their box and cleaned off some space to display them prominently in my home office.
I was surprised to find that they did do something. In particular, the Dexter that declared, “Dee Dee, get out of my laboratory!” when you pushed his labcoat button made it perceptibly more fun to face my computer and a blank page. With a few more experiments, I discovered that the best effects were with fun stuff that have deeper meaning, are more than decorative, and are prominent. Bert and Ernie dolls in lab coats now peer over my monitors, and Dexter is always available to order Dee Dee off the premises.
But fun stuff is frosting. Sweet frosting on a bitter cake is still a bitter cake. How can you make your work fun when some of it (or much of it) is tedious, unpleasant, difficult, frustrating, or boring?
Key ideas for my next experiments came from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s (me-HI-cheek saz-me-HI-ye) research on flow, and Jane McGonigal’s book on how games can change the world, Reality is Broken. Csikszentmihalyi studied the state of mind that focused individuals (surgeons, dancers, chess players, etc.) experienced when they were performing at their best, and McGonigal researched what makes video and computer games fun and how that can be applied in the outside world. I’d incorporated their ideas into my own work on fun, but I’d failed to apply them to my own situation. So it was back to the bench for more experiments.
The most powerful factor was the frame. Just as framing a painting gives it a discrete border, I found that properly framing my work made it possible to achieve fun. When I was laboring in a large scientific institution under a problematic boss, I’d often dreamed of what a blessing it would be to have complete control, total freedom to choose. However, when I became the boss of my own business, total freedom and control was daunting, distracting, and sometimes depressing. While I could do whatever I wished whenever I wanted to, that often translated into doing a lot of things halfway, and avoiding some tasks entirely. Feeling guilty about overdue projects, feeling stressed when I finally got back to them.
I set up experiments based on Csikszentmihalyi’s observations that flow comes, “. . . because one’s awareness is limited to [a] restricted field of possibilities,” through a, “. . . centering of attention on a limited stimulus field,” and that the process, “. . . contains coherent, non-contradictory demands for action and provides clear, unambiguous feedback,” and also on McGonigal’s emphasis on the importance of clear goals and immediate feedback. I broke down dauntingly open-ended tasks like designing my web page into pieces that shared several characteristics:
- Clear Process: I knew how to get to the goal – perhaps not all the details, but the approach was clear and didn’t require much decision making.
- Challenging: The process involved some difficulty that I knew would be challenging to overcome, but was not open-ended or potentially impossible.
- Small Victories: The task consisted of a series of steps that could be tangibly completed.
For example, I found that my one of my webpage menu bars was growing too big for its layout. I decided to make drop-down menus, but got frustrated with implementing the menus based on available code. They either didn’t work, or dropped down behind the rest of the page, and they didn’t look good when I slapped my stylesheet styling on them.
I decided to break down the task into pieces. And then realized that I should start by framing the task of breaking it down. And then I applied a touchstone from my work as a research biochemist: I made the first frame around the question of whether I should even bother. As a researcher, I’d gotten into the habit of asking my colleagues what experiment would most rapidly and easily disprove their hypothesis – typically, that’s the opposite of the ‘normal’ approach, which is to try to prove the hypothesis. Maybe it’s a boy thing, but destroying something has a visceral satisfaction – for me, at least, it’s fun. In research, it’s also effective, as pursuing a hypothesis that looks promising in initial experiments, but in the end is wrong, can be ruinously expensive. So, rather than make a list that broke down how I could make a drop-down menu work for my website, I tried to prove it wouldn’t.
Since it would be a web search task, I set a definite time limit – ten minutes. Time limits are exciting, and IMHO are underutilized. Time limits are fundamentally different from the (dread) deadline – they’re self-imposed, and intended to make your life easier, not more stressful. They’re an unnecessary obstacle, something that game researchers recognize as a powerful tool for making a game more fun. They also provide immediate, constant feedback, another powerful tool in the funbox.
The result: I discovered that my flexible web layout wasn’t compatible with drop downs. I would have to change the fundamental way my layout worked in order to incorporate the new menus, and it would be a lot of work. Not impossible, but, on balance, not worth the trouble. I found the answer in 7 minutes flat.
Yay! In less time than I’d spent figuring out what to do about my menu problem, I’d turned a frustrating, open-ended task with no certainty of success into a triumph. I had a grin on my face, and felt inspired to go back to the task of changing my menus to fit the format in a creative way.
Bottom line, end of the day, on the ground, nitty gritty, nuts and bolts, meat and potatoes lessons:
- Pull back – pull way back. Don’t be afraid to ask why you’re even doing what you’d planned
- Put an unnecessary obstacle in your way. Try moving your mouse with your left hand (or right, if you’re left handed), or setting a time limit. Unnecessary does not rhyme with useless – even if you do something seemingly pointless like mousing with your off hand, when you break your wrist you’ll thank me.
- Little teeny pieces. Fun happens when you’re absorbed in what you’re doing, and if you’re thinking about the forty other things you have to do before you’re done with the task you’ve set yourself, you’re not absorbed. You’re dissipated, distracted, and self-conscious.
- Immediate, constant feedback. Stop and reread your text. Hit the refresh button and see what your webpage edits look like. Ask your friend to read it and give you a comment. Do something to acknowledge what you’ve done so far. The time you ‘waste’ on this is repaid in the little rewards that build momentum and refresh motivation.
Remember, most of us have started a business because we’re following our passion – and looking for fun. Specifically, we’re striving for that funnest of all experiences, having fun while working. Why else sacrifice so much at so much risk? Yes, maybe a successful startup will make you rich, but it’s more likely that you’ll end up sapped and broke. We’re chasing a job that is all we dreamed a job could be. A job that’s fun.
Next post I’ll talk more about what I’ve discovered by experimenting on myself. It’s rewarding for me to show other people how to have fun at work, but I admit that it’s been even more so to show myself how to have fun. Please, go out and have fun. Right now. Why wait?