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.



The Fun Paradox

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

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

The Stereotype is Worst – the Reality is Best

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

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

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

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

“Laugh While You Can, Monkey Boy!”

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

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

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

Computer Fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Library Fun

Libraries are not typically associated with fun.  You’re supposed to be quiet, you’re not allowed to run, and those who are too boisterous are asked to leave.  Patrons sit quietly, don’t smile much, and are generally engrossed in their own interests.

But I say that libraries are fun.  First, they’re free!  Totally!  Free books, free ebooks, free computers, free database access, free classes, free one-on-one consultations with educated, experienced reference librarians.  Free is fun!  Yes, sure, you pay property (or whatever flavor your community uses) taxes to support your library, but it feels free.  And what’s not fun about free?

It’s also quiet – and though we usually associate fun with loud and boisterous, it’s hard to find quiet in our increasingly crowded and industrialized world.  Sanctuary from noise isn’t obviously fun, but it can be.  I think it’s quietly fun to put on your library face:  serious, calm, studious.  Walk slowly, look as if you’re deeply engaged in serious thoughts – then make faces at all the little kids, and smile at everyone who makes eye contact.

You can browse – and Google and other electronic search engines have sucked a lot of browsing out of our lives.  I admit I was very sad the day that Michigan State University retired the library’s card catalogs – thumbing your way through the cards always popped up unexpected and interesting finds.  Modern electronic searches rarely yield that sort of off-topic surprise, and the demise of the card catalog took a little bit of mystery, a little bit of magic, out of the world forever.  I’ve never heard anyone talk about how they google for giggles, but walking around the library in a section you rarely enter can be quiet library-style fun.

But the best fun in a library is hobnobbing with the librarians.  Just as we don’t see libraries as particularly fun, librarians are seen as almost the antithesis of a fun person.  Which is so wrong.  Librarians are a hoot!  Underneath their mild-mannered exterior, their button-down, soft-spoken, hair-in-a-bun stereotypical appearance lives a bunch of wild men (and women).  Okay, it’s usually expressed in quiet, dry wit rather than dancing at the party with a lampshade on the head, but some really (quiet, calm) fun can be had with library staff.

Because they’re cool people, and they’re also really bored.  Not all the time, not all of them, but the electronic scourge has hit them hard.  My library (Columbus Metropolitan Library in Columbus, OH) is truly world class, having been awarded #1 Library in the US and Library of the Year awards in the 6 years I’ve been here, but, despite the incredible facilities and awesome staff (and they are), most people don’t interact much with the librarians.  They’re too busy using the computers, or searching for books on the computers – heck, they even check out books using a computer!

So librarians are just itching to have fun.  Many of them went to school and got a very difficult degree (library science is tough), and now they spend their days reshelving and diddling on a computer.  These people live to help people find out what they want to know, and most of us ask Google instead.  So, go have fun with one!  Ask a really esoteric question that you’ve always wanted to know the answer to:  “What is the meaning of life?”  “How long does it take light to travel from the center of the sun to the Earth?” (the answer will shock you) “Do dating sites actually work?”  You’ll see – librarians are fun.

In fact, why not ask them about library fun?  You may be in for a surprise.

Fun With Food II: This IS the Huy Fong Sambal Badjak

The holly daze got in the way, and then a case of the flux – the grippe – the ick – the flu, caught from one of my grandkids (grandnephew Winston or grandson Julian), knocked me off the office chair and flat on my back.  So it was with little hope that I went back to Saraga International Market to look for red jalapeños, knowing that they’re seasonal.  But it seems that recreating Huy Fong‘s Sambal Badjak was destined to be – right inside the door they had jalapeños on sale for 79¢/lb, and red jalapeños for just 10¢ more.  Yay!  BTW,  check out the Sambal Badjak link – despite the fact that Huy Fong doesn’t make Badjak any more, they still have a brief page on it with an image of the old bottle.

I’d forgotten that I used empty Huy Fong Sambal bottles to store nuts & bolts when I made my first try (see Fun with Food I), and tried to get the ingredient list off from Huy Fong.  Here is the first reply:

Dear Richard,

Thank you for your interest in our products! We strive to make the best sauces using quality ingredients in every bottle.

In regards to your email, we do not produce the Sambal Badjak. If you are interested in purchasing, you will need to purchase through a distributor.

Again, thank you for your inquiry. If you have any further questions or comments please do not hesitate to e-mail us.


Customer Service

I wrote again, a simpler, shorter email that just asked for the ingredient list.  In reply:

…In regards to your email, we no longer produce that product so we do not have any information we can help them for you. We are sorry for any unconvenience.  Thank you for the comments and support…

I must say that I felt unconvenienced, though I did love that email.  I looked on the web for an image that was good enough to read the ingredient list – no joy.  Finally I remembered the nuts & bolts storage, and found an old bottle of Sambal Badjak.  Here’s the ingredient list:

Huy Fong Sambal Badjak Ingredients:

  • Chili
  • Distilled Vinegar
  • Soy Oil
  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Shrimp Paste
  • Potassium Sorbate
  • Sodium Bisulfite
  • Preservatives

Wow!  No nuts, no coconut, and, if the ingredient list was in order from most to least by weight, less onion and garlic than sugar and salt!  Surprising, but in some ways not so surprising for a commercial product.  So I decided I’d do something similar:

The Ransom Recipe for Huy Fong Sambal Badjak, v. 2.0

Sambal Badjak ingredients
The ingredients for the second attempt at Badjak
  • 30 roasted red jalapeños (about 1 1/2 lb)
  • 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup soy oil
  • 1 tbsp palm sugar
  • 3 tbsp light Kikkoman soy
  • 2 medium yellow onions
  • 12 big cloves garlic
  • 1 tsp fermented shrimp paste
  • 1 tbsp tamarind
  • water
  • 1 tsp dried lemon grass (Penzey’s)
  • 2 tsp dried galangal (Penzey’s)

As suggested by Jeff in his response to my Fun with Food I post, I roasted the jalapeños, using my Cajun Cooker (a simple gas jet – works like a charm!).

Scorching jalapeños on the Cajun Cooker
Scorching the peppers on my Cajun Cooker – 10 seconds!
Scorched jalapeños
The jalapeños after a scorchin’

Everything got blended together except for the oil, shrimp paste, tamarind, and spices.

Blended ingredients
Blended ingredients – enough water added to permit blending
Start of cooking
Blended ingredients added to hot oil at start of cooking

I brought the oil up to medium hot, added the blended ingredients, and after the mixture started poppin’, reduced heat to a low simmer.

Sambal cooking
The Sambal after an hour of cooking.

After it cooked for about an hour with stirring, I added the rest of the ingredients (shrimp paste, tamarind, spices).  I continued to cook the sambal all afternoon, adding water regularly to prevent it from thickening too much and sticking.

The Sambal Badjak the next day
The Sambal Badjak the next day

That evening I turned off the heat and let the sambal sit overnight on the stove.  In the morning it was just about what I remembered from the old Huy Fong Sambal Badjak:  brown with beautiful ruby red oil separated out.

Spooning up the Sambal
Spooning up the finished Sambal – you can really see the consistency in this shot
Loading a Huy Fong bottle with Badjak
This is the moment I’ve been waiting for!
Spoonful of Sambal Badjak
Wouldn’t you like to just gooble it up?

Here’s a few notes on the cooking:  The red wine vinegar smelled like a mistake at first, it gave off a lot of acetic acid and a definite red wine aroma that I feared would dominate the sauce.  However, that character almost completely boiled off, though next time I’m going to switch to distilled white vinegar.

The consistency, color, amount of oil, color of oil, sweetness, and heat are all – as well as I can remember – spot on!  I might add more oil next time (say 3/4 cup) because the oil is really delightful.  The galangal is a dominant flavor of the finished sauce, so next time I may reduce or even eliminate it – and if you’re trying to faithfully recreate the sauce, I would definitely not include it – but it gives the sambal great flavor.  I really like it.

In general, despite the fact that I largely guessed the amounts, this came out amazingly close to the original.  If you loved the Huy Fong Sambal Badjak, I think this is it!  I’m going out to Saraga tomorrow to get more peppers . . .

Fun with Food I: Recreating the Huy Fong Sambal Badjak

Ingredients for sambal badjak
All the ingredients for the sambal except the soy sauce.

Hello everyone!  I thought I’d take a departure this week from my fun experiments to show a food (and yet fun) experiment – my attempt to reproduce Huy Fong Food’s famous Sambal Badjak, a delicious Indonesian condiment.  Huy Fong, makers of the famous Sriracha sauce, stopped making their Sambal Badjak and Sate sauces years ago, and I was crushed.  I loved that stuff, and there is simply no substitute. I went to their site, sent them begging emails, and prowled the web for a recipe. I’ve subsequently tried a few, but they didn’t give me the magic flavor and texture of the original.

This is my latest attempt. I emailed another wistful guy who was also looking for a recipe, but he hadn’t found one either – though he did remind me of the smokey flavor that set the Huy Fong sambal apart. So I modified my recipe by adding smoked chiles (chipotles).

Sambal Badjak Recipe

The Ransom Version of the Huy Fong Food’s Original, v. 1.0


  • 20 red jalapeños, diced
  • 9 dried chipotle chiles, stemmed and crushed
  • 10 dried chiles de arbol, stemmed and torn apart
  • 3 medium yellow onions, diced
  • 1 large shallot, diced
  • 12 large cloves garlic, diced fine
  • ~20 salted, roasted cashews
  • 2 tbsp palm sugar
  • 2 tbsp tamarind concentrate
  • 1 13.5 oz can coconut milk
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 tsp Thai ground (dry) galangal
  • 2 tsp dried, shredded lemon grass
  • 2 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 3/4 cup peanut oil


Heat 1/4 cup of the peanut oil in a large Dutch oven over medium high heat until almost smoking, then add the diced veg (jalapeños, onions, garlic, and shallot).  Sweat for 10 minutes.

Vegetables sweated
After cooking the jalapeños, onions, shallots, and garlic for 10 minutes.

Cover the crushed chipotle and chile de arbol with boiling water and let rehydrate for about 10 minutes. Blend together with the cashews and additional water as needed to a thick paste.  Add to the sweated veg.

Chile and cashew paste
The paste made by blending the rehydrated chipotle and chile de arbol chiles and the cashews.
Sambal after adding chile paste
Sambal 10 minutes after adding the chile paste.

Cook for an additional ten minutes after reducing the heat to medium. Add another 1/4 cup of peanut oil, and cook for a few minutes longer.  Add the remaining ingredients except the last of the peanut oil.

Sambal after all ingredients added
The sambal after addition of the coconut milk and seasonings.

Continue cooking, making sure to stir regularly.  Scrape the solids off the bottom of the Dutch oven to prevent burning (they do carmelize, but don’t let it burn – it will ruin the sambal).

Sambal after 2 hours cooking
Slow simmered for nearly two hours.

Reduce heat to simmer, continue cooking and stirring for half an hour.  Add the remaining oil, and cook another hour.

the finished sambal badjak
Minutes after the heat was turned off – it darkened further upon cooling.

The Final Result

The finished product was more like the Huy Fong version than my previous attempts, but failed on a few points.  It was a bit too sweet, so reducing the palm sugar from 2 tbsp to 1 tbsp is recommended.  I remember the Huy Fong Sambal Badjak as being a little bit sweet, but not as sweet as most other versions of the sauce.  The smokey taste was there, but muted – it might be worth roasting the red jalapeños over a wood fire to get something stronger.  Though I suspect a frank smoke taste would ruin the sauce.

The sauce wasn’t dark enough: the Huy Fong version was dark brown.  I thought of doing a French-style browning of the onions as if for classic French Onion Soup, and the sauce could probably have used another spoonful of soy sauce – using dark soy could also help get the color.  I do like the color I got, and it did darken further upon cooling.

The final difference was the coconut milk.  I’m not sure it was even used in Huy Fong’s version, but I do like it.  But I shouldn’t have used the whole can – I think half as much would have been better.  And next time I’m going to add a bit more fish sauce, it pretty much disappeared, and try adding more water and cooking it longer.  The Huy Fong version was also smooth, so you might blend the final sauce to a fine puree – I like it a bit chunky.

Finally, I’m going to bottle this and cover it with a layer of oil.  That was one characteristic of the Huy Fong that I also didn’t replicate: it was a very oily sauce, with a good half-inch of darkly colored oil on top when opened.  Reducing or eliminating the coconut milk would certainly help with that, as the milk helps keep the oil incorporated, though it does rise to the top over time in the refrigerator.

At the end, I was pretty happy with the sauce – I’m not there yet, but that’s half the fun.  The rest of the fun is smearing this over some fresh-fried salty chicken.  Yum!

BTW, this version is hot, as in very hot.  Not carcinogenic, but hot.  If you don’t want it so spicy, I’d use fewer arbols and chipotles.

Be well, enjoy, and have fun!

[NOTE:  Be sure to read Jeff’s insightful comment on this post – he’s the guy who was looking for a recipe, and he makes some cogent, insightful, and hilarious comments.  I can tell Jeff is a fun guy.]