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.