Why are we so passionate about keeping fun out of work?
What do you think of when you think of fun? Do you think of deep, philosophical meaning? Or frivolous, meaningless entertainment?
My parents grew up in tough times. My mom lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s under primitive conditions, where getting enough to eat was a real issue. Her family worked hard to get food from dirt, from stinky, messy chickens, from hard work, dawn to dusk – enjoying only the entertainment they could make for themselves.
My dad grew up in only slightly better circumstances. His dad worked as a handyman for a boy’s school in Northern Michigan, and this connection allowed my dad to attend that school and move up. But he didn’t attend college, and worked, like his brothers, in the hard work of construction. It wasn’t easy.
My parents taught me a lot about fun. They didn’t have it easy, and the way they grew up changed them in fundamental ways. They always worked hard, even when they didn’t really need to, and didn’t have much respect for slackers. But they had fun. And respected fun.
They built their lives around improving their lot, and providing better opportunities for their kids (me and my two brothers). They helped their neighbors (my aunts and uncles), and worked hard to keep up the neighborhood. But there was always time for a party, and they lived for the gatherings of relatives and friends, even as they worked like dogs to make sure those gatherings were filled with food and fun, were held in a scrupulously clean home, and ended well for everyone that attended.
They lived for fun.
And despite growing up in difficult times, they had fun living. And working. They didn’t talk about fun work, or (I believe) even think about their work as fun. But I worked with my Mom and Dad, and I know they cared deeply about fun, and not just when the chores were done.
The Western world, and especially the United States with its Puritanical roots, has a deep mistrust of fun. There’s a big wall between serious and fun. Serious is important, and fun is silly. It’s not uncommon for Americans to put words like foolish, carefree, silly, and pointless in sentences together with fun – and rare to associate fun with serious, important, essential, and fundamental.
And yet there’s a curiously intense, even frantic, feeling to our fun. Those rare vacations, the few hours on the weekend or after work when we aren’t busy with chores, or homework, or work we took home, have all the light-hearted delicacy of a giant, smoke-belching chainsaw. When we do fun, we do it. All balls to the wall, full-tilt boogie.
We live for fun, but we squeeze it into such a small space that the pressure is incredible. You’ve heard your colleagues (or your wife, or yourself) complain that it took them almost their entire vacation to decompress enough to relax. That’s one symptom of the way we’ve pushed fun out of our ‘regular’ lives and into a walled, gated reservation.
Corporations are one of the culprits. One of my favorite authors, Neal Stephenson, wrote that corporations have stolen all of our good stories. They’ve turned them into procedures entombed in three-ring binders, put them in service to the quarterly report, shareholder value, and the bottom line. We’re interchangeable cogs in a faceless machine, and the only stories left over are the bad ones. The server crash that killed everyone’s email, the dork who spilled his coffee into the copy machine. Fun is banished – because it can’t be turned into a procedure.
This leftover of the assembly-line era is changing – think of Google with it’s gaily painted ‘offices,’ the free massages and foosball tables and gourmet lunches. We’re groping back to fun work, but mostly it’s fun as a coat of paint. The office is ‘fun,’ but the work is the same old drudgery. Adding a foosball table doesn’t free you from soulless rote work, or turn a bad boss into less of a jerk.
Let’s reclaim fun. Fun work. Work that’s fun because fun work is our best work. Let’s measure our work by fun because fun captures the whole, not the part. And because fun is what makes our success feel like success.
But what is fun?
Short answer: I don’t know. However, we as a race of thinking beings don’t know what anything really is. We have descriptions of behavior, not knowledge of what is. We don’t know what space is, or what an electron is, or what time is. We can only describe. Define.
My definition of fun is simple: Fun is what’s happening when you know you’re having fun.
That puts fun on an entirely different plane from most feel-good measures. Happiness, satisfaction, wellness – they’re all states of being. Fun happens. It’s an action, a verb, though we don’t typically use it as one. You don’t be fun, you have fun. Okay, you can be fun too, but that really means that fun happens around you. A fun person has fun. A happy person is happy.
I believe that fun is also a synonym for creativity. Fun is inherently creative, a creative act, even if the creation is ‘just’ a great conversation, or an exciting party. Like fun, creativity is really a verb, an action. Yes, we say someone is creative, but that really means that person creates. I believe that fun is functional creativity – creativity that’s working – and the better it works, the more fun it is.
Defining fun as equal to creativity excludes a lot of what most people would call fun. Specifically, non-participatory entertainment. Watching a sporting event, or a concert, or your favorite TV show. I think that’s right, because the absence of creativity makes these activities enjoyable rather than fun. If they’re truly fun, there is creativity involved, even if it’s ‘just’ having far-ranging conversations about your favorite team, or doing the wave.
There are people who have fun – what I call fun – in ways that aren’t typically creative. I see through my filter, and I live to create. To create new things, objects or ideas or processes that never existed before. You may have a different filter, and have fun that doesn’t create anything new.
A better definition of fun may be: Fun is what’s happening when you’re doing what you do best. You may have fun innovating, while your colleague has fun using your innovation to make her spreadsheet balance perfectly. I call this putting your personal stamp on your work.
Through my filter, that means making something new. For you it may be about being in control, or doing your work with style. Either way, it’s essential for fun. The corporate world may want you to become an interchangeable cog in a faceless machine, but if you get stamped out rather than doing the stamping, you won’t be having fun.
You may think you’re not the ‘creative type,’ but I still believe that fun = creativity. You may have to look beneath the surface to see it. At the lowest level, you’re different than your co-workers, and so you must be creative just to adapt your working style to a common workplace. And when you’re doing what you do best and feel appreciated for doing it, you have fun – and when you don’t, it’s not.
And that’s why fun is fundamental
Whether we think we’re creative or not, we must create to survive. Perhaps there are people who do nothing their whole lives but consume without creation. If so, I doubt they’re having fun. For the vast majority of humanity, creation is as essential as breathing, even if it’s rote and by-the-numbers. Hunting howler monkeys in the Amazon rain forest with blowguns, or being a clerk at a rural gas station – both (can) create.
Fun is the best part of that creative spectrum. Creation of something new, or novel, creation of something that has your special stamp on it. Fun is what puts your mark on the world, for good or bad, for posterity or only until the tide comes in and washes it away.
That’s the paradox, and power, of fun. Fun isn’t ambition, or a legacy, or a conquest. It’s doing what you do best for its own sake – not for advantage, or posterity. It’s the spark of invention, the feeling that the Universe would be different, and poorer, if you hadn’t had your fun.
Please. Please. Go have fun. Insist on it. Hold yourself to it. Ask yourself every time you aren’t having fun, “Why not?” It’s a merciless metric, a tough taskmaster, but you’ll have some great stories when you do. How you made paying your bills fun. How you created a fun way to clean the toilets (I did). How fun drew out the best of you and helped you enjoy it – even when you didn’t think you could.