It is mid-summer here in the northern hemisphere. Dublin has been a delight with lingering summer evenings and awash with blooming roses and fresh colour. It is one of my favourite times of the year, as the light invites us out to play.
The Power of Play
Play, I have come to remember, is an integral part of learning and leadership, yet is all to often dismissed as ‘silly’, ‘a waste of time’, ‘unfocused’, ‘misguided’ or ‘unprofessional’. But play is where we make connections, get our brains and bodies moving in new ways, engage our imaginations, nurture the senses, allow our inner child to be given an airing, and invite in fun and laughter. Play is a rich field, ripe for learning.
When times are busy, play is often the thing which we push back on first (or at least I do!). ‘I’m too busy now’, ‘Just a few more hours at the computer…’ But have you ever noticed how much more enriched your thinking and learning is after you take a break, and even more so, after you play?
I say ‘I have come to remember‘ intentionally. No child needs to be convinced about the power of play. I wonder now instead, how did we forget? To ‘re-member’ is to recall the experience back into our bones- to literally reconnect it to our members. Our bodies never really forget.
Living with an 11 month old dog has taught me a lot about play. Little Finn insists on it. When I have been sitting for too long and ignoring her, she literally drops toys at my feet. Play is a non-negotiable for how she engages with the world and is an integral part of how she expresses her being. I am not sure what is happening in her doggie brain when she is at play, but I have a sense of what is happening in mine- an enlivening and an enrichment of the intimacy in which I engage with the present moment, which in turn shifts my neurology. When I return to my work after some time playing, I am more focused, re-invigorated and generally more productive.
But play is not just important for the fun or the productivity, but also because of its ability to connect disparate things.
Over the years I have been fortunate to work with and interview hundreds of creative and social entrepreneurs- people who are stepping up to make a difference in the world- from social activists, to artists, to medics, to designers, to writers, to sustainable farmers – all people who have a vision and are working to actualise their leadership in their own unique ways.
I asked myself, ‘What behaviours do all these people have in common and can these be learned over time?’
In examining their traits I started to see a pattern emerging- a set of learned skills and practices that can be reinforced and augmented. These are what I call the 12 Paradigms of Creative Leadership and together they not only help people launch new ventures and develop creative processes, but vitally help to sustain them. These paradigms include presence, purpose, perameters, pattern recognition, power, perspective and centrally, play**
Play is like the weave through it all; a way to deeply connect us to our imagination, intuition and inner insights. Importantly, it also acts like our very own personal labororatory, giving us permission to experiment, fail, try again, test new ground and alter our moves. Common to all the creative and social entrepreneurs I have met, it is through play that some of their best innovations and ideas happened, often unplanned or previously unassociated. It was when playing that their ‘a-ha moments’ landed. Play was the prism for insight.
Play as a Gateway…
As a photographer, many of my favourite images have been taken because of play. When I travel I carry a colourful hand puppet with me. Often when waiting in queues or travelling on buses, and when there are children around, the hand puppet will pop out and together with the kids, we start to play. That hand puppet has led to the most amazing encounters with children, their parents, and their communities- crossing cultural and language barriers and immediately breaking down any tension or fear. Through it I learned to count to ten in Hindi, Bengali, Swahili, Xhosa and Malayalam and taught many children how to count to ten in English, Irish and Mandarin! I have been invited into people’s homes as a result of that puppet, which in turn led to conversations and many opportunties as a photographer which I would not have had otherwise. Play has been a gateway and a saviour.
Having play as one of our central paradigms can re-orientate our priorities , quickly shift perspective and lighten the load when we need it the most. Play can revitalise and re-energise, sparking new connections and generating insights. Play can open doorways and opportunities. Play can be just for the fun of it too. But maybe we need to remember to do it more often, insistent dog or no dog at our side.
So, as the summer lingers and the light cheers us on, let these words be that familiar knock on the front door when you were a child, uttering some welcome words: Are you coming out to play?
** Come October 5th I will be launching a new online course, See Deeper, Act Bolder, in which I will be faciliating learning through the 12 Paradigms of Creative Leadership. Each week we will cover one or more of the paradigms, engaging creatively with each theme. Our cameras, journals, paint brushes, and blank pages will be used as learning tools, taking us on a journey into our own inner vision and possibilities, so that we can each see deeper and act bolder.
Intrigued? Find out more here.