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Reflections on Life and Work
by Wanda Ropa
March 2005

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Lewis Carroll wrote, “Alice in Wonderland,” in 1865, as a critique of the Victorian era in which he lived. In this classic story, Alice being plunged down a rabbit hole becomes a metaphor of life. In the movie, the Matrix, before Neo starts his hero’s journey, he is asked, how far down the rabbit hole he wants to go. The rabbit hole symbolizes our journey into the unknown. Both Alice and Neo don’t have any idea of where this journey will lead and what they will face. But they proceed anyway. Neo’s guide on this journey, Morpheus, acknowledges that “nothing is as it appears.”

When I was growing up, I was indoctrinated with the philosophy or belief that work would have to be hard. The only way to prove my worth to my family and society was engaging in hard work. My father always used to ask: “Are you working hard or hardly working?” The message that I heard loud and clear was that only by laboring, struggling and painfully working could I prove that I was worthy to live. ‘Hardly working’ implied negative connotations, similar to being a sloth, an unproductive member of society and being lazy. That was taboo in my family!

But what if the reverse were true? What if nothing is as it appears? Just like in Alice in Wonderland or the Matrix, there’s so much more. But because I bought into the idea that work had to be drudgery, I would never uncover the real truth. Do you ever see people around you that encounter a day effortlessly? They’re constantly smiling and resonating with happiness? What do they know that we don’t? What if we based our next minute, our next hour, our next day, our next week …. (you get the idea) on ‘hardly working?’ What would happen? Really?

If we go back to our early years, our curious childhood times before we bought into the concept of work being hard, we may find clues to this ‘hardly working’ philosophy. It is very interesting that we never operate in a vacuum. Yes, our family embeds us with some interesting values, but many times they are a mere reflection of the society at large. How do children behave before they’re socialized to conform? As I watch young children at play, their actions are effortless. They interact with their peers, with legos, blocks, dolls, soldiers, or tanks in an imaginative manner. These children are productive as they engage their total being in creativity. They have no predetermined outcomes, no preconceived notions; they just play and do what comes naturally.

How can we recapture unfocused play from our childhood years? Play with no goals, no expectations and do things effortlessly? Can this even happen for us as adults? The first natural objection to this course of thinking is using the word, ‘play.’ What does the word play conjure up? Perhaps, the same thing that creativity elicits. Play equals creativity equals laziness equals fun equals being unproductive. If fun ever enters the equation, twinges of guilt enter the picture. Typically, employers believe that employees are here to do the job and make money. Fun doesn’t enter into the equation.

Bernie DeKoven explores this concept of fun in his article on Executive Update Online, “Discover the Fun of Work.” He explains that in the early stages of every organization, there is excitement and passion and fun as visions manifest into reality. However, as the organization grows in size and profit, this early workplace milieu seems to dissipate and it’s much harder to recognize that fun ever had existed. Does this sound familiar? Is your organization a fun place to work? Are you challenged and stimulated in productive ways? Or are you just there to collect a paycheck?

One of my former roles in the corporate world was working with human resources. We were asked to examine what incentives or bonuses would motivate employees to become more productive. We discovered, just like, Alfie Kohn in his New York times article, “For Best Results, Forget the Bonus,” that money is not the motivating factor. Research studies in the field of social psychology demonstrate that poorer performance results when people expect to be rewarded versus others who are not expecting any incentive. The research confirms my previous experience in leadership roles. Individuals are not motivated in long term ways with external factors. Rather motivation occurs intrinsically, from within.

The same holds true for parenting. When children are unmotivated to perform in school, what do parents do? I have personal experience working with unmotivated children. Unless, they decide it is in their best interest to complete an assignment, it will never happen. Depriving children of rewards will never alter their behavior. The same applies to employees. What happens when managers threaten their employees with disciplinary measures alone? In many circumstances, the employee spirals downward and ultimately is fired. What if managers uncovered the root of the behavior? What was really causing the issue? Was the position the wrong fit for the employee? Were there other factors? Are employees feeling valued? Are individuals having fun? Clues are everywhere if you just listen and observe and ask questions.

Research supports that workplaces that exude fun sustain passionate, dedicated employees who are much more productive than their counterparts in traditional stressful work environments. In the book, “Work Like a Dog: Fifty Ways to Work Less, Play More, and Earn More," Matt Weinstein and Luke Barber demonstrate from firsthand experience that “at companies that intentionally start bringing play in, the stress levels go way down. People get a much stronger sense of corporate loyalty” and they gain competitive advantage in their marketplace. Matt Weinstein is the founder of Playfair, Inc., a management consulting firm that helps business people recapture the gifts of childhood with laughter and fun while building stronger teams. As the baby boomers step aside in the workplace, all the new generations, X and above, have different expectations. They want to be challenged and have fun. So, the sooner, employers start changing the current paradigm of work, the sooner, we will start seeing more happy, productive employees. But don’t take my word for it, ask your employees. If you are part of an organization, ask yourself, where would you want to work? If the answer is a stimulating, challenging, fun environment, then how can things change? Will you need help in this effort? Who can help you within your organization? Who can help you outside your organization? Resources are available, but the first question to ask yourself is “do you want things to change?”

“The true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.” - G.K. Chesterton

“Play is the exultation of the possible.” - Martin Buber

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