I think it’s kind of curious to now see that how in this world do you do things that are equally crazy and how do you have the courage to believe in your imagination for things right off the bat mathematically seem incoherent.
John Seely Brown
Found this amazing quote by John Seely Brown in a speech he did, that I watched online back in January 2020. This is pretty much how I feel about my work right now. It probably seems completely crazy to most people on the surface but if you start going below the surface of it, you start seeing how it psychologically connects to everything, relating very poignantly to the world we’re living within now and The Future of Work we want to step into.
For me, this embodies creatively playing with the very perception of your reality, your worldview, which is why I call it “playing on a whole new level” because it requires stepping into a whole new psychological terrain of being human that “levels up” your level of consciousness in turn, making what was previously impossible seem possible.
In the natural world, the edge is where the action is. The zone between two ecosystemswater and land, or field and forest—is where the greatest diversity and productivity are found, as well as the most predation. This is fitting, as the Greek word for this region, an ecotone, means tension. But it’s characterized by a fertility that biologists call the edge effect.
In human affairs, the ecotone between the life you have and the life you want, between your status quo and your potential, is equally fruitful if not fitful, full of passion and suffering, productivity and predation. The exercise of pushing beyond your assumed limits into this zone of intensity and virility, in search of fulfillment and new possibilities, is rightfully referred to by sociologists as edgework.
It’s a kind of personal anarchy, an affirmative revolt against your own stuckness, as well as the entrapments and over-determined nature of everyday life (they don’t call it the “beaten” path for nothing). It’s not loss of control, though, but an acute sort of self-control, says Jeff Ferrell, author of Making Trouble. It’s self-control in place of control by others, whether church and state or job and gender, and it’s based on the understanding that if you don’t control yourself, somebody else will.
“It’s self-control for the sake of self-determination,” Ferrell says. “Self-control in the interest of holding on to your life while letting go of it. Self-control that gets you hooked on the autonomy of self-invention. It’s a defiant disavowal of secondhand living. It’s the refusal to live in a cage and have food thrown in.”
In fact, the primary evolutionary advantage of these behaviors comes down to exploration. Some members of any tribe, especially in new environments, have to investigate what’s dangerous and what’s not, and test the limits so that others will know what they are and either avoid them or exercise caution in approaching them. The explorer and aviator Charles Lindbergh rightly asked, “What civilization was not founded on adventure? Our earliest records tell of biting the apple and baiting the dragon, regardless of hardship or danger, and from this, perhaps, progress and civilization developed.”
Thus the importance of supporting the dragon-baiters, both in society and in ourselves. Of keeping alive the role of edgewalker, outlier, provocateur, and imagineer, the one who stands outside the shop window looking in and questioning; who lives in the liminal zone between civilized and wild, conformity and rebellion; who dives beneath the surface of life to its depths.
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that “civilized” society is defined by having five qualities: beauty, truth, art, peace and adventure, and that it preserves its vitality only as long as “it is nerved by the vigour to adventure beyond the safeties of the past. Without adventure, civilization is in full decay.” And the same goes for its civilians.
And that is so because in times like these many people desperately seek a context to in which to play. All too often, we are watching other people play. We are literally paying people millions of dollars to play for us. And not just on the baseball diamond. They are playing for us on compact disks; playing for us on videotape; playing for us on stage, at the concert, on the silver screen. We pay them because they play so well. Perhaps we pay them in exact proportion to our longing to be playing ourselves, which is why they are worth more and more every year. The longing for play is the longing to take the field ourselves, to play with heart and soul as each of us has the potential. We need a lifestyle that creates a context for us to make our own music, rather than always listen; do our own dancing, rather than always watch; perform our own plays, make our own films, write our own stories.
Maturation, fully living the pattern of development, leads to a growing sense of self. The play on the symbolic field must eventually lead to something durable and vital. Play aims at coalescing into a work, an “opus.” The structure that emerges in play is the sense of our self as a “self.” If I may suggest this subtle distinction: play, if followed to its true development, evolves in a game. In the end, play imposes a set of rules. It begins to develop into a way of life, which is to say, a myth.
I stumbled across this interview yesterday. It’s evident that most people, including even the interviewer, are completely misinterpreting the meaning of Brandi Heather’s work around play because she’s using it within a much larger context and meaning beyond what people conventionally perceive it to be. She’s not talking about playfully tossing a football around at work but more about “playing” beyond the boundaries of the existing, outdated, rigid social structures within our society today that are effectively standing in the way of the potential creativity and innovation within us all.
And because of this dependency and addiction on having everything so “standardized and structured” with such certainty and control, thus leaving no room for people to play within their lives (in the sense of exploring and discovering who they fully are), she then goes on to indicate the adverse affect of this loss of play within our lives.
In reflecting upon this all, I think the only way you can make people truly aware of the power of play in their lives is by helping them to become aware of how so much of their existing reality, their world and even their sense of self-identity, are constructs of our collective playing and imaginations which become “reality” for others. But these collective playings and imaginations are not The Reality but rather just one possible reality. We can playfully imagine another, if we so choose to do so.
Steve Jobs has an eloquent quote about this below but most people misinterpret it and think it only applies to technology and physical things. It doesn’t. It applies to the social structures and cultures within our lives as well. For example, our institutions are a social construct that were playfully imagined at one time in the past and became a “reality” for us, a part of our daily lives. But we can just as easily play and imagine something new, if we so choose to do so (especially now that they are so inadequate for the times we are living within).
I previously said that, “I don’t see how I can effectively communicate and continue my work anymore because the depth of it is often misunderstood and paradoxical to conventional minds.” This is just a cop-out because I’m afraid of expressing something beyond the conventional. So it’s not like I can’t do it. It’s more I’m fearful of doing it.
Can I use “play” as a way of simplifying the complexity and depth of vertical development, making it more accessible and understandable? If so, it means showing the conventional “role playing game” we’re playing within now, as a foundational starting point.
In addition, the kind of play that people are addicted to addresses a deep psychological need.
Many of those who are addicted to computer gaming are those who don’t feel comfortable meeting life’s varied and ambiguous challenges. In life, it’s often not clear if you are “winning” or “losing”. Gaming offers a very controlled world in which victory and defeat can be clear and unambiguous. Part of the reason for widespread game addiction in Japan and Korea may be that those are societies in which there are intense pressures for young people to be high achievers along a very specific and rigid career path, offering little chance for the young to define their own quest.
Learn again how to play, even as a child. One in touch with the vitality of the inner child throws himself into life. He is free to move spontaneously from intuition. His actions are neither dependent on the validation of others nor blocked by his own self-censure. No longer a mere observer or spectator, he actively participates in his life. This child-like spirit of engagement is the road to life’s work. As Thomas Merton said, “A man knows he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to live and begins to live.”