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Why All Work and No Play Makes You a Dull Boy: Learning to Play Again

Aaron McHugh

You’ve read and heard that proverb all your life, All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. But we don’t believe it.  If we did we would not live like we do. Play to some seems like one of those words that disappeared with hopscotch, GI Joe action figures and tree houses.

I meet a lot of people who stopped playing twenty, thirty or forty years ago. And the result is our Life is overtaken by our Work. Balance in our life is evaluated when we renew our New Year’s Resolutions.

Running the Rock with smiles on in Kona, HI Photo Credit Anders Carlson

When was the last time you actually played?

Do you consider Play a regular and necessary part of your life? Let’s take a look at why so few of us still participate in Play today.

How am I defining Play?

I am defining play as sheer joy-filled, aimless enjoyment without a goal or competition or purpose. I believe the key element is aimless enjoyment. Am I saying you cannot have a goal or a conquest?  No.

Here is an example:

I learned to fly fish on the rivers of Colorado eight or nine years ago.  When I first started it was sheer conquest.

How many fish can I catch? was the primary mission of each assault on the water.

I thoroughly enjoyed being on the water, in nature, away from cell coverage, but I was not playing.

I was competing.

Today, I can go fishing for the sheer aimless enjoyment of it.  I often choose to sit on the bank of the river and take a nap when the fishing is slow.  I can take in the beauty and absorb the camaraderie in ways that the competition mindset never allowed.

Playing with your friends while you hold your breath running the rock across the ocean floor Photo Credits Anders Carlson

When we were young it was the norm.

When we are young it was expected that we Play.  But there enters a time in our lives when play becomes the past time of adolescence  we abandon the entire category of Play to move onto more seemingly important pursuits.

My kids when they were younger would have Play Days with their friends organized by the moms.  At those young ages it was expected that play consisted of everything from jungle gyms to imaginary games.

Sometime around middle school the vocabulary shifts.  It is no longer cool to use the word play when you are with your friends.  I noticed this with my son a number of years ago.

Sometimes my wife would accidentally slip in front of his friends and say, Why don’t you guys go play?  He was super unappreciative of her childlike choice of vocabulary for they hang out, they don’t play anymore.

So it begins, a transition away from Play being cool.  I can’t comment how prevalent this is for women as my daughter is still happy to call it Play.

I can say that beginning very young boys forget the value of aimless enjoyment.
And then they become men.  

The lava rock waiting for the next playmate to pick up and bounce across the ocean Photo Credit Anders Carlson

Sports become competition

Sports are obviously a significant part of many young men’s lives through their high-school and college years.  Football, soccer, baseball, hockey, track, cross country, swimming, golf, tennis, lacrosse, and the list keeps going.

During those glory years activity and motion takes on the form of practice and competition.

Do you remember this shift in your own life?

Do you remember when kicking the soccer ball around with your friends was just for fun?  I’m confident you remember when your sport or activity became a serious business.

Winning, competing, advancing, and striving each enter the scene of our youth and our play is consumed by these stronger forces.

Paddling for fun in HI Photo Credits Anders Carlson

What was lost?

I remember taking a friend backpacking on an overnight on Pikes Peak.  We were above tree line and gaining elevation with every step.  The clouds set in, the hail and snow starting coming down and visibility was down to a mere two feet.  We hunkered down and pitched our tent, piled in and starting warming up.

He was both unsettled and invigorated.

In the morning on our way out he commented on how in his adult life he had abandoned any activities for himself.

Over the course of fifteen years of work, family and mortgage payments he had lost his version of play.

He went on to explain how photography used to be one of his passions.  The best he could recall his equipment was sitting in a cardboard box in the top of a coat closet.

I believe this is the story of most men today.

Between raising a family and building a career it is explainable why Play gets neglected.  You can see how over the course of our lives the margin is so small and play simply gets left behind.

Of course it does right?

How many men do you know that actually participate in activities outside of work, family and church?

I don’t know many.

The team gets in on the game Photo Credits Anders Carlson

The consequence of abandoning play.

Without Play our lives begin to take on a shape of duties and responsibilities without an outlet for adventure.

If we are always tending to external needs we get lost.

It has great impact on both us and our families.

Who taught me to play?

I have a good friend in Hawaii, Sam, who is a master artist of play.  A number of years ago I was spending some time with he and his family and he posed this question to me When do you just play?  

Honestly at first I did not understand what he was talking about.

Sam on the right

For years I have been a very active triathlete, marathoner and adventurer.  As far as I was concerned going for a run or ride every day was play.

He corrected me.  I don’t mean training for your next race.  I mean play for the lone purpose of fun and joy.

Honestly his question really left me wobbly.

I really had no idea what he was talking about until I began to spend more time with him.

As I shadowed Sam those weeks under the Aloha sun, I began to detox from my striving, measuring, and constant drivenness.  Compared to the Master Artist, I seemed like a young grasshopper Padawan and yet he was so kind and patient with me.

The ocean is patient playtime begins anytime you choose to enter Photo Credits Anders Carlson

No Stopwatch Running

On Thursday’s we would meet at the ocean and paddle to a nearby beach and begin our ritual routine.

We would swim laps and run on the beach and work on balance and agility (picture a Crossfit workout) but it was different.

There was no competition between us.

There was not an ounce of comparison or a stopwatch running or conversation about last week’s accomplishments.  It was simply for the joy of movement and brotherhood.

One of my favorite playful activities that we would do was called Run the Rock.

It is a training routine that lifeguards use to train their lungs to tolerate less oxygen for longer periods of time.

Going for it on a big bold push Run the Rock HI Photo Credits Anders Carlson

Run the Rock-The Drill

  • Find a medium size lava rock underwater.
  • Dive down, pick it up and start running across the bottom of the ocean floor.
  • When your lungs are on fire and your lizard brain tells you go up.
  • Resurface on top and then your buddy goes down and repeats the above.
  • Each time the rock gets advanced across the ocean floor from point A to point B.

To some this may seem like the furthest thing from Play.  That’s OK.

Your version of Play should be your own personal recipe for aimless enjoyment. 

All work and no play will make you a dull boy (or girl).

We are so skilled at building empires, platforms and long resume’s of accomplishments.

And for so many of us our lives become dull routines of obligations.

I’d love to invite you into the world of Play again.

What does Play look like for you?

*Photography by Anders Carlson.  Visit andersimagery.com   for more information on his work.
More Running the Rock images by Anders Carlson.