“The Paleolithic hunters who painted the unsurpassed animal murals on the ceiling of the cave at Altamira had only rudimentary tools. Art is older than production for use, and play older than work. Man was shaped less by what he had to do than by what he did in playful moments. It is the child in man that is the source of his uniqueness and creativeness, and the playground is the optimal milieu for the unfolding of his capacities.”
— Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition (1973)
This time of year is fraught with anxiety despite the fact it should be celebratory. We run about shopping for gifts for our loved ones and friends, we scramble to finish projects at work before the end of the year, and we frantically prepare for hosting family or traveling to another family host. The lights are up and twinkling but are we taking the time to stop and look at them and smile?
Life is an endless sea of choices. We’re bombarded by options from the infinitesimal to the life-changing. Behind these decisions lies a nearly irrepressible framework of productivity that is ingrained in us from a very early age, and is the bulwark of our American culture. Being productive or perhaps even more importantly, being seen as being productive, is essential to our identity. Most of the choices we make in our lives are fundamentally predicated on supporting our own or other’s productivity. Getting good grades is a form of production. Graduating from high school or college is being productive. Having children, or obtaining a promotion at work is productivity. Our lives often exist as a means to an end, but what end? We all instinctively know that death is all that awaits us at the end of our gloriously productive lives, so why strive?
I often wonder if we were able to minimize the idea of productivity and instead focus on maximizing our play if we wouldn’t all be better off. I’ve read many a book on how to become more efficient, more productive, and even work less but earn more. What I’ve noticed about all of these books is they are written by people who either start out as or become believers of productivity for productivity’s sake. Tim Ferriss is a shining example of this idea with his 4-Hour Work Week. How is that a realistic example of how a single mother with two kids is going to get herself to a four hour work week? I don’t hear anyone currently asking Ferriss how many hours a week he is working either. He just completed another book filled with interviews with other people he considers successful and productive, did he finish that book by working only four hours in a week? I tend to doubt it. There is a plethora of advice out there on how to improve your life, and almost none of it addresses a fundamental condition of being human—having time to play. Ferriss’s example is key, he took any time he gained from off-shoring labor to India and he used it to continue to drink the cool-aid of productivity.
I admit seeing the world through the lens of play is more natural to me. As an artist that is where the work begins. Play, experimentation, and exploration are central to being an artist, but I firmly believe they are also fundamental to being a happy human being. If you just focus your life on achievements you’re actually focusing on an emptiness that will inevitably leave you feeling unhappy. I’ve chosen not to have children for many reasons, but one of the primary reasons is just that I wanted to explore play on my own. It seems to me the joy in children is being reminded of our own sense of playfulness by engaging in playful, often silly activities with them. Sure there are lots of things you need to be aware of as a parent that are quite serious in nurturing another human beings’ life, but at the core, we’re training another person about life. That shouldn’t be a job but an act of creativity itself. Life is short, we should try to be more open and spend more time frolicking.
We’re cooperatively counter-intuitive because we see life through the lens of productivity as an end to a means rather than seeing the means as the most important thing about being alive, and realizing that we would actually be more successful, happier, and emotionally enriched if we spent more time at a playground. I hope that during this busy season you take the time to play more even if you’re not yet willing to give up on being productive all the time.