As modern companies focus on systems, outcomes and corporate accountability, creativity remains elusive. But innovative companies want creative teams. Although we live in a culture that firmly separates work from play, current neuroscience research requires us to take a second look. Stepping back from work – partaking in playful engagement or exploration – is essential to innovative thinking, energy, empathy, individuality – and to our very nature as human beings.
Recently, I discovered that digital gamers embrace a classic book about play called Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (1938) by Dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga. Huizinga says that play is at the center of everything in human culture, and that it happens within what he called a magic circle. Although Huizinga could not have imagined the world of digital games, he described the magic circle as a temporary world within the ordinary world where people play by special rules and engage in pleasurable activities that ignite the imagination.
In the quest for workplace productivity, focusing on breaks may seem counterintuitive. But the research is clear: regular breaks provide a needed respite from the daily grind. But not any old break is effective. Evidence from a wide variety of Books@Work programs confirm that breaks that still engage the brain – albeit in different ways – provide outsized benefits. In a Books@Work break, colleagues engage in crucial conversations around important, difficult-to-discuss issues. They practice critical team skills and learn to connect on a more human level.
In a world focused on outcomes and accountability, we ignore the transformative power of time apart at our peril. Insights from hundreds of Books@Work participants reveal three concrete reasons why taking a break to discuss a piece of literature with colleagues is just the productivity boost your organization needs.
In the world of the sciences – including the social sciences – researchers have long known that they need to be on the lookout for surprises in their data. When something unexpected repeatedly emerges, it is time to sit up, take notice and challenge the assumptions that shaped your research. In the early days of interviewing Books@Work participants, the surprises we observed in participant experiences sent us right back to our early thinking about the program.
The original concept for Books@Work came from a community effort (led by Ann Kowal Smith) to support individuals in the workplace to seek further education. The group speculated that building their interest and confidence as lifelong learners might help people across the educational spectrum develop new skills and attitudes as members of the 21st-century workforce. Steeped in the liberal arts, the designers of the program believed in literature as a way to engage worker/learners to discover their untapped potential. But over the course of hundreds of participant interviews, new insights beyond the original vision began to emerge.
At the beginning of his popular book on collaboration, Adam Kahane repeats a joke he heard on his first trip to Cape Town. He writes that when faced with overwhelming problems, “we have two options: a practical option and a miraculous option. The practical option is for all of us to get down on our knees and pray for a band of angels to come down from heaven and solve our problems for us. The miraculous option is that we work things through together.”
While this joke has a humorous truth to it, it actually doesn’t require a miracle to work things through in business. Evidence shows that you can’t successfully solve problems through collaboration unless you have first prepared an ecology of mutual respect. Right now, summer gardens are bursting into color – but we must not forget that this growth is the result of nourishment and care. Successful collaboration in organizations may feel miraculous, but it comes out of a carefully-crafted environment that nurtures creative problem-solving. So how do we create that environment?
Sometimes complex human questions become clearer when we go back to our roots – even our childhood roots. University of Chicago Laboratory School teacher and MacArthur Genius Vivian Paley addressed the universal human experience of feeling excluded after forty years of observing children in nursery school and kindergarten. Despite its unlikely source, Paley’s inclusion rule (and the title of her most popular book), “You can’t say you can’t play,” may be an important reflection for organizational leaders who have learned that hiring a more diverse workforce is only a baby step toward creating a culture of inclusion in which all individuals can flourish.
We aren’t advocating a return to preschool, or even the legislation of human interaction with a set of childhood “rules.” But there are important things to learn from the evolution of human nature – ideas and behaviors that have been hardwired into us since before our earliest sentient moments.
The best things I learn in life often come from unexpected places. There’s nothing more satisfying than suddenly seeing something in a startling new way. The pure pleasure when I have said the words “I never thought of it like that!” reminds me of the happy surprise on a young child’s face who has learned something new and exciting. It occurs to me that this feeling of recognition may be what engages us to be lifelong learners, beginning as little tots and continuing into old age.
One such experience came for me around that very word: recognition.
I never would have predicted that my favorite book of 2017 would be a memoir about teaching The Odyssey. Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic was the perfect combination of a compelling personal story, an interpretive, accessible guide to one of history’s most famous works of literature and a probing reflection on human relationships. The book has opened up many new insights for me about literature and social science and my own experiences in the world.
Early in the book, I learned for the first time about a classical literary technique called ring composition, which was used before writing was even invented. The storyteller begins his tale “only to pause and loop back to some earlier moment that helps explain an aspect of the story he’s telling – a bit of personal or family history, say – and afterward might even loop back to some earlier moment or incident . . . gradually winding his way back to the present moment.” This is the same way we engage in everyday conversation, especially when we are inspired to think creatively and expansively about a topic. Digressions don’t take us away from the conversation at hand so much as they embellish our ideas. Isn’t it true that conversational twists and turns can enrich our understanding and our interactions with each other?
The sudden flash of insight that comes in an aha moment brings a sense of satisfaction that humans have valued since mythic times, when Archimedes shouted “Eureka!” after discovering a solution to a real-world problem. Such moments change individual lives and also provide breakthroughs in the world of work. St. Paul reinvented his life when he was knocked off his horse. Sir Isaac Newton theorized gravity when he saw an apple fall. Tchaikovsky said, “Generally, the germ of a future composition comes suddenly and unexpectedly. . . It takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches and leaves, and finally blossoms.”
So how do we create the perfect conditions for these flashes of creativity in the workplace?
It is not only a simple cliché but also a cultural meme, that at the beginning of a new year, like the Roman god Janus, we reflect on the past and make plans for a different future. This meme represents a fundamental human urge to learn, change and develop new ways of being in the world. Essentially, it is an annual opportunity to focus on possibilities and to say, “That can be me.”
University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum suggests that two key questions guide our efforts to pursue what we can be: What are we actually able to do and to be? What real opportunities do we have to pursue our goals?