When you imagine a successful entrepreneur, what comes to mind? With every “hustle” and “grind” Facebook image that pops up on my feed, it would seem working hard at the expense of everything else is what successful entrepreneurs do. But most successful entrepreneurs know that you need time to unwind, eat healthy foods, exercise and enjoy hobbies. Unfortunately, entrepreneurship culture (and society at large) has lost our connection with play.
Play is one of the most important skills for an entrepreneur to engage in regularly. It can increase creativity, reduce stress (thus, increasing performance) and improve overall mood and productivity. The act of playing like you did as a child could be the difference between failure and success.
Researchers know that children use different methods of play to develop their brains. Children learn about interacting with others, how the world around them works and create strong neurological connections that last into adulthood.
A Michigan State University study found that children who participated in playful arts and craft activities were more likely to own businesses or generate patents. According to Rex LaMore at the university's Center for Community and Economic Development, “If you started as a young child and continued in your adult years, you’re more likely to be an inventor as measured by the number of patents generated, businesses formed or articles published.” Play, especially in adulthood, helps to increase innovation and creativity, which leads to business success.
Understanding the brain and how it works is a fairly new phenomenon, but already scientists can determine who is “play deprived” and who is not. Researcher Jaak Panksepp at Washington State University noted that “play activates the whole neocortex ... and we found that of the 1,200 genes that were measured, about one-third of them were significantly changed simply by having a half-hour of play.” If play impacts at least 33 percent of our brains, think about how much more successful you can be.
The benefits of play aren't exclusively touted by researchers and scientists in the field. There is a reason Google employees are encouraged to play beach volleyball and/or go bowling or rock climbing. There is a reason LinkedIn employees play foosball and ping-pong. Engaging in play helps boost workplace productivity and creativity in every way. The successful tech firms take advantage of this and you can too.
But no matter how much research supports the benefits of play, the perception in our society is that play is for children. After a certain age we are asked to “grow up,” and suddenly play seems less acceptable.
Rarely do I see grown men playing with action figures or women playing with Barbies. Just let the image of a professional 30-something woman playing with a Barbie sink in for a moment. If you felt the image was strange or bizarre in some way, you're not alone.
There are all types of judgments about what kind of playful activity is allowed as an adult, but all of these distract us from connecting with playful activities that can improve our lives. If you're having trouble conceptualizing what it might mean for you to play more, here are some ways to begin:
1. Take a “play history.”
One simple way to engage with play is to consider what you used to enjoy as a child. There are probably some vivid and fond memories of play, which you can use to develop some ideas. Maybe you played a sport in high school that you'd like to get involved with or perhaps it was a musical instrument. Even video games can improve creativity, reduce stress and improve wellbeing.
2. Learn partnered play.
Partnered play adds extra elements absent from individual games. A practice such as group yoga not only engages with creativity, but it also creates connection and bonding with others through a brain chemical called oxytocin. The trust involved in some of the poses creates an added benefit of empathy, which is transformative for both parties.
3. Practice martial arts.
As a 25-year-old man, martial arts has been a great way to engage with my masculine side. Learning jiu jitsu has been both humbling and incredibly fun. Perhaps martial arts are so important because boys often learn about themselves through rough-housing as children. If it seems intimidating, go slow and find a dojo with a community you trust.
4. Dance your pants off.
I love dancing. One of my favorite things to do is go to a club, do some hip-hop or break dance and let myself go wild. Beyond the playful benefits of dancing, you also have the opportunity to stretch your boundaries and become more comfortable with yourself and judgments from others. As a side note, dancing can be incredibly helpful for brain function as well.
Play is more a state of mind than any particular practice. As long as you engage with something in this mindset, you will not have a problem finding ways to play.
Psychiatrist and Stanford researcher Dr. Stuart Brown has studied 6,000 "play histories" (case studies) over decades. In his understanding, “A lack of play should be treated like malnutrition: it's a health risk to your body and mind.” It should be a part of our everyday existence like breathing and exercising.
Ironically, you'll get the most benefit from play if you aren't trying to use it for business success. Reconnecting with play is a crucial part of a fulfilling and happy life and being successful in your professional life is a byproduct, not a motivator.