How do you play?


We’re re-watching the Sopranos right now, old school style on DVD. In one of the episodes from the second season, Livia Soprano (Tony’s mum) asks, “Why does everything have to have a purpose?” The overachiever in me wants to claim that everything DOES have a purpose but, really, I totally agree with Livia, that we are not always purposeful nor should we be. If you’re Type A, you probably disagree. I would have been in your camp a decade ago but these days I realize that some of the best times and best ideas come from playing. It doesn’t matter what you play, only that you enjoy yourself.

Sometimes the value of play is in taking a moment to rest your mind, taking a breather from the stress we all carry. When I play, I lose myself in what I’m doing. I often laugh and I’m never cranky. Isn’t that a gift? Even better, when I play, I’m encouraging others to do so, too. This means we connect with each other, even if we’re strangers. Southwest airlines gets this, why else would they encourage their employees’ to show their senses of humor? (Go to for an example of their funny approach to life.) Southwest is recognized for its leadership practices, which rely heavily on relationships between its employees, between its business units, between leadership and front line and between their employees and customers. This has put them on top in a very competitive industry. For more on Southwest management practices, see Jody Gittel’s book, The Southwest Airlines Way (reference info below).

Play can be powerful when you’re trying to innovate. It is inherently creative as you are using your imagination to make something, to see beyond what is and into what could be. Jay Silver recently gave a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design, “ideas worth spreading”) talk on his method for inventing. He said, “Sometimes what we know gets in the way of what could be. We think we already know how it works so we don’t see how else it could be.” Watch his video at; it will make you laugh and look at pencils, pizza and bananas differently.  Doesn’t it make you want to play?

Further evidence of how what we know gets in the way of what could be is in the art world. My first drawing teacher had us turn pictures upside down so that we wouldn’t interpret the lines into something familiar. When we try to draw something we recognize, our brain gets in the way. By making it even a little bit unfamiliar, we disrupt the assumptions our brain makes and we see things more clearly. I don’t have my textbook from this class and I’ve long since forgotten her name but I’ve included a reference below about this.

I play at home – I love to write, photograph, paint and knit (that’s being a ‘textile artist’ for you who think knitting is an old lady skill and I’ve been doing it since I could read). I also play at work. This includes writing but my favorite work activity is playing with data. I know, I know, you imagine someone hunched over a computer who hasn’t seen daylight for weeks and you can’t imagine it as play. However, in playing with data, we find patterns or anomalies that provoke us to think about our business and what’s happening. This leads to investigation and oftentimes, to a change in our strategy or tactics. I think this is why we have beaten our sales targets for four years running. I tell my team, “this is what we do well, we study the data and it tells us what to do next.”

Play keeps us fresh. By seeing things with an open mind, I learn something new every day and I spend every day joyfully. I sometimes create but I always enjoy. How do you play?

The water plays at the Bellagio, Las Vegas. I imagine a water engineer somewhere is smiling at all the oohs and ahhs when the fountain runs. (April 2013)

The water plays at the Bellagio, Las Vegas. I imagine a water engineer somewhere is smiling at all the oohs and ahhs when the fountain runs. (April 2013)


Chase, D. (Producer) (2000). Do not resuscitate [Television series episode]. In Chase, D. (Executive Producer), The Sopranos. HBO.

Free, D. (21, Augus 2006). Have you tried turning it upside down?. Retrieved from

Gittell, J. (2002). The southwest airlines way. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Silver, J. (Artist). (2013, April ). Jay Silver: Hack a banana, make a keyboard [Web Video]. Retrieved from

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