Work and play, is there a difference?

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Print this page By Bernie Niemeier
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Photo by Mark Rhodes

We are all familiar with the phrase, “Work hard — play hard!” Often it’s a rallying cry for another round of cocktails with your team in the lobby bar or soaking up late-night drinks in a hospitality suite while “networking.”  The laughs may be big, though not terribly productive; hopefully fewer problems were created than solved.  There’s nothing wrong with esprit de corps, but that’s not what I’m thinking of right now.

What I am thinking of is the relationship between our success at work and what we learned about life, playing and competing in childhood.  Did these experiences make you better later in life and is competitiveness really the same thing as success?

I grew up in the Neolithic pre-electronics era, so my earliest memories of play have to do with climbing trees and trying to roller skate. My earliest experience with competition involved racing homemade toy boats on Richmond’s Reedy Creek. Some boats had sails and others were powered by  rubber-band engines.  I always felt accomplished as a tree climber but was less successful with roller skates.  My toy boats did pretty well.  Overall, these are pleasant memories.

My first experience with organized sports came with Pee Wee football.  The league had a 100-pound weight limit.  In seventh grade, I topped the scales on weigh-in day at 98 pounds. That was a good weight for being an offensive lineman or a linebacker but, at that age, was maybe too much for a ball-handling position. That was something I always wanted to do — be one of the cool kids, scoring points for the team.  Nuts!

Our football team made it all the way to the city championships, played at Richmond’s City Stadium.  We were the Westover Devils, a Parks and Rec team from the city’s South Side, ironically pitted against the St. Christopher’s Saints, a private school team from across the James River.  While there may not be a lesson — theological, social, economic or otherwise — in the Saints winning 7-0, I’ll always remember that score.

In high school, things were a bit different.  Gym class was pretty competitive.   A boy named Harold wasn’t the tallest guy in the class, but he was certainly the fastest.  I remember watching Harold run the quarter-mile on the track and wishing I could be that fast.

Another day while playing baseball, a classmate jumped in front of me in the batting line. He threatened me with the bat when I tried to assert that it really was my turn — so much for fairness!

We all probably learned some life lessons in early play and participation in sports, some helpful, others perhaps less so.

Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, has researched the impact of play on cognitive development.  Brown’s work shows that, much like sleep and dreams, play is an essential activity.  Time spent at play helps with the development of important skills for humans and animals.  This is true for both children and adults.

Brown asserts that thinking back to early experiences with play — or the lack thereof — can provide insights into adult behavior.

When it comes to competing in sports, some people are highly motivated by the joy of winning; others are motivated by a fear of losing.  In the workplace, these different experience-based play styles suggest that varying management styles can be helpful.

It’s doubtful that competitiveness is the same as success.  This is especially true with regard to individual rather than team-based competitiveness.  No doubt many of us can recall scenarios where personal ambition was destructive to company results.

To a large degree, collaboration has gained standing versus competition in today’s business culture. Yes, teams must still be competitive, but individuals are more often collaborative in achieving success.

Leaders of companies consistently recognized as best places to work (see last February’s Virginia Business) often lament that too much emphasis is put on office perks.  Creating a great place to work is a lot more difficult than just putting a pingpong table and yoga mats in the break room.  Yes, employees need fun, but they also need to have fun together.

The Gallup organization has led a multi-year study of workplace culture.  Interestingly, one of its key questions concerns agreement with this statement: “I have a best friend at work.”  Companies with employees scoring high on this statement have higher employee retention, productivity, customer satisfaction and profitability.  Importantly, it’s not just any friend at work — it’s a best friend.

When you think back to your earliest memories of play, more than likely they involved a best friend, maybe a neighbor, a sibling or a parent.  What was learned in those early experiences may have had a profound impact on how you are working today.

So here we are mid-summer.  I hope you are getting in some time for play.   It is easy to be impatient for success, but it is never too late to learn.  Go have some fun!

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