The Play, Principles And Positive Results Approach

There are many ways to do fine work. This is an approach that, when appropriate, some people follow in certain situations but not in others.

Some people then focus on their equivalent of play. They follow their principles, translate these into specific projects and achieve positive results.

Such people often have a sense of joy in their work. They play to their strengths, find solutions to challenges and perform superb work. They follow the principle that, in some cases:

There is nothing more serious than play.

Some people follow this approach early in their careers. They may enjoy encouraging people, performing certain kinds of work, leading teams or doing other things. They focus on the specific activities where the demonstrate the following qualities:

They find the activity fascinating – they keep returning to it time and again;

They have feeling for the activity – they are good at it;

They have a track record of finishing – they are good at finishing things when doing this activity.

Some people return to this approach later in their careers. They do satisfying work that delivers success. They go to work with a spring in their step after maybe spending years feeling stodgy or looking stern.

Some innovative organisations follow this approach. They create new products and organisations by working with customers in a process they call serious play. This is a topic we will explore later in this piece.

Imagine you want to follow some elements of this approach in your own way. This can involve focusing on the following themes.


People often feel positive when they are doing things where they enjoy a sense of play. They may be pursuing their hobbies, painting, playing music, dancing, rebuilding cars or doing other activities.

Play powers our imagination and help us to move forwards. Creative people retain this quality throughout their lives. As George Bernard Shaw wrote:

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

Barbara Brannen encourages people to relearn to play in her book The Gift Of Play. She describes the importance of what she calls heart play. These are the activities that make our heart sing.

Play can help us to experience joy, wonderment and curiosity. They enable us to feel relaxed and able to use our imagination. This can help to nourish our souls and shape a positive future.

Play can sometimes help us to develop on both a primary level and a secondary level. Let’s explore this approach.

The Primary Level

The primary level is that of playing, doing and feeling. When we are children we often learn on the primary level. Creative people often retain this sense of play. They frequently do so by going through the process of absorption, adventure and achievement.

Some of our successful and self-defeating patterns are set on the primary level. Such patterns can affect the way we behave. We revert back to them time and again.

Living on the primary level can be exciting. We learn with our heart and our hands, but it is also vital to make sense of experience. So it is important learn with our head.

The Secondary Level

This is the level of intellectualising, thinking and talking. Looking for patterns, we begin to build models. Testing these in reality, we see what works and what can be improved. Developing models enables us to feel more in control of our lives.

So far, so good. But some people hit a problem. They may spend too much of their lives on the secondary level.

Instead of doing, they think about doing. Instead of playing – taking initiatives – they replace it with intellectualising. Instead of feeling, they talk about feelings.

Between the two levels they then put a series of blocks. Some people can find they get cut off from their feelings.

Real growth, however, often involves doing things on the primary level. People who retake control of their lives after a setback, for example, often do so by acting on this level.

They start exercising rather than just talk about exercising. They do activities in which they feel creative rather than sit complaining.

Sometimes it can be useful to do something on a primary level and then clarify the learning on a secondary level. This can be more effective than simply intellectualising about a topic. It can also sometimes led to creative breakthroughs.

This is an approach that I sometimes used on creativity workshops. The aims were to help people to recapture the joy of exploring, learning and developing. Sometimes this also led to the next theme.


Great workers sometimes translate their sense of play into doing a specific project. They may then aim to following certain principles when doing the work.

Some people start by clarifying their picture of success. They then aim: a) to be professional; b) to find solutions to problems; c) to deliver peak performances.

Some individuals may also find it liberating to rekindle such feelings of joy. They may can have got to the stage where they forgot why they began to pursue a passion, play a sport or go into a certain profession. They may have pursued a particular activity because:

It felt like play … It gave them a sense of joy and pleasure … It gave them positive energy.

During the past fifty years I have worked with many people who wanted to recapture that feeling. At the same time, they wanted to perform at their best. We therefore focused on the practical steps they could take:

To recapture a sense of play … To follow their principles … To achieve peak performance.

This is an approach that was followed when working with a senior leader in a famous high tech company. They expressed their situation in the following way.

“I went into this business because I loved helping people to use technology to simplify their lives and do superb work. I particularly liked working with entrepreneurs who were building pioneering businesses.

“The time I enjoyed best was leading a part of company that was devoted to helping such leaders. This helped me to stay at the leading edge of businesses and help them succeed. It also ensured I kept up with thought leadership.

“During the past five years I have been a member of the C-Suite in the European arm of our company. The pay is great but, paradoxically, I seem to have less freedom than I did before.

“Our C-Suite seems to act as a go-between that is asked to implement the orders from our headquarters. This can be frustrating and time-consuming.

“We seem to be acting as a supplier to our company and have only limited freedom to shape things on our own patch. Bearing this in mind, I am thinking of doing several things.

“First, to return to my previous role leading the department that focuses on helping pioneering businesses. Second, to mentor budding entrepreneurs in our local incubator. Third, to refocus on my passion for song writing and playing music.”

The senior leader took these steps. This resulted in them feeling happier, healthier and more alive. Some of their colleagues said they wished they had the courage to do the same but they did not want to give up their perks.

Positive Results

Many people recognise the link between play, creativity and getting positive results. Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan underlined this point in their book Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul. They express this in the following way.

Here are some steps the authors recommend to keep this flame alive and sometimes get involved in deep play.

Be active

Move. This is one of the keys to play. Translate this to your work by going for a walk, moving around, holding seminars in places that delight the senses. You will find that more ideas emerge.

Nourish your mode of play and
be with people who nourish it, too

Find the play that feeds your soul. Build an environment where you do stimulating work and keep developing. Keep making it a priority to stay play nourished.

Fun is your North Star, but you
don’t always have to head North

The aim is to have fun but you may find there will be many deviations along the way. It is good to pursue those paths because that is where play can take you. Sometimes you are discovering things that you did not know existed.

Michael Schrage shows the importance of play in the work done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. This is described in his book Serious Play: How the world’s best companies simulate to innovate.

He and his colleagues often worked with companies on building prototypes. This involved people focusing on specific challenges and playing with ideas. Such an approach sometimes leads to breakthroughs and innovations.

Michael describes the process in the preface to his book. He explains this in the following way. 

Great organisations often began by people pursuing their passion, translating it into serious play and then becoming profitable. As they grow middle-aged, however, some just become serious and forget what made them great. They become grim and overweight.

They can revisit their passion by doing some serious play – probably through prototyping – and helping their customers to succeed. This can rejuvenate their people and their business.

Scott Eberle is an intellectual historian of play and a Vice President at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. He believes it is vital to encourage people of all ages to play. He describes this in the following way.

Once we were all experts at play; as children it was our preoccupation and our main mode of learning. Play was the way we built our muscles, and it was through play that we knitted our friendships.

Through play we learned to navigate the social world. We learned the rules. And play helped us imagine our future. Even if we did not grow up to be Jedi knights, or beautiful princesses we learned to envision adult power and responsibility.

But imaginative play and rough and tumble play, because they are the work of children, tend to slip beneath our notice as adults.

Play can help us to experience joy, wonderment and curiosity. It enables us to feel relaxed and able to use our imagination. This can help to nourish our souls and shape a positive future.

There are many ways to do fine work. One approach is to maintain a sense of play, follow your passions and achieve positive results. Imagine that you want to follow elements of this approach.

How could you do this in your own way? How could you focus on a specific activity? How could you translate this into a specific project? How could you then do your best to achieve positive results?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to complete the following sentences.

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