Work to Play


This was going to be post about the way work is indiscernible from play, but then I came across an article on ‘The Crisis of Purpose’ which brought to mind the very connection between ‘work’ and ‘play’. Quote from the section titled ‘Play’ (emphasis mine):

When you were 8 years old, you did things because you were curious. Because it felt good. Because you genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen. As we get older, we get better at predicting & analyzing, at assessing risk.

When we think we know what the outcome is going to be, we’re less likely to do it, especially if it involves “play” because cultural norms tell us that we shouldn’t be playing.

If we’re less likely to do it, it might be us making the mistake that our job is to only produce certain pre-determined outcomes, and not to discover new potential outcomes. Which.. I mean.. that’s definitely a job. But it’s not a particularly great job. And it’s not a way to get your team to love their jobs.

The Case for Play

First, let’s establish that the concept of ‘play’ does not mean goofing off (i.e. I want to be sure you know what field we’re playing on here). And to be honest, I never thought of play as goofing off. If anything, I never really thought about it at all until I quit a job I loved. Not because I loved it any less– rather because I wanted new forms of play.

Maria Montessori had interesting views on ‘work’ as part of the educational theory she’s named after. And at risk of warping its original intent, I think there’s something to be learned about the nature of ‘work’ as relates to what we do as adults.

I’m hard-pressed not to quote more of this entire article, but will include just this part:

In the broadest sense, play is always a transformation of reality in the service of the self. […] In contrast to play, work is always a transformation of the self in the service of reality.

When a child learns to use a spoon to feed himself or herself, this is an adaptation to the demands of society. Although we tend to think of work and play as in opposition to one another, they are most effective when they are brought together.

The idea I had reading this is the value we get is not in work, but rather in the transformation between self or reality in service of the other.

I really like this idea.

You may not be a toddler learning to use a spoon, but each of us still learns and we do that as a mixture of work and play. When it comes to building a new feature or understanding how a system will behave under a set of constraints, what we produce is just as often discovery as performance.

Transformation of reality in service of the self, and transformation of self in the service of reality.

X in the service of Y

Think about what software is for a second.

The thing we produce is not (as a developer) a set of mental hacks executed in order nor (as a manager) a carefully laid trap of organizational trickery.

‘Play’ is as much a way of maintaining momentum toward a goal as ’non-play’, and I’ll leave it at that. Exploring the relationship between “work” and “play” holds promise. At the very least, let’s recognize that getting better at “work” is not a matter of optimizing your memorization of design patterns or command line flags or shortening the time you need to wait on vendors.

Where so much of what we do involves transforming concepts into approximate solutions1, transforming reality (even if only temporary) to serve our needs as implementors has to be par for the course.2

Managers especially need to do a better job creating avenues for this sort of play, and recognize it as a way of individuals writing software. To wit, a point estimate is not a knowledge estimate. Team velocity is not a measure of success.

We need more play.

(image credit)

  1. Code is read more than it’s written after all. How could it not be the case that code is ever only an approximation of an ideal? ↩︎

  2. To take a very practical example of what I mean, look no further than red→green→refactor. What can look more wasteful than writing code that deliberately breaks? It sounds ridiculous to anyone who has not seen it work but I’d posit those people don’t see the value of this form of play or don’t understand play (yet). ↩︎