When is the last time you played? I don't mean "indulged in recreation." I don't mean "did something that wasn't work or sleep." But when did you last play?
When did you last indulge in curiosity without worrying about goals? When did you explore the space around you, or challenge yourself to create outcomes without having a strict definition of success and failure? When did you last let your train of thought rampantly switch tracks as it pursued whatever was most interesting to it at the time?
As adults, we have our brains switched to a goal-oriented mindset. We need to produce or succeed. If we don't know how to produce or succeed, we need to learn the skills. We need to train and execute. We use manuals and guides and how-tos and walkthroughs and tutorials.
But there is value in learning how to ignore overarching objectives. Some of the best ideas you will ever have come from strange, offshoot thoughts that don't seem to have relevance to anything you're "supposed" to be thinking about.
When most people think of play, they think of switching their brains off. We use phrases like "mindless fun" and "I don't want to think about anything serious."
The type of play I am describing is not quite like that. I want you to think of a dog that bring to a park. Does the dog, in its efforts to finally cut loose and have fun, just lay there in the grass and do nothing? Well, unless it's old, injured, sick, or all three, it doesn't. Healthy and excited dogs get up and start running. They sniff random things, go leaping and barking at every stimulus. Then they find something interesting, some smell that grabs their attention, and they pursue it. They hit an obstacle and look for a way around it. The play becomes less haphazard and more focused, more exploratory. They chase self-discovered goals in a goalless environment. And then they find something interesting (or, if it's a dog in real life, disgusting) and bring it back to you.
As adults, that dog--it was a metaphor all along!--seems to become stationary. Burdened with responsibility in the real world, when it gets a chance to finally cut loose, it craves nothing more than sweet inertia. Habits, safe places. And when it has energy, it will go back to its goals and duties. This isn't 100% unexpected, because as you get older you find more and more responsibilities awaiting you. And play isn't rest. Play can be tiring. Play is your mind getting a chance to run and jump and be childish again. Children seem to play without limiters, which is why when they're done they also just crash and fall asleep while you're carrying them to the car.
But play is also more than that. Play is where your mind gets the opportunity to innovate and contemplate the crazy, to step outside its box. Many of people's best ideas happen when they say, "you know what, it's a weird idea but..." and they just go for it. They experiment. They goof around. They play.
And the more you play, the better you get at it. That's the beauty. You start seeing patterns in the chaos of play, and you can find ways to play and experiment and learn about almost anything. Suddenly everything is fun, and you have the heuristics to discover new possibilities in the old and stale. You develop intelligent play.
Like a lot of the most useful and powerful emotional states, intelligent play is almost a paradox. You can't fully play and let go without eliminating goals, but then you can't innovate without exploring possibilities and eliminating impossibilities. But by taking the childish spirit of curiosity and adding adult experience and processing, you have a machine cultivated for innovation and discovery. And best of all, it's fun.
So go play.