Where fun is, is good – where fun isn't, is the problem.
The Progress of Man reaches its peak in Fun!
Serious fun sounds like an oxymoron, but here are three big reasons why fun is serious and why it should be a fundamental part of every aspect of your life, especially your work.
First, because fun is when we're at our best, when we're doing what we love. Think of your favorite memories, and I'll bet that they're memories of fun, or of triumphs that grew out of fun. Fun comes when you're in the right place, doing the right thing, able to forget your nagging doubts and the deadlines you're not going to meet. Fun happens when you, and those around you, are able to break through the surface tension and clinging weeds of modern life to suck in deep breaths of untainted air. Fun is when you push the mute button on your ringing cellphone because you don't want to interrupt what's working so well.
Second, fun is the best measure of when things are working – and when they're not. Fun as a measure of success follows logically from fun as us at our best. When the fun leaked out of my the workplace in my last job, so did much of the productivity, creativity, and general functionality. Fun was still happening, but not to everyone. The people who were not having fun were either the red flag marking where our group had a problem, or were themselves the problem. When I raised my head above my workaholic workstation, it looked the same in the rest of my life and in the world around me. Losing the fun was a mark of tragedy in the world, and fighting back to fun the sign of success. How do you think the recent war in Iraq would have been waged had we used more fun as the measure of our success?
Third, fun is what makes success feel like success. There are other things that promote success, and other measures of it, but none of them also are success. Again, why wait? The workaholic workplace I ran was a lab, and I estimated that 9 out of 10 of our experiments were failures (with predictable effects on morale). If I'd managed affairs so that every endeavor was fun – and each experiment was actually a successful effort to prove something wrong or right – we would have seen our failures as the successes they really were. Instead of waiting for the usually strained and desperately exuberant celebrations of the rare triumph, those twice-a-year events where we'd beaten the odds and caught the tape in every race, we would have had the fruits of success every day. If we'd let the work be fun, the rare successes would be all the better, and the failures taken in stride.
Lest this sound giddy, let's put fun in perspective with a series of sobering but-not statements. Fun is success, but not the only success. Fun is an attribute of people at their best, but not the only attribute. Fun is the best metric, but not the only metric you should use, if only for your own peace of mind. Fun is best, but it's not appropriate for every situation and every person. But, while fun is special and needs the proper soil to grow, it needn't be rare – or non-existent. So, why aren’t we having more fun?
How often have you heard some variant of, “Let's stop screwing around and get serious here.”? We're afraid of fun, or at least of fun running wild, so we keep it in a box. A small one that contains kids, leisure, and not much else. When fun gets outside that box, it's viewed with suspicion at best. Why?
First, we see fun as childish. Fun is something the kids have at the playground while the adults sit and watch. A search on Amazon™ for “fun” in book titles reflects this view, as the vast majority of the results are books for kids. And, just as your kids don't really belong in the workplace, we feel that fun is inappropriate in 'serious' endeavors.
Fun is childish, since kids aren't afraid of, or ashamed to be having, fun. In fact, kids are serious about fun, and don't value activities they think won't be any fun. This says more about the stupid arrogance of adults and the wisdom of children than it does about the value of fun. The fear of fun based on it's childishness is founded on a false logic: because children are serious about fun, we associate fun with undesirable aspects of childhood like irresponsibility. Just because children take fun seriously, and we usually don't, doesn't mean we shouldn't.
Second, we see fun as frivolous. Fun is something you have when you're playing a game. Having fun with something is synonymous with doing something useless with it, like playing a serious piece of music in a ridiculous fashion. “Let's get serious!” means stop frittering time away on frivolous fun and do some real work.
Fun isn't frivolous, but that's all it's allowed to be. There's no reason that our work, even if it's on profound or even grave issues, can't be serious and fun. In fact, there are good reasons to make our sober work as fun as possible. My brother Jim worked in aerospace and national security, fields not normally associated with fun, but he understood immediately when I introduced him to the concept. He'd already made the observation that the groups with the best performance had fun while working. Fun isn't just a nice but unnecessary thing to add to an otherwise mundane activity, like frosting on a cake – fun is what turns mundane into marvelous, good work into great.
Finally, we see fun as screwing around. When we hear laughter at work and see people having a good time, smiling and joking and having fun, we don't think high performance, or even that they're working at all. We think they must be taking a break and screwing around.
Fun isn't screwing around, unless it's fun at someone else's expense. It's another logic flaw to see the association between a practical joke and fun and conclude that because goofing off can be fun, it follows that anything fun is goofing off. This is the most damaging fear, the one that's most effective at banishing fun from our activities, making them . . . no fun. It's also the one that's least accurate when it's applied to situations where everyone is having fun. Goofing off is about a few having fun at the expense of the whole group. In my experience, when everyone is having fun, from the big boss to the gofer, it's always a mark of top performance. Everyone having fun means kicking ass and taking numbers, not messing, screwing, fiddling, or monkeying around. Real fun is work – which is why screwing around usually isn't much fun. Watch your kid (or keep track of your own actions) playing a computer game. She's having fun working. If you take the work out of the game, it's no longer fun, and the times you're working at your best (playing) are also the most fun.
Download a PDF version of The Fun Manifesto . . .
Listen to the audiobook version of The Fun Manifesto . . .
Read a draft chapter, Is Fun Just Another Fad?, from my book-in-progress, The Fun Paradox . . .
I'm now posting more new chapters on the Funshop Blog, help me refine it and get credit and prizes!
Learn more about how you can bring the power of fun to your work through Funshop . . .
But, most importantly, please go out and have fun! and . . . why not now?