Where fun is, is good – where fun isn't, is the problem.
The Progress of Man reaches its peak in Fun!
I started becoming a Funman when I'd finished my 20-year-long training (!) and finally became tenure-track faculty at The Ohio State University. It was a dream come true: I had a new, major research grant and a pile of start-up funding – together, more than a million dollars – and a shiny new lab that I promptly filled with expensive science toys. I fell in love with my new microscope – I could make it do damn near anything with software, and I experienced lots of solo fun (Csikszentmihalyi's flow) writing the macros to make it jump. My boss and I shared lab space, and I worked with one of his new hires, Josh Manley, to set up the new lab (we've since become associates – he's now a Funman too). Despite the fact that we'd done no science while setting up, it was creative, interactive, and a lot of fun, and opened my eyes to the fact that creation and collaboration are integral to fun.
As new people were hired, they arrived full of enthusiasm and possibility, and so at first things were great fun. But once the honeymoon period ended, the fun began to fizzle. This is when I got my first lesson in fun: where fun is, is good – and where fun isn't, is a problem. In the beginning people were having so much fun, being so creative and productive, that we almost danced around the labs. Joint lab meetings were a bit raucous, quite contentious, but almost always good natured and productive. As the fun drained away, so did the creativity and productivity, and the lab meetings – well, my lab quit going. No more dancing, and soon the air felt thicker and resisted every movement. We developed problem children, and when they simply walked into the room, a vacuum seemed to suck away the fun – and in the draft went a significant part of the lab's functionality.
One of my successes in restoring fun developed in the crew I assigned to perform some elaborate animal studies. This required a lot of coordination and cooperation, and at first there was considerable resistance and friction, in particular people pointing out that they were doing more than their share, or that Bob, Steve, or Susie weren't holding up their end. I received another important lesson after I'd let my white-knuckled grip off the steering wheel – after all, I'm a scientist, and so I know everything and I'm a bit of a control freak. Once freed, people self-assembled into roles they felt appropriate to their skills, and set up a hierarchy they felt was appropriate to their expertise and experience – and things got done. And things got fun.
It isn't easy to work with experimental animals for many reasons, from the regulatory issues to the fact that we want them to be as comfortable and happy as possible – and, most importantly, we want our work to be worthy of their sacrifice. The lessons I learned were that when people felt comfortable in their roles, doing what they thought they could do best under conditions they felt were fair, they could have fun – and, unexpectedly, that the solemn nature of our work made it more likely to be fun, because it had meaning.
I learned a lot while leading a group of intelligent, ambitious, stubborn, creative, opinionated, innovative, and often fun scientists. I would disparagingly speak of 'herding cats' when I got frustrated, but their cat-like behaviors gave me the gift of bringing fun to the surface and making me pay attention.
If my experience investigating people's attitudes and beliefs about fun is any guide, you've nodded your head in agreement while reading this manifesto. There's nothing truly new or shocking, except perhaps that we make so little use of such a powerful part of our lives. The point of this manifesto is that we need to have fun, especially when there's no good reason not to. In fact, we should have fun even when there is a good reason not to, unless the reason is very good.
I will make a further speculation that's not so obvious, an idea that's the current focus of my work on fun. I believe that fun and creativity are two different words for the same thing, labels for different parts of a single spectrum. Encouraging fun is the same as encouraging an especially enjoyable and productive kind of creativity – and banishing fun limits you to a less productive and enjoyable creativity. This may seem like a strange idea, but think about having a great conversation with your friends. A great conversation is a creative act, and the degree to which it's fun is a function of how creative it is. Take away the creativity, and there goes the fun – and I think it works just as well when inverted: take away the fun, and there goes the creativity. Along with the productivity, the innovation, and the morale.
Fun is also fundamental for a more important reason than the performance and creativity boost and the good feelings. Fun gives you a story. One of my favorite authors, Neal Stephenson, made the observation that our modern, corporate society has jealously gathered up all of our good stories. In a properly functioning corporation, the only stories left are the bad ones: we don't come home and tell the husband and kids about meeting our monthly budget target – we talk about the guy who spilled his coffee into the fax machine, or about the big car accident we saw on the way home. Fun brings good stories back into our lives, and the stories make our otherwise uneventful lives memorable. Stories are how we remember, and our memories are who we are and how we define and measure our lives. Fun gives you more memories, and thus more life. So, life is not only too short to settle for no fun – life is too short when there's no 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 them 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?