Yes, Playfulness, Humor, and Kindness Can Coincide with High Standards and Discipline at Work
Last week, Angelika (my wife) and I watched Steve Jobs, the 2015 biographical drama film directed by Danny Boyle. Based on the authorized biography by Walter Isaacson, the movie portrays Jobs as insanely demanding, angry, petulant, and not very well liked. By nearly every account, including Jobs himself prior to his death, Isaacson's characterization of one of the greatest business titans of our time was accurate.
Apple became one of the most-valuable companies in the world, driven to excellence by Jobs' fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, and outbursts. Jobs' partner and co-founder Steve Wozniak ("Woz"), who contributed his insights to the film, said that it "shocked and amazed" him.
You Can Be Decent and Gifted at the Same Time
In one tense scene, Jobs and Woz are essentially arguing about leadership, and which of them was the "John Lennon of Apple." Jobs had refused to honor any of the work Woz or his team contributed to the company, and it was an ongoing source of bitterness between the two men for years. The scene ends with Woz walking away shaking his head, saying, "It's not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time."
But is it true? Can high standards, excellence and discipline be driven by playfulness, kindness, and humor? Or are fear, anger, and threats required?
Your Core Work Demeanor: Serious or Playful?
To me, the basic contrast is one of seriousness versus playfulness. I'll call this arbitrary scale your "core work demeanor."
In reflecting on my own core work demeanor earlier in the week, I found that I was far more likely to associate excellence with a demeanor of seriousness. In fact, when I thought about playfulness in the context of work, "pushover," "sloppy," and "undisciplined" came to mind.
But why? There's no logical reason we can't approach work with a playful, humorous, and kind attitude—and still deliver excellence. Research suggests, in fact, that creative work is elevated by these behaviors.
Yet even as I'm writing this article on the benefits of playfulness, the entire exercise feels serious and heavy. It's like I'm saying, "OK, gang! Let's get serious about being playful!" ...which just goes to show how ingrained my "serious" views of excellence are.
Putting Playfulness to Work
This past week, I decided to put this idea to the test. I created an intention for the week to approach all of my work with a primarily playful demeanor, and to catch myself and my colleagues when things got "too serious."
In one client meeting, I had a room of executives on their feet dancing and singing a famous African children's song that I learned as a student in college. I made extra attempts to lighten moods in my various meetings and in my own projects with whatever wit and humor I could muster.
Overall, things were going great. Work was feeling more enjoyable and I was having more fun.
Then on Thursday, my playfulness experiment came to a swift halt.
Angelika arrived to work in tears, having just watched the horrific video of George Floyd's final moments. After describing to me the inhuman details, we held each other and cried for several minutes.
Instantly, seriousness became the only acceptable behavior, and playfulness became absurdly inappropriate.
I was unable to shake my core sense of grief throughout the day. In place of playfulness, I took extra time to express gratitude and love to my coworkers and to Angelika. In the evening, I took a walk to the beach to sit, watch the waves, and be present with my emotions...a way of showing love to myself.
Maybe when playfulness is inappropriate, love can fill the void. Or, perhaps love for one another is the core underlying emotion to cultivate, and out of love we'll naturally take on whatever demeanor is appropriate for a given circumstance.
Perhaps that's the lesson life brought me this week: love is the answer.
It sounds so banal, like what you'd read on a cheesy Hallmark card or a lousy T-shirt, stripped of any real meaning. But like all wisdom, it's the depth of understanding that matters, a lived experience of the "truth that sets us free," and, sadly, impossible to convey via the limits of written prose.
Me: "What's the answer?" Universe: "Love. Again. For the millionth time." A lesson to learn again and again, in new ways and under new circumstances. A lesson with no limits in the depths of understanding.
There are only so many tomorrows, as we all recognize from the inexplicable and senseless death of a single human being we've never met.
To bring this home, where's the benefit of anger, fear, and threats? With a sudden loss of revenue, will fear, stress, and anxiety really make us more productive and effective?
The obvious answer is no. And yet that's exactly how most of us behave when unwanted surprises happen in business and in life. It's a false paradigm, and one that requires constant vigilance.
I don't have any real answers here. Crafting a playful and humorous demeanor is probably more art than science. I definitely experienced the benefit of a renewed commitment to making my day-to-day life a bit more playful this past week, and it's an experiment I'm ready to continue.
And perhaps I should pay deeper attention to the lessons life revealed to me this week. Again.
Perhaps my—and your—only job is to love...as much as we possibly can, with the time we have left.