My Play

In social play, an animal again waits until safe and satisfied, and feels pleasure from a large variety of safe behavior within a distinct space and time. The difference is that now they explore behavior that interacts with other animals, seeking equilibria that adjust well to changes in other animals’ behavior. (more)

Over the course of their lives Kahneman and Tversky don’t seem to have actually made many big decisions. The major trajectories of their lives were determined by historical events, random coincidences, their own psychological needs and irresistible impulsions. .. Their lives weren’t so much shaped by decisions as by rapture. They were held rapt by each other’s minds. (more)

When tested in national surveys against such seemingly crucial factors as intelligence, ability, and salary, level of motivation proves to be a more significant component in predicting career success. While level of motivation is highly correlated with success, importantly, the source of motivation varies greatly among individuals and is unrelated to success. (more)

In recent posts I said that play is ancient and robust, and I outlined what play consists of. I claimed that play is a powerful concept, but I haven’t supported that claim much. Today, I’ll consider some personal examples.

As a kid I was a severe nerd. I was beaten up sometimes, and for years spent each recess being chased around the school yard. This made me quite cautious and defensive socially. Later I was terrified of girls and acted cautiously toward them too, which they didn’t take as a positive sign. In college I gave up on girls for a while, and then was surprised to find women attracted by my chatting sincerely about physics at the physics club.

Being good at school-work, I was more willing to take chances there, and focused more on what interested me. In college when I learned that the second two years of physics covered the same material as the first two years, just with more math, I stopped doing homework and played with the equations instead, and aced the exams. I went to grad school in philosophy of science because that interested me at the time, and then switched back to physics because I’d found good enough answers to my philosophy questions.

I left school for silicon valley when topics out there sounded more interesting, and a few years later switched to only working 30 hours a week so I could spend more time studying what I wanted. I started a PhD program at age 34, with two kids aged 0 and 2, and allowed myself to dabble in many topics not on the shortest path to tenure. Post tenure I’ve paid even less attention to the usual career rewards. I choose as my first book topic not the most marketable, impressive, or important topic, but the one that would most suck me in with fascinating detail. (I’d heard half the authors with a book contract don’t finish a book.)

So I must admit that much of my personal success in life has resulted less from econ-style conscious calculation, and more from play. Feeling safe enough to move into play mode freed me enough from anxiety to get things done. And even though my goals in more playful modes tended more to cuteness, curiosity, and glory, my acts there better achieved my long term goals than has conscious planning toward such ends. Yes, I did moderate my playful urges based on conscious thought, and that probably helped overall. Even so, I must admit that my personal experience raises doubts about the value of conscious planning.

My experience is somewhat unusual, but I still see play helping a lot in the successes of those I know and respect. While conscious planning can at times be important, what tends to matter more is finding a strong motivation, any strong motivation, to really get into whatever it is you are doing. And to feel comfortable enough to just explore even if none of your options seem especially promising and you face real career and resource pressures.

Playful motives are near and myopic but strong, while conscious planning can be accurate but far. Near beats far it seems. I’ll continue to ponder play, and hopefully find more to say.

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  • Ronfar

    Feynman talked about playing with physics, too…

  • msreekan

    I think an Austrian might term the “playful motives” as trial and error entrepreneurship!

  • for years spent each recess being chased around the school yard.

    Disappointing. Stand your ground and fight back.

  • Joe

    Any thoughts on the apparent tension between this and your older post ”Never Settle’ Is A Brag’?

    • What tension? Of course most people can’t spend most of their time in play mode, and so must settle and choose among their realistic options. Even so, play mode can be very productive, at least in some industries.

  • consider

    “In college when I learned that the second two years of physics covered the same material as the first two years, just with more math, I stopped doing homework and played with the equations instead, and aced the exams.”

    I was sort of like this – except for the “aced the exams part.”

  • Thanks for this post, Robin.

  • Alfred Differ

    I think I learned the first two years of physics stuff mostly by playing with lab equipment. Lab classes are supposed to help with that, but they struck me as too structured. I got a part-time job in the dept office. Once I had a key to the equipment rooms, that’s when I played. The second two years were different, but I learned the most by stepping outside the structured labs. In grad school, I met people who did not learn this way, but their approach to physics mostly baffled me.

  • Itai Bar-Natan

    “I choose as my first book topic not the most… important topic,”

    What are other topics which you think are more important on which you think you have a book’s worth of material to contribute? For instance, the topic of prediction markets might fall into this category. Or do you see more important topics which you can’t yet contribute a book’s worth of information, but the only immediately visible obstacle towards acquiring an expertise is lack of interest?