Michael Emond is a professor of psychology at Laurentian University. He’s also a stand-up comic.
It might seem an odd combination. But it’s an attempt at balance. The 42-year-old plunged into the risky world of comedy to indulge his desire for play. “Work is work and play is play. I make sure I have balance in my life,” he says.
He had previously indulged in community theatre but when his two daughters were born – now aged six and three – he found he didn’t have time for all the rehearsals. Comedy fit his schedule better: He could dream up and practise his routines at home, after putting the children to bed, and only has to appear on stage the evenings he will perform his new routine.
In his job, he doesn’t want to look silly. But on stage, he needs to break beyond such inhibitions, and take risks. It returns him to something in his childhood that has been lost in adulthood. “When we’re childlike, we’re willing to look foolish. When it’s a hobby, we’re more willing to experiment and risk,” he says.
As play, he is doing it for the internal joy – what psychologists call the intrinsic value. It’s not for money. It’s for the thrill of standing up on stage, alone, with his ideas, and testing them against an audience. Some work, some don’t. But there’s satisfaction in entertaining, knowing at times his routine has struck a chord.
Mark Rowlands, a Welsh writer and professor of philosophy at the University of Miami, tackled some of those themes in a recent article, Tennis with Plato, published in Aeon Magazine
He argued that our days are spent in utilitarian tasks, dominated by instrumental thinking – “doing one thing for the sake of something else, which is in turn done for something else.” But through tennis and running, he has found his second childhood, enjoying what he is doing fully in the moment – and for its own sake. While we often try to justify such activities to others – tennis and running keep him healthy – he dismisses such rationalization as instrumental thinking that wrongly turns the play into a form of work: “In its pure form, play has no external purpose or reward. We play just to play.”
Through that, we can recover childhood again. “Children know what is important in life: They know instinctively and effortlessly. For adults, it is hard work. We have to rediscover it all over again. Children understand that the really important things in life are the things that are worth doing for their own sake. And all those other things: They are just unfortunate – inconveniences thrust upon us by an intransigent world. We all knew this once, but we forgot it because we chose to play a demanding game – the great game of growing up,” he writes. “The ‘return to a second childhood’ is a way of rediscovering this thing that we once knew but had to forget.”
Dean Tripp, a professor of psychology at Queen’s University, says play is time for yourself, often opens you up to social interaction, and taps our youthful side – all positive elements that can bring happiness. The usual excuse from adults for not playing is they are too busy. But many successful people find the time for play. One executive told him of setting time aside four days a week for squash or lifting weights at the gym: “I put it in the calendar as a meeting. And the person I am meeting there is my happy side.” Prof. Tripp says it used to be that you could work endlessly without having much fun or be a slacker and have fun. Now, we are understanding a combination of the two approaches can be healthy.
Indeed, Kathleen Akins, a professor of philosophy at Simon Fraser University, is struck that there are lots of adults who still play, bringing a joie de vivre to work, and these are the people toward whom we gravitate.
“If I had to make a list of the most interesting minds I’ve met, almost all of them have retained that ability to play,” she says. “These are folks who, whether they are fixing a drainpipe, or setting up an EEG experiment, they are always in the grip of the activity, buoyed up by enthusiasm and verve. … They have an enthusiasm that eats up hours and days, and carries other people along with them. And they almost always have a fantastic sense of the absurd. Things work or they don’t work, but it’s definitely the case that the worse one’s mistakes, the funnier they appear to be.”
She contrasts that with professional athletes, who may seem to be playing but certainly don’t laugh when things go wrong. “It’s very rare to see a professional athlete who is playing, taking sheer delight in the physicality of the moment. My daughter has been dancing hip hop for many years and what I love about her dance school is that at the annual performance pretty well everyone on the stage, from the four-year-olds on up to the late teens, seems to be having a blast. No pasted-on smiles or tears about mistakes. They are dancing for the sheer joy of it, even though they have worked incredibly hard, and with self-discipline to learn those skills. Playing doesn’t preclude hard work, but it takes real talent, in a teacher, to integrate them.”
Noel Dyck, a professor of social anthropology at Simon Fraser, says we wrongly tend to think of childhood as a time for play and the rest of life as a time for instrumental activities. Children can be very instrumental in activities, and these days their sports are probably more focused on winning and disciplined work-like play than an adult pick-up hockey game, where the will to win may be abandoned for the joy of the game, the score not being counted.
The key, he feels, in childhood or adulthood, when playing games is to find a balance between the mechanics and structure of the game and the notion of playing for intrinsic enjoyment. And the same may be said of life: We need a balance between work and play, at all ages.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter