Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Value: Work, Play (... & Financial Security)

The difficulties that I had writing this section were significant. I have struggled to understand what the concepts of work, play and financial security mean, in general, and to me, personally. I pushed myself to suspend pre-conceived ideas and prejudice’s and to consider the goals toward which I ultimately want to strive, free from these limitations. Finally, I have done some deep soul searching to try to determine if having “a value to do work” was actually important or if it was simply an irrational meme, acquired from the dominant culture via contagion and constant repetition.

I was raised with the belief that “work” was something that you did so that you could earn enough money to retire. This was the paradigm that was handed down to me by generations of working-class Eastern-European Jews; each generation adding its unique flavor and perspective before moving it along through history, until, most recently, it arrived on the shores of New York City, on the shoulders and in the minds of my immigrant fore-bearers. People who came to this country in an attempt to carve out a better life and more hopeful future for themselves and their families.

“Work hard and earn enough money so that when you are not working, you can relax and be comfortable.” Words of wisdom from a smart, hard-working people, who, against all odds, had survived centuries of pogroms, brutality and oppression and were committed to working as hard as was necessary in order to avoid “being sent back.”  

Work vs Play?

But what IS work? And, conversely, what is play? And how can we tell them apart?

The answers to these questions may seem so obvious as to negate the need to even ask. After all, I’ve had a job since I was 16 and playing since I was born. But I can assure you, that even after weeks of to trying to formulate an answer, the closest I can come is to quote Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart:

I shall not today attempt further to define [what] I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description... But I know it when I see it...

But in truth, I am not sure that I do know it when I see it...

  • The act of  learning or earning. Chores. Errands. Things that need to be done (laundry, dishes.). Making money;

  • Deadline-oriented;

  • A set of tasks, often of someone else’s choosing, engaged for the direct and immediate benefit of someone else, in exchange for an indirect (and often future) personal gain (i.e. doing your job and collecting a pay check);

  • In school, work involved sitting through boring classes. Cramming the night before to pass midterms and finals. Spending hours at the library doing research for term-papers. Even for my interesting classes, my chosen electives, it was pretty dreadful stuff;

  • Exercise. Dieting.

  • Fun stuff. Entertainment. Playing games. Reading books. Make-believe;

  • Stretching. Relaxation. Getting a massage. Sleeping;

  • Hanging out with friends;

  • Walking. Swimming. Bike riding;

  • Free-flowing;

  • Spending money;

  • Eating.

While this list is personal to me, I am guessing that most folks would have an equally random assortment of disconnected ideas about work and play.

The through line that has emerged as I have thought about this topic is that work and play somehow exist on opposite sides of a single spectrum, each pulling in an opposing direction and that, in order to be successful, we have to find the right balance between the two, managing the extraordinary tension that they create. I can’t help but be reminded of Freud’s ideas about the Id & the Super-Ego.

In this paradigm, work becomes a required chore. A necessary evil. A dreaded task to be achieved through pure will-power. At best, if you happen to have a job that you like, work is a means to an end. That end, of course, being material wealth which you can use to buy the type of “play” you desire.

Play, in turn, becomes the thing we do when we are not working. It becomes about “taking the edge off.” Not a huge surprise then that the “after-hours” entertainment of many adults generally include sex, drugs, alcohol and gambling. Others spend hours alone, shut away from friends and family, playing video-games, reading books, watching television. And let’s not forget sweets. What could be more “fun” than a pint of New York Super Fudge Chunk?

A Brief History of Play... (and work)

When I was very little, playing was about doing something joyous. It often included other people and generally had some component of imagination. And when I was fully engaged, it often filled me with delight.

I have an early memory of playing “Dolphins” with my dad. I was about 5. We were in a swimming pool. I held onto his back while he swam the width of the pool under water. At one point, my head broke the surface, and I shrieked at the top of my lungs: a single, high-pitched note of unadulterated happiness, too great to contain.

As I grew older, I experienced this level of uncontrolled enthusiasm less and less frequently. Play morphed into a training-ground for how to be a grown-up, pretending what my life would look like when I was older. As I hit my early teens, I discovered  role-playing games, Science-Fantasy novels, and Comic Books. It was the 80’s and Dungeons & Dragons, Lord of the Rings, and the X-men were all the rage.

Early on in my life, I decided I wanted to be an actor, and so, in school, the play-acting that I had been doing turned into actually acting in plays. Interestingly, this was my first inclination that work and play could overlap. All through elementary school, junior and senior high schools and college, I worked to refine my craft as an actor. Unfortunately, what had originally been fun, actually started to feel like a job. Faced with critical and often disapproving evaluations of my professors as well as the growing concern that if I continued, I would have to be able to earn money in a highly competitive field where more people waited tables than actually worked in their chosen profession, I added a second major in my senior year.

It was around this time that I decided to become a massage therapist. I had always liked having my shoulders rubbed and when a mild car accident in my sophomore year of college left me in the care of a massage therapist, courtesy of my PIP Insurance, I realized that it might be a viable option. I went on to have a massage practice for almost a decade, and, at least in the beginning, I could not have told you whether doing massage was work or play. It had always been a way to connect with folks. I was a theatre geek so we were allowed to give each other back rubs. Now that I was getting paid for it., I was completely delighted.

My massage career overlapped with my publishing career which embraced another set of activities that straddled the fence between work and play. As a writer and a designer, I got to be very creative. As an entrepreneur, I got to sell advertising and promote my business.

Of course, “financial realities” have a funny way of corrupting, and, as we have seen, as activities moved from the optional to the required, I tended to feel trapped and started to loose interest.

When I was 31, I enrolled in an MFA program in Studio Art. Up until that time, school, except for the early years of actor-training, had always been solidly in the work category. Obligational. Difficult. Never-ending. But now, suddenly, I was an artist; once again dedicating my life to creative pursuits, free from the requirements of financial success. (I had taken out student loans and so did not have to worry about cash flow.) For two years I dedicated myself solely to thinking about and creating art. Some days, I spent 18 hours in my studio. It was not easy. But it was awesome.

Fast forward a dozen or so years: relocating to NYC, a second masters degree, a successful career, and a full life built on thousands of decisions, the vast majority of which I am happy with and would not change.

But play continues to be muddled in my life. It has started to look more like weekend brunches, the occasional Broadway musical, or taking vacations: a hiking trip in Machu Picchu, a cruise across the Mediterranean. I enjoy these activities to be sure. But there is something that needs to be reclaimed. Some piece of unadulterated joy and enthusiasm that I long ago left behind.

So what have I gleaned from all of this introspection? A few observations...

1. Self-imposed requirements for financial success tend to obfuscate the other rewards of work, leaving me confused and diminishing the joy I might otherwise feel when I do things I love.

2. The current commonly accepted paradigm that work and play are opposites does not work for me.

3. The feelings that you have while you are doing something tend to determine if you experience the activity as work or play. The most difficult thing, climbing a mountain or reading the encyclopedia, can feel like play if you are joyous, happy, connected while doing it. Conversely, something as easy as taking out the garbage or flossing before bed can feel like work.

Something is in need of a reset.

The Artist’s Way

When I adopt the perspective of the artist, the distinction between work and play blurs. The conversation ceases to be about the tension between “how I make money versus how I spend it” and shifts to: “How do I want to spend my time? What do I find fulfilling or interesting?”

It occurs to me that it may not always be clear as to whether I am working or playing because, hopefully, the activities I engage in won’t leave me feeling drained or used-up. Rather, I will feel fulfilled, uplifted, connected.

Moving forward, I want to engage in activities that have some combination of the following 3 components:

1. An opportunity to expand my intelligence and grow as a person (learning);

2. Value Creation: in that the whole will be worth more than the sum of the parts as a result of my contribution of time, intelligence and creativity (work);

3. I will derive deep joy from my participation (play).

This is not to say that everything should be easy or simple. Or that I will never be tired or need to rest. There is nothing wrong with “working/playing hard” or “giving it your all,” even to the point of exhaustion if that is what is required to accomplish the task. But these kinds of expenditures will be by choice and not by necessity.

Financial Security

While I want the ways I spend my time to be rewarding, financial remuneration may or may not be associated with any specific activity or engagement. Rather, financial stability and having enough resources to engage in chosen projects or participate in activities of interest (and to be prepared for sudden and unexpected events of all sorts) will simply be a part of the definition of my existence. (i.e. lots of cash piled high under the mattress and a regular, predictable, more-than-adequate flow of money slipped under the door each week.)

My only stipulation here is that this cash flow stem from the least exploitative method I can figure out. That it be obtained ethically and with integrity.

Rest & Rejuvenation... and Relationships

My final thought is about the importance of finding time to return to center: rebalancing, recovering, relaxing. This section could easily fall under the value of Health & Well-being but I include it here because it is in this part of my life, where things start off so hopeful, where there is so much passion and initiative, that I am most susceptible to loosing my way: a decision to exercise leads to my back going out; an exciting project becomes all about deadlines and milestones. Finding time to refocus, to recommit to the original intention, is essential. It can help us stay the course ensuring that as we cross the finish line we are able to celebrate our victory and not simply cross another chore off of our list.

I often forget to remember this. A reminder from the outside could be helpful. Someone, or more realistically, several someones, who are watching and thinking, and willing to gently ask questions and make suggestions when I’ve gotten a little meshuga.

Having people in my life who are willing to do this for me, and for whom I am willing to reciprocate, will increase the chance that I am able to successfully live this value.

From the zone...


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