Dr Duncan Riach


When Work Is Play

From The New Yorker, Feb 4, 2019

I’ve been noticing how I experience work as play. Throughout the day, I keep a list of things to do, which I then get to check-off as they are completed. If I think of something that I could or “should” do, then I’ll stick it on the list. I periodically review this list and decide what to work on next, what to leave until later, and what to drop or defer indefinitely. Every couple of weeks, I review the list and create a single-slide summary of my progress over the past two weeks. This summary is fulfilling for me and I also share the slide with my manager.

I sometimes notice that there are items on the list that I feel some kind of resistance about. This resistance is often because I doubt that I will be able to successfully complete the task. When this happens, I have developed a habit of first fully acknowledging the feeling and then deciding to attempt the task anyway. These tasks seem challenging only because I barely know where to begin; there seems to be too much unknown in them. I have learned to perceive this as really fun because it’s clearly an adventure. Who wants to always be working on things they already know how to do? So then I find a first step that I can do, no matter how small. That first step might be researching how to proceed, or it might be investigating how someone else has solved a similar problem.

I generally end up framing most work as some kind of exploration, summarization, organization, or creation; all very enjoyable. When I hit a roadblock, I sometimes catch myself framing it as my plan being thwarted. Instead, I have learned to slow down and focus on addressing the roadblock; after all, that’s what actually needs to be dealt with. This potentially leads to more interesting items on my to-do list. This “roadblock” is just another fun challenge that I get to tackle, an engaging surprise that I simply didn’t know about up-front.

Even when I’m doing work that some might consider boring or unglamorous, I tend to end up discovering that it’s filled with learning, experimentation, exploration, and play. Sometimes I’m amazed that I actually get well compensated to hang out in a cool environment and solve challenging problems that require me to learn new and interesting things. I also get to spend time with super-intelligent and fun people.

Early in my career, there was a guy who was roughly the same age as me but who worked in a different group on a slightly different kind of problem. He seemed to be extremely unhappy with his job. At lunch, I noticed that he would read the job-ads in the newspaper, very conspicuously, right in front of his manager. I guess I must have seemed really pumped about what I was working on and I got the impression somehow that he felt jealous of me.

Not long after that, this guy transferred into my group to work on something very similar to me. He seemed keen initially, but after a week or two he seemed to return to his default malaise. Shortly afterwards, he transferred back to his old job. I presume that he discovered that he brought his boredom with him to his new role, a role in which he also probably felt uncomfortably less competent.

By now, I have worked on enough projects, in enough diverse fields, to know that pretty much any kind of work can be super-interesting, challenging, growth-inducing, and fun. Assuming that I have an emotionally positive environment, I can dig into a problem and find play, flow, and fun in it.

Fulfillment at work is not about what I am working on specifically, but about how much I am able to frame it as a form of play.

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