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All Play and No Work…

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

…Makes Jack a dull vibrant boy. I just discovered this near-perfect quote by filmmaker Jane Campion last night:

“Build up your enthusiasm so that it’s higher than your fear. Have fun. Playing in your work is the way to find your energy. You can’t do this work if you don’t have a lot of energy because it requires everything. It shouldn’t feel like work. You’ve got to find a way to make what you’re doing feel like play.”

For most of my life I’ve found that my work–my life’s work, my art–is indistinguishable from the enjoyment of leisure or “play.” This results in an instinctual and dramatic departure from one of the most pervasive beliefs of our society: that so-called “work” and so-called “play” are sharply delineated, incompatible areas of our lives, in perpetual competition and conflict with one another. The results of such an outlook, and the resulting actions one takes in life while under this defeating spell, are disastrous. They divide life into misery and enjoyment, fracturing the human spirit in the process and falsely placing responsibility for one’s own happiness into the hands of employers and entertainers.

More false dichotomies.

Make no mistake, to be truly dedicated to one’s art, to put your heart and soul into it, is exhausting. Finding success in a chaotic, fast-paced and fickle world takes as much as you can muster and then demands more. But when ultimate reward is synonymous with ultimate sacrifice, work and play lose their traditional meaning, and the exhaustion and overwhelmedness become peculiarly enjoyable–or at least, deeply satisfying–elements of the game. Giving one’s all to a larger mission is a particularly fulfilling state of being for us humans. The quote above is clearly spoken by someone who knows this firsthand.

And just for the sake of thought and critique, I have two minor criticisms of the outlook expressed in this quote:

1. The finality of the word “can’t.” You can actually do this work without a lot of energy–plenty do. But their experience and their success ultimately will be limited as a result of this limited input. Perhaps merely just a matter of semantics, but an important concept worth pondering: “you get out of it what you put in.”

And furthermore, one may find that periods of rest or relaxation are a necessary or desirable stage within a lifelong context of hard work. We should be in this for the long haul, unless we’re not planning on living very long.

2. The limitation of the word “shouldn’t.” It presupposes that the feeling of “work” can’t actually be subverted, expanded, and redefined on a personal level as needed, in order to find enjoyment or satisfaction within it. In other words, to lose its distinction from “play” altogether. This alone has a revolutionary potential that could transform the scope of human happiness. Find work that you love, find aspects to love within the work that you do.

For a beautifully expressed, in-depth critique of this concept that’s had a profound impact on my attitude over the years, check out this essay.

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