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Stop thinking the right way!

Logic will get you from A to Z. Imagination will get you everywhere.

-Albert Einstein

So much cookie!

As a child, everything is new and the world seems like nothing ever stays the same.

“Food is always delicious!”

“This shoe looks like food!”

“I was horribly mistaken about that! Bleargh!”

This is why children are always testing limits and seeing what happens, because they genuinely don’t know and are trying to learn. This is also why children’s television is full of repetition. It reinforces that what they are teaching is something that isn’t changing. (See? It’s the same this time, too. And the next time. You can learn this and rely on it.) Anything else, however, is up for grabs. Slowly, we learn which things we can rely on, and they fade into the background so we can forget about them and focus on all the constant new stuff. (Some things can fly? Woah!)

During childhood, the process of discovering which things change and which things don’t is called “play”. Because you have such little experience and never know what will happen, it is full of surprises and new opportunities to learn and discover more. As more and more of the world falls into our understanding as a routine, we discover that we can get responses we like from the world by repeating those routines the same way every time, with slight variation. We find the right answer, and we learn how to repeat it.

The fancy terminology for this is “developing habits”.

We begin to value winning over playing, and we nestle ourselves into a comfortable routine that provides a steady IV drip of success. Nothing too crazy, nothing too risky, just making sure that everyone around us doesn’t nag us about doing the wrong thing. Go to school, get a safe job, buy a house, have kids. Your function as a human is complete, and you succeeded in not rocking the boat.


A significant part of my professional career has involved stepping into ridiculously big corporations full of people wearing suits and “teaching them to innovate”. This has involved lots of games and adventures, and I’m telling you right now you haven’t lived until you’ve gotten a room of high-powered corporate executives excitedly telling stories with clay and crayons.

Everything I got those executives to do were just tactics or techniques using psychological triggers and other complicated things to teach people to play again and think in ways they normally don’t. What it all really boils down to is one thing that “successful” people have long since forgotten, even though it used to be the only way you interacted with the world.

You need to think without there being a right answer.

The reason people are “successful” (in the sense that your mom would use when talking about your classmate who went to medical school and has a wife and eight adooorable children, oh dear goodness!) is because they figure out how to consistently get the right answer and focus in on it. They don’t do things that don’t have a point, and aggressively strip things out of their lives that don’t propel them toward their goals, whatever they may be.

This is a great tactic for Getting Things Done™, and I’m not disparaging it in any way. It’s very useful for its purpose, but you should be aware of the downsides that come with it. By ruthlessly stripping away all other possibilities aside from the ones that have worked in the past, you are removing all potential for finding a better way to do things. A more productive way. A more fun way. Perhaps worst of all, you are removing the possibility of discovering that perhaps your goals aren’t the best goals for you.

Sunny days, sweeping the clooooouds away...

Take some time to sit down and let your mind wander. Doodle while you do it. Feel free to think about big, important things. Also think about little, funny things, and things that make you happy or sad or excited. You don’t need a point, or a goal. What you want is to be productive, not efficient. Take the longest route possible to get somewhere, stopping at every flower and animal along the way to play and rediscover what it had to offer that you hadn’t considered before. Really get to know what inspires you in life, and what energizes you the most. Make drawings, not lists. Describe experiences, not results. Focus on truly understanding things, not just getting them done to get that little rush of checking another box on your to-do list.

Don’t just do it now, either. Make it a habit. Do this on a regular basis. Start thinking in colorful images, not in bullet points projected in a dark room. If you can make this habit part of your routine, suddenly things won’t be as routine anymore, because you will be playing on a daily basis and not always taking the shortest, most efficient route, burning yourself out trying to be “successful”. I guarantee you will find more success in your life if you start enjoying the path on the way there.

What this all comes down to is that everyone needs a balance in their life. Yes, find goals and dedicate yourself to them. But don’t let other people’s definition of success drive you down a path that where you are safe, sound, and miserable. Take the time to explore and discover what would really make you feel successful in life, and what things it turns out you actually don’t care about. Do you value having a large family? Traveling to new places and going on adventures? Having time to yourself to curl up and read? Helping other people out? Amassing a huge fortune and laughing at people from inside your castle? Visiting every water park in the United States? Cookies?

Odds are there are some things that really make you happy, and some that kind of do, but you would be fine without. Make a list of the things that make you happy in life, the things you value, and focus on them. If you do the above exercise, I guarantee you will come up with a list of things that are important to you, whether or not you realized it before.

Here’s where the balance comes in. Hold onto the things that make you really happy and do whatever you can to make them a bigger part of your life, aggressively thinking less about the “kind of happy” stuff. It will be fine without you worrying about it.

Once you bring this sense of increased happiness and accomplishment into your life, it will snowball into the rest of your life, letting your real goals in life shine through as you slowly discover you are already working toward them.

Just don’t forget to develop this kind of thinking as a habit, because you don’t want to be 5 years down the road before you suddenly realize your biggest passion in life has shifted while you were working so hard. Nobody wants to be that far down the road before they realize their passion isn’t cookies, it’s puppies.

Additional resources to help you bust your cycle and learn to play again:

ZeFrank – Bust That Cycle

Ahmed Riaz – Design Play For Kids In Extreme Environments

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One Comment

  1. When you focus on being productive rather than efficient, your life becomes circular rather than linear. I think that was what Einstein was trying to say. Sometimes a project fades, then reappears all of a sudden because it was sparked by something else down the road. I did not travel backwards to revisit it, just somewhere around. Even on earth – if you travel in a straight line for a long enough time, you make a circle. Great stuff Chris.

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