As leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs, we are ever in search of that critical insight, the one that will make us more successful in what we do--not just now, but ongoing. If the help available is a river, it is one deep with advice, wide with best practices, and swollen with promises of foolproof tactics. But ask yourself: Is any of it working for you?

An honest review will likely tell you it isn't. But why? Here's a thought: Maybe you've been looking in the wrong places, even for the wrong things. Perhaps you should consider something far afield--like surfing birds, for instance. Pause for a moment, sit back, and let me, some wise water birds, and a bunch of geniuses show you why.

What Surfing Birds (and Humans) Need

Out the back door of my office is a path to a nearby river. Downriver from the path the water is wide. But upriver it narrows rapidly. This is where I see the birds. True enough, there are birds all up and down this river. Most of them, most of the time, are diligently immersed in the standard operating procedures we'd expect: fishing, nesting, sunning, and generally moving to and fro at an industrious pace to get their jobs done. But at my particular section of river, cormorants--large, sleek, black water birds--come for something else: the surfing.

Here's how it works: The birds fly upriver until the river narrows considerably. There, the current quickens, as the water must squeeze through the tight fit between the shores. Upon arrival, they land not on the shoreline, not even near the land where the current wanes and they can be assured of protection, but right smack dab in the middle of the river, where the current rises and falls in a quick succession of downstream waves. And then they surf. Heads held high on their long slender necks, they ride the current about a quarter mile down river. They don't fish. They don't look left and right for places to rest or nest. Taking turns, they just ride the waves. And then, like the tried and true instruction on the back of every shampoo bottle, they repeat.

In truth, I can't tell you why they do this, in every season, and pretty much every day. Maybe it's multipurpose. But one main purpose clearly stands out above all others: fun. The birds are playing. Not, it would appear, because it directly aids them in their basic job descriptions of eating, resting, mating, and raising others to do the same, but simply because they enjoy it. Perhaps they do it because they need it...just like we do.

The Powerful Case for Play

With flag waving regularity, science keeps revealing the importance of play to human beings. Yet most often we auto-file the incontrovertible evidence in the "if I have time" folder, or the "well sure, kids need that" one, failing to see play's vital role in human accomplishment and advancement, including those in the workplace. Play takes us off our treadmills. It invites us to test our edges with little or no risk. No matter the form it takes, as we engage in it, play actually allows us to create new neural connections in the brain, giving us the power to see bigger and to imagine beyond our borders. All of these benefits just happen to be vital to creativity and innovation--the very things leaders and leading organizations say they desperately want and need.

Over and above the many studies and white papers pouring from labs across the sciences, I conducted interviews with nearly 70 MacArthur Fellows, the recipients of the so-called "genius award" for creativity. They come from every imaginable field, yet certain patterns dominate across them. One is the criticality of play.  When I asked them what was vital to their ability to create, not one time, but to be able to do so many times over, none turned to the stock and trade of their professions. Instead they spoke of things we associate with being off the work clock: walks in nature...playing games...striking up a conversation with someone they normally wouldn't, or even someone completely unknown. The difference was this: they spoke of doing these things everywhere...including in the workplace. Play was core to each and every duty, project, and day.

The Lesson We All Forget (Even This Writer)

We underestimate the power of play, even as we diligently pursue the very things that come from it, like innovation. All of us do, even I do. I ended each interview with the MacArthur Fellows asking, "Is there anything I didn't ask you that I should have about creativity and seeing and the possible?" In one early interview, the response was this: "What do you do for fun?" Assuming the tables had been turned, I stammered out an answer: "Well," I said, "I, uh, like to hike, I kayak, I enjoy traveling with my family...." "No" the Fellow interjected, "what do you do for fun? That'the question you didn't ask me!" It's a question all of us should ask ourselves more often.

Published on: Jul 9, 2018