Books: All play and no work is good for the soul

This 'manifesto for a different way of living' is ambitious, but will businesses be able to harvest the fruits of creative playfulness, wonders Neil Mullarkey.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I work with businesspeople using improvisational theatre to hone their creative and leadership skills. So thanks, Mr Kane, for giving me so much ammunition. The subtitle is A manifesto for a different way of living. He's not thinking small. He's addressing not just business, but education, politics, the arts, and even religion.

Work, at least in the past couple of centuries - according to Kane's reading of Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism - is deemed good for the soul, no matter how soul-destroying it may be.

As I remember it from my undergrad sociology, Weber's main insight was that it was the asceticism of bosses - their determination to invest rather than consume profits - that gave rise to the evolution of capitalism.

So does this mean we should just muck about at work? Nope. Play is more than that. Kane takes his cue from the root-word dlegh (in Celtic, Germanic and Slavic), meaning 'to engage oneself'. Play is about discovering new possibilities. It's the way we mammals test our strategies for survival and reproduction.

Another notion of play is more ancient and dark - that we are sport for the gods, 'mere counters in their celestial game'. Struggle and contest sit alongside self-expression.

Business constantly uses the vocabulary of play. When we talk about someone being a 'player', we mean they should be taken seriously. Game theory says you should introduce an element of randomness to be a winner. 'Playfulness - unpredictability-as-survival strategy' becomes vital. Without it, your successful company will become a benchmark that others can copy and surpass.

These are the areas of the book that most appeal to me, since they reflect my own thinking. As Kane writes: 'An ethic of play is about embracing ambiguity, revelling in paradox, yet being energised by that knowledge: in effect it makes a virtue, even a passion out of uncertainty.' That's improvisational theatre - and perhaps it could make for good leadership?

It's not just a question of 'all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy'. Kane goes beyond work/life balance questions. We know from Madeleine Bunting's recent book Willing Slaves that overwork can lead to stress (and loses many more working days than the industrial unrest of the 1970s).

So what do companies do? They give us awaydays and brainstorms to get us thinking 'outside the box'. Actually, most team-build events I've observed have been about people getting out of their box. But why can't they be allowed to think better inside the box? Why do people behave as they think 'businesspeople' should behave when they go to work? Why not bring their playful self, too? Literature and drama have long explored such notions - characters who are contradictory and unpredictable. Isn't it time that business (and politics) did as well?

That very complexity could be a great source of innovation. Attempts at 'one vision' or pie-in-the-sky mission statements woefully underestimate the ability of humans to live with paradox.

Is this a bit Utopian? The fact is that businesses may not be able to cope with too much play. Work is measurable: play is not. Kane wants to replace work/leisure dualism with a play/care continuum. He wants a social wage.

This is not an anti-capitalist tract: far from it. The play ethic is right at home in the 'networked world of informational capitalism'. Look at all those '60s hippies now atop the entrepreneurial ladder. How can we talk of a work ethic when so much is available for free on the net - whether it be Linux software, music or writing?

I used to get frustrated with my economics tutor, who always made us assume 'perfect competition' to make the graphs work. Human beings are not rational economic actors: the reasons for this are more interesting than indifference curves. Human systems are complex; their overall behaviour cannot be predicted, but a spirit of play can cope with this uncertainty.

Emergence and extinction live side by side with competition and co-operation, altruism and selfishness. But it doesn't have to be a zero-sum game. In improvisation, if you look good, I look good.

Ironically, perhaps, this book is not a light read. There are 64 pages of footnotes and the bibliography runs to 14. Kane left no stone (or Finnish Futurist) unturned in the three years and many air miles his quest took. I was delighted to discover so many new expressions: soulitarian, lifestyle militants, the kidult, semiocracy, techno-spiritual, screenagers, mediaverse, and X-er, to name but a few.

Uncertainty may be all well and good for us freelance arts-types, but how many organisations will be able to see play 'as the fruitful, novelty-generating energy that sustains the vibrancy of the system, rather than the distracting interference that impedes the functioning of a precise machine?' Dream on? Game on.

Neil Mullarkey is a comedian who 'works' in leadership development and 'plays' as his alter ego, L Vaughan Spencer, the Gangsta Motivator. He is appearing at the Comedy Store, London, this month

The Play Ethic; Pat Kane; Macmillan £12.99 MT price £10.99; to order, visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk

All the books reviewed are available from the MT bookshop. To order, call 08700 702 999 or visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk

P&p at £1.95 will be added to each order.

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