Entrepreneurs need to play hard

Play isn't just a childish distraction. It's at the heart of innovation, says Faisal Butt.

by Faisal Butt
Last Updated: 10 Jun 2016

Albert Einstein bewildered his scholarly peers when he declared: ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.’

Einstein has been painted with many colourful adjectives – crazy, brilliant, eccentric, creative – but what many haven't fully appreciated is how childishly playful he could be. His ability to grasp profound insights on the nature of the universe was a result of connective play. A series of playful experiments unclogged different parts of his brain and led to the ground-breaking theory of relativity.

The act of playing is behind some of the greatest discoveries in human history. Think of the apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head. Now imagine Benjamin Franklin flying his kite during a lightning storm. Apples have always fallen from trees and lightning has always struck, but the act of playing turned these everyday occurrences into trailblazing insights. The simple truth is that when in a state of play, when our minds are relaxed, open and fluid, we experience inexplicable flashes of inspiration – and great things happen.

Play to Grow

All this talk about the importance of play may sound a bit fluffy to the hard-nosed business men and women amongst us.  But it’s all backed up by hard science. Our ability to play is directly wired to our ability to imagine and invent.  It is also one of the most effective ways to promote our ‘cognitive fitness’. New research has come to the fore, and it turns out that by doing the ‘mental push-ups’ associated with playing, we can fight off age-related mental decline. Neurons, the cells behind our brain’s computing power, can actually grow their numbers over time. This process, known as neurogenesis, is sparked by the types of activities we entrepreneurs and executives sometimes dismiss as secondary – playing and working out.

Playing also helps us develop mental agility so we can transition from different types of problems while remaining lucid and focused on the task at hand. This is particularly beneficial to venture capitalists and serial entrepreneurs, who have to switch their focus from business to business sometimes several times a day.

There are a variety of games we can play to flex our mental muscles. Language learning games, such as the Duolingo app (which I’ve taken up as part of my brain-expanding New Year ‘game plan’) are great for cognitive fitness. Einstein learned to speak French, German, English, and Italian. He also played the violin and often performed duets with the father of Quantum Theory, Max Planck, who was also a pianist.  It is said that investment legend Warren Buffet likes to relax by playing the ukulele. Frank Underwood, the fictional U.S. President in the House of Cards, relaxes by playing (often disturbingly violent) video games. 

We all have flashbacks of ourselves as children playing puzzles, cricket, Lego or just simple hide and seek. But the sad thing is that as grown-ups, we’ve stopped playing. For adults, play is arguably even more important as it engages our pre-frontal cortex, nurturing those functions related to memory, self-knowledge, and incentive and reward processing. With summer fast approaching, I would suggest it is time to dust off our skateboards, pull out our cricket bats, and reach deep within. It is time to tap into our inner child and exploit the revitalizing qualities of playing, and have some good old-fashioned fun while we're at it.

Play and valuation

Google is arguably the most influential company in the world. The company has billions to pour into the study of what keeps staff stimulated at work and how to harness the full creative potential of their global army of Googlers.

They fill their offices with what other companies would consider distractions. Foosball tables, soft drink fridges, gyms, and even playground slides!  Google has mastered the art of playing and achieved a highly commendable $500+ billion market capitalisation by following a simple philosophy – happy and playful staff are productive value creators.  

Final thoughts

The business world is far too serious. It is full of serious situations and problems that need immediate attention from senior management and legions of bright, regimented, knowledge workers. This is tiring and stressful. Businesspeople need to loosen up and have some fun. And that doesn’t mean going down to the local pub and downing more beer. I’m talking about healthy, neuron-boosting, brain-stimulating play. What people don’t realise is that the real players in a world that is becoming increasingly more creative and complex will be those that learn to play a bit harder. Herein lies the paradox; maybe if you have a bit more fun, people might start to take you a bit more seriously.

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