Ludo ergo sum – How a playful mindset changes everything

Ludo ergo sum – How a playful mindset changes everything

The new (postmodern or post-postmodern) age that followed the industrial age is characterized by the leading medium of the internet and digital technologies. Personally, I find the social components more exciting than the technical ones: how are people changing - and with them society? My sound belief is that playful exploration is the basis for adult learning, individuation and in fact future-oriented leadership approaches that foster an environment of creativity, openness, possibly peace of mind and purpose. Ideally, the homo ludens, the playful human, replaces the performance-oriented variant: homo faber. In this piece, I would like to underpin the bold afore-mentioned assertions and make a couple of suggestions how to go about dealing with this intriguing matter.

You live life looking forward, you understand life looking backward

This humble quotation by Søren Kierkegaard invites us to take a peek at recent history. According to western thought (which is one amongst many), modernity was brought about in merry England in the mid-eighteenth century. Its progenitor: technology. The innovations that kicked off the Industrial Revolution served as the breeding ground of modern democracy and lay the cornerstone for modern economies. The industrialized society was a massive machinery. Mechanics were paramount and society was modelled after that. Humans were part of that machinery. Depending on their skills and social background, people pivoted and slipped into a specific role which they had to assume - whether they liked it or not. Personal facets that did not fit this role had to be eliminated (think of Emma Griffin's Liberty's Dawn for a detailed account of people's stories during that rough period). This machinery demanded that all components were standardized: standardized processes, standardized jobs, standardized careers and standardized occupational training.

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree or the magnificence of playful presence

Let's usher in a brief reflection on today's world and circumstances by this beautiful quote by Martin Luther. So are we going to contemplate his legendary 95 Wittenberg theses? Nay! Instead, let's talk about today's working world, shall we? Usually a little more this-worldly and certainly radically present in your and my life, I dare say. So what about today, then? Routine procedures are increasingly being taken over by algorithms these days. That's a fact. Ironically, Elon Musk warns humans of the dangers of Artificial Intelligence and asks spectators to marks his words. Humans focus on activities that computers cannot fathom or process creatively. In addition to complex manual activities, these are activities with high demands of creativity, social skills and problem-solving competencies. Nowhere can such competencies be acquired and developed as effectively as in playful exploration. At the same time, playing is essential to develop another skill that is central in today's society: dealing with uncertainty, ambiguity and unpredictability - and the ubiquitous availability of information certainly puts an unrelenting emphasis on complexities that doubtless were present centuries ago as well. The stark difference, however: it wasn't made as abundantly clear by social media, wikis, digitized news anchors, podcasts, newsfeeds, (unnerving) push messages and news channels flickering on subways as it is the case nowadays. This engenders conditions which stress people out and produce troops of multi-dilettantes - and shallow mindfulness junkies who have no idea about the essence of yoga, serenity, void or zen, but consistently chase after the next retreat opportunity by the Atlantic Ocean to practice pranayama.

Playful exploration is decidedly personal and intimate. To engage in playful exploration means to tackle challenges that stem from within. When humans play, they are forgetful of themselves, they do not judge, do not complicate things, indulge in joyful and immediate activity and experience a state that legendary psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would refer to as flow.

There and back again - Bilbo Baggins was a homo faber or was he not?

The homo faber wanted to occupy a role in the machine, that is, to get and keep a job to secure his or her income and feed the young as it were. In the industrialized world, this meant to seek and find a job. To do this, homo faber had to meet the expectations attached to his or her role and occupation. He or she thus strived to meet performance expectations that other people sought to define in great detail. This is exactly what homo faber was prepared for in school. At school, performance expectations were defined by curricula and teachers specified them for a teaching unit and ultimately for a lesson. In working life, performance expectations were defined in job descriptions and supervisors specified them for projects and the day-to-day business. To refer back to the above headline: of course, Bilbo went through an impressive transformation if one considers his philistine peasant life and ponders the daring and adventurous (playful) life he plunged himself into when Gandalf the Grey lured him out of his cosy abode in the opening chapters of The Hobbit.

It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between the two

The homo ludens wants to know and actualize his or her uniqueness. He or she wants to develop the entirety of facets instilled as potential - bound to blossom if circumstances are right and favorable. To this effect, he or she requires an environment in which he or she can make decisions about his or her destiny. Instead of external specifications such as curricula and job descriptions, homo ludens follows his or her life plan, his or her disposition and his or her personal needs. When we observe pre-school children engage in typical forms of play - such as unoccupied, solitary, onlooking, parallel or associative - we realize that this is what people do naturally when left alone and unhampered. The homo ludens is the natural human – primordial and free to put it the Jungian way.

Where does homo ludens seek security and gain sound foothold?

The industrially influenced individual looked for security in the outside. He or she felt more or less secure when he or she regularly found his or her wages in his or her bank account at the end of the month. For that security, he or she was willing to focus on outside demands. This meant putting your own needs aside.

Conversely, the homo ludens seeks security within. He or she relies on sensing what the next step is in the game of his or her life. This is our natural state, which has never been removed from us entirely - even when circumstances, self-proclaimed leaders, structures, power distance, hierarchies or certain corporate cultures explicitly or implicitly inhibit this playful energy. In our childhoods, we relied on our inner voices and intuitions. We sensed when it was time to turn around for the first time, sit down, stand up, climb a tree or build a tree house. It wasn't until grown-ups told us when to learn something that we strayed from our natural developmental agenda. The homo ludens stays with us as a mental state that can be buried (in literary studies, there is a topos called buried life to refer to this state within) and unearthed when it dawns on us how wholesome and positive it is to seek and promote personal individuation in this sacred process.

What motivates homo ludens?

The homo faber worked for compensation and reward. If the homo faber had not received the wages, he or she would hardly have worked at all. A second source of motivation was status. Being more important than others, standing out from the crowd in a standardized society - still highly motivating for many people. Therefore, homo faber was keen to pursue a career and wanted to climb the career ladder, which in turn was typical of the industrialized society. Both reward as well as status are extrinsic motivators, which correspond to the need for external security. With homo ludens, the joy of doing is in the foreground. Homo ludens learns and works with passion. Learning and working are therefore no different from playing. Since what homo ludens does is in accordance with what he or she wants to do, things generally feel purposeful. Purpose and joy are the focus. Doing something for joy is the only intrinsic, i.e. the only self-determining type of motivation. It goes without saying, we can strive as dull grown-ups as well. True self-actualization, however, is a fully integrated personality – and homo ludens certainly is a component of this fully integrated entity.

Bold conclusion: in what way does homo ludens impact leadership and society?

Dissatisfied people focus on things external: they envy others, nag about the weather, make fun of others, fight each other, engage in backstabbing and so forth. Since they also consume a lot, they strain the world's resources and contribute to the climate crisis. The consequences of the industrialized society, which was dominated by homo faber, ranged from dissatisfaction and competitiveness to envy and violence to indeed wars and the current climate crisis. Talking of which (and embracing associative play to make may point), think of the renowned climate clock that demonstrates how quickly the planet is approaching 1.5°C of global warming, given current emissions trends. It also shows the amount of CO2 already emitted - and the global warming to date. Crises, conflicts and hardships have always existed, but in the industrialized society (dominated by homo faber) these conditions fall on particularly fertile soil.

From my point of view, the homo ludens is significantly happier and more sustainable than its predecessor. Just like breathing healthily is a rare condition in human beings, playful self-conduct can be unlearned. We may liken it to the loss of naïveté and innocence. The good news is, however, it can be re-acquired, too. Playful humans usually are at peace with themselves. Those who are at peace with themselves have energy for others. A society with many playing people is more cooperative and humane.

Leaders who are mature, do not have to demean others, are generous, peaceful at heart, growth-oriented in a healthy way, sociable and interactive, allow for self-chosen, spontaneous pursuit, adventurous and risky, fun and purposeful, are happier within and able to foster a wholesome corporate culture without. Leaders who are communicative, creative, inviting, generous, daring and original will prevail. Think of child's play: children are capable of exploring and testing out roles, emotions, behaviors and relationships: re-enacting and replaying experiences which they have already gone through in order to grasp and make sense of them. Symbolic play may just look like pretending, but it actually establishes the foundation for understanding of ourselves and the larger world - and this is exactly what homo ludens turned leader scrutinizes, embraces and fosters: open societies, joyful exploration, collaboration and purposeful work. Playful leaders promote learning and foster social, cognitive, organizational, physical and emotional skills - including creativity, imagination and light-hearted problem-solving, which is the future of work.

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