Sometimes work is fun. Really fun. Not because you're playing a game or being funny, but because you're working, and working well. It can happen anywhere, at any time: in the office, in a meeting room, over the phone, on the computer. Work can be especially fun when working well with other people who are also working well.
This article explores three major dynamics of the experience of the fun of work:
There are many characteristic experiences that are associated with fun: the sense of timelessness, of being at one (with mind and mountain), of exhilaration, focus, immediacy. And all of these are characteristic of what we, regardless of activity, call "fun."
According to Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's well-documented observations and research, and his wide-scale gathering of personal observations, there is pretty much universal agreement that when there isn't a high correlation between the challenge (the height of the mountain, depth of the dive) and the ability to meet that challenge, fun is something we're definitely not having. The main dialog (dynamic), according to Mihaly "just call me Mike" Csikszentmihalyi, is between Challenge and Ability. When the challenge is greater than our abilities, we become anxious and potentially dead. When the challenge is significantly less than that of which we are worthy, we become bored, and potentially dead.
Maintaining the dynamic balance between abilities and challenge is key to the fun experience in work. That is, keeping it dynamic. Making it possible for anyone to find exactly the right amount of challenge needed to engage exactly those abilities needed to access flow.Which means that when work is fun we have created complex, but negotiable challenges, challenges that allow the individual to engage or disengage, to work harder or work safer.
In my interpretation of Mike's Flow model, every line is a vector (an arrow). This is my way of symbolizing what Mike calls the tendency towards "Complexity" - to increase the challenge, increase the range of abilities, risk even deeper heights of anxiety, broader depths of boredom, to access an ever more profound state of Flow.
The first time you jump into a swimming pool, for example, you're probably already too anxious to experience anything flowlike. Especially when you don't know how deep or how cold the water will be. And even more especially when you don't know how to swim.
You go to the shallowest end. Gently, you let yourself in (at the lower end of your abilities). Next thing you know, you're merrily splishing and splashing, trying to impossibly run from one side to the other, and flow is definitely what you are in.
Until you just get tired of it all. There's still both splish and splash, but you're bored. And it's not so fun. The very same water. And yet, no flow.
Until some chemically-encoded perversity takes hold, and you decide to get your head wet. Instant anxiety, and yet, a whole new world of challenge.
And so on, and so on, challenge by challenge, stroke by stroke, between boredom and anxiety, you wiggle your way into the deeper and colder and more swiftly flowing waters, where the challenges become profound and the demand absolute. And so you grow, from wader to diver, from mystery to mastery, learning, extending your abilities. As you challenge yourself more, you grow more, evolving ever more complex sets of skills and sensitivities, becoming an ever more complete human being.
Physical Educator Mosska Musston developed an elegant model, called the "Slanted High Bar" principle, that puts the concept of individually negotiable challenge very clearly into practice.
If you're a Phys Ed teacher, one of the things you do with kids is help them develop their high jumping skills. In "non-adaptive" Phys Ed, the way you did this was to hold jumping contests. You'd hang a high bar horizontal to a certain height and everybody would have to take a turn jumping over the high bar. If they succeeded, they'd get to the next round, and the high bar would be raised. The contest would continue until only one person was left, and that person would be lavishly praised as the one who established the high jump record for the class.
The problem with this kind of competitive incentive structure is that the kids who need the most practice are the kids who get to jump the least often. The worse they are at jumping, the sooner they're out of the game.
Make the high bar diagonal instead of parallel to the ground. And let everybody jump over any part of the high bar, and take as many turns as they want. And what do you get?
Instead of the teacher, each kid sets his/her own challenge. The jumpers who are not so good at jumping can still jump across the high bar as many times as anyone else they just cross at a lower point. And, when they feel the need to increase the challenge, they can just station themselves at a higher part of the high bar.
No one is eliminated. No one is given prizes. Everyone wins. Repeatedly.
Slant the high bar and the authority rolls right out of the hands of the teacher, out of, actually, any one body's hands, into everybody's. The challenge (jump as high as you can, and then jump higher) remains the same, but the challenger has changed. It's not the Phys Ed instructor who increases the challenge, it's the kids, themselves: the kids as a group, and the kids, individually.
A challenge that is determined by the individual player is more complex, because it requires "reflective action." The player must evaluate not only his or her own success, but also the success of the challenge. And even though they can get very competitive, the challenge is ultimately self-selected, ultimately guided by sheer fun.
Without an external evaluator, each kid can devise and revise the challenge. Of course, evaluation is going on, and whether the competition is inner-directed or outer-directed, the fact is that the teacher, your fellow jumpers (both higher and lower), your inner referee; somebody is evaluating your performance, challenging you to challenge yourself.
Ideally, each kid should be seeking out his/her personal level of flow, driven by the natural desire for complexity into a deeper and healthier engagement with the relationships between the human body and gravity. But, in fact, there's still something about the way the task is framed that draws the kids apart.
Even though nobody's eliminated, even though everyone's free to increase or decrease the challenge, even though you don't even have to take turns, the fact is that the challenge is directed towards the individual. With the focus on individual performance, on how high who jumps; the relationship is fundamentally the same.
And what's worse (or more complex), someone might be attaching meaning to your performance, as if how high you can jump says something about your character!
So, what if we completely redirected the challenge, away from the individual and towards the group? What if the entire class tried to jump holding hands? Or with their arms around each other's shoulders? Or each other's waist?
Shifting the focus of the game away what they can do individually (ME), we focus, also, on what the kids can do together (WE) - on collective as well as individual performance.
To jump the Slanted Bar together, we need to make sure that each individual kid is going to make it. Even though the challenge is to the group, there are still plenty of challenges to the individual player. Each has to be stationed at the right part of the high bar: too high and you might not get over, too low, you might make it harder for someone else. Each has to be able to ask for help, and provide help. Preparing for the big jump, synchronizing the preparatory, simultaneous squat, each individual is doubly challenged. And yet, not competing. Same slant, same task, but fundamentally shifted experience.
Raising the high bar, you intensify the competitive relationship between the diminishing few. The game, internally and externally, becomes one of increasingly isolated MEs (the "winners") against an increasingly disempowered WE. Slant the High Bar, and the relationship relaxes, becomes supportive, empowering, healthy, ME/WE. (return)
Now, merely by taking a few radical liberties with Csikszentmihalyi's Flow model, we cunningly arrive at a model for depicting the dynamics of the experience of work as fun.
Instead of Challenge and Abilities, we draw the relationship between ME and WE. The MEwards pointing arrow points towards an increasing emphasis on the individual. The WEwards pointing arrow, the increasing emphasis on the relationship.
As we learned from Mike's concept of complexity, when we are having fun (in flow) we invest more and more of ourselves (abilities).
When there is a dynamic balance between ME (each individual) and WE (the job, the community), each serving and supporting the other, there is no need to make any distinction between ME and WE. The more fun for all, the more fun for each.. This experience of ME/WEness is bordered on one side by the act of separating ourselves from our CoWorkers (competition), and on the other, by the act of identifying ourselves with our CoWorkers (cooperation).
Collectively, WE can redefine the relationship, rototill the groundrules, do whatever is necessary to reevoke the fun of work. Individually, we can change the way we are working, increase or decrease the challenge, engage or disengage.
The ME/WE balance is a function of a dynamic tension between competition and cooperation.
Competition in our working world is often excessive, at least. The tension between competition and cooperation at work can become so great that we often must risk our jobs or salaries just to connect with the fun of it all.
When competition is healthy, the relationship between ME and WE constantly shifts between competitive and cooperative, like foreground and background, the rules becoming steadily more empowering, the players increasingly more competent. It is fun that is gained at no one's cost, achieved to everyone's benefit. Work that is more fun, for everyone. (return)
See also this collection of my articles about fun and work, and: