Irina Dumitrescu recently wrote a fascinating piece making the case against discipline, in favor of play. She asks, “What if, what if, what if it’s not just some vague nameless Resistance that keeps us from doing what feels right, but the very fact that we’ve attached discipline to those activities?”
Her question definitely resonates, and she concludes, “More and more, I think the only good answer to Resistance is play.”
I definitely don’t disagree; the person who’s forced to do something will never be as good as—or have as much fun as—the person who has fun doing it.
Play certainly is a great suggestion. I’ve never had more fun writing than I do now, and that’s because I started playing again every day here at this blog. I let my inner idiot go wild. I let what interests me guide my writing, which often leads to 1,000+ words flowing out of me with very little effort.
“Without play, only Shit Happens. With play, Serendipity Happens,” wrote David Weinberger in The Cluetrain Manifesto.
“Work which remains permeated with the play attitude is art,” wrote philosopher John Dewey.
Of course, I do this with the understanding that this form of play is, at best, an organized hobby. nothing can ever fully only involve play. Making good work takes practice. Practice takes at least a certain amount—even the smallest amount—of discipline. Approaching your work as a craftsperson does takes practice, devotion, and commitment.
That’s why writing off discipline, entirely, is a risky endeavor. There will inevitably come times when the going gets tough. It might be a personal problem that affects how we feel, and exacerbates our inclination to procrastinate. It might be a professional problem that feels like a creative block, which makes the fun task less fun. If we were playing, we’d just move on to something else or quit. We’d just watch TV.
- The nut, the obsédé
- The moron
- The stylist
- The critic
Similarly, professor Betty Flowers said the same thing, with slightly different roles:
The stylist, the critic, the architect, the carpenter, the judge, all need discipline in order to do their jobs; to refine and sharpen work, to make sure it meets a standard of quality and thought to be useful, original, and surprising to other people.
Only the nut, moron, and madman get to play. Where play comes in is basically to introduce fun back into the mind again. To feed our inner child. To make sure the structure doesn’t take over and starve our work of vitality.
Moreover, in creative work, I’ve tended to notice a duality in many aspects:
- Play vs. discipline
- Doing vs. thinking
- Spontaneity vs. structure
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche writes in The Birth of Tragedy of a similar blend of halves to achieve balance: the Dionysian extremes of emotion, instinct, and spontaneity, and the Apollonian rationality, order, and reason.
Obsession is another good example of this; great creative work emerges from an obsession with details and quality. Yet if you don’t learn to let go of your obsession at some point, you’ll never bring your vision outside of your head.
The key here is to oscillate, and possibly to unify; to stretch the spirit and mind to embody both extremes. I’ve previously written, “Treat productivity advice like settings that you can dial. Your setting should keep up with your changing situations. This mental framework enables you to adjust the settings. Sure, there will be productivity enthusiasts, just like there are tool enthusiasts; but for the rest of us, we just need productivity advice to enable the rest of our lives, not to continuously do more, or to make a shiny productivity system.”
The same goes to creative work; it’s best to move through creativity with oscillations. Know when to be spontaneous and play, and when to plod onwards with discipline. Know when to bias for action, and when to step back and learn.
Work is work. It can be fun.
Hobbies are fun. It also takes work.
I’ve also written about how to apply oscillations to your career.