Being playful and experimenting in the open mode

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

If you approach making art in a serious manner by doing things in a certain way and working hard at it, you may be missing out on the fun of creativity. Play and humour are vital components of creativity as they help us be more creative in a variety of ways. If you don’t feel playful when making art, perhaps you’re missing a key ingredient: being in the open mode. John Cleese explains in a lecture on creativity explains the “closed mode:”…the mode that we are in most of the time when we’re at work… a feeling that there’s lots to be done and we have to get on with it… It has a little tension in it, not much humor. It’s a mode in which we’re very purposeful… stressed… but not creative.”

In contrast, the “open mode:”…is relaxed, expansive, less purposeful mode in which we’re probably more contemplative, more inclined to humour… and consequently, more playful…. curiosity for its own sake can operate because we’re not under pressure to get a specific thing done quickly. We can play, and that is what allows our natural creativity to surface.”

Being in the open mode, or playful mode allows us to let go of worrying about making mistakes or doing the “right” next thing. Cleese explains “To play is experiment: “What happens if I do this? What would happen if we did that? What if…? The very essence of playfulness is an openness to anything that may happen. The feeling that whatever happens, it’s ok. So you cannot be playful if you’re frightened that moving in some direction will be “wrong” — something you “shouldn’t have done.”

Letting go of being wrong can be a challenge but when you’re being creative, there are no rules. Any rules you think exist may be because you’ve chosen to believe and not because they are factually true. Instead, make art that is silly and “wrong” because as Cleese encourages, “While you’re being creative, nothing is wrong. There’s no such thing as a mistake, and any drivel may lead to the break-through.” It is freeing to know that any messy piece of art may eventually lead to a break-through and even more reason to make that kind of art right now.

Listen to your heart to find treasure

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

While the mind speaks louder and more forcefully about what to do, the heart has a gentler, wiser perspective. When making art, the mind may bombard with negative talk about the quality and usefulness of everything. Talk like “I should be doing something more important” or “This is rubbish! Stop immediately!” The mind wants to be instantly good at everything it tries and will go into survival mode to keep you ‘safe’ from the perceived pain/danger of being ‘bad.’ Listen only to this overdramatic voice and you’ll never make art again.

The heart on the other hand, knows you’re safe and no real pain will come from making something messy or ‘bad.’ It’s interested in what feels good and lights you up. It loves when you do more fun things, when you stop listening to the negative mind voice and embrace the play of making art. When you listen the calm heart, you hear how good it feels to make marks for fun. How playful you feel colouring something in and how relaxed and refreshed you feel after doing it.

Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist encourages “Listen to your heart. It knows all things… Because where your heart is, that is where you’ll find your treasure. Keep listening to what it has to say.” When making your art, listen to your wise heart and let the mind take a mini vacation. Its opinion is not needed.

The creative spirit needs play

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

The spirit in which art is made is more important than the art created. By focusing only on the ‘result’ of our actions, we can forget that the experience of making art – having fun and being playful – is what really matters. Children are masters at being playful and are encouraged to play on a daily basis, but as adults, we can loose the connection to our playful spirit.

Fred Rogers in The World According to Mister Rogers encourages “Play does seem to open up another part of the mind that is always there, but that, since childhood, may have become closed off and hard to reach. When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we we helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit. We’re helping ourselves stay in touch with that spirit too. It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.”

How can we connect back to our creative spirit? Make something today. Then make something tomorrow and rinse and repeat. Sometimes all it takes is getting out the colouring crayons and make a big juicy bad art mess. No rules or direction necessary. The only goal or focus is to have fun and feel playful.

“To tap into that natural creative spirit, recapture your childhood enthusiasm for everything around you. Work with the reckless delight of a child.” — Nita Leland

Flit and flutter about playfully

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Picture a butterfly flying around. It can move with seemingly little purpose, flitting about with no clear straight direction and floating on the air as it moves from place to place. Picture two butterflies interacting with one another in a playful dance. Spotting these moment in real life can be mesmerising because they revealing an intimate moment from a normally hidden world.

We can be more like the butterfly in our approach to making art, helping us open up to more joy by letting go of the regular (thought) constraints we put on ourselves. Instead of moving from art piece to art piece seriously thinking about where we’re headed, we could flit and flutter about playfully. We could choose to move with a different, lighter attitude, one that releases heavy thoughts around the value or quality of what we make. Letting go of the burden of our art needing to look a certain way encourages us to continue making in a more playful way.

Float on the air, let go of needing to know where you’re “supposed” to be headed and see where the wind takes you.

Reviewing art as a tool to reflect on creativity

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Regularly reviewing art we make helps hone our tastes and reflect on the art making process. Consider displaying a ‘successful’ piece of art in a prominent spot you spend time daily at like the bathroom mirror or kitchen. These regularly visited spaces prompt you more often to think about your art and reflect why you feel it’s successful.

Is there it one particular mark that seem full of confidence? A cluster of dots that intrigues you? A colour next to a line that you particularly like? Or it could just be a reminder of how it felt being creative. By noticing the small details, you may start to notice other ‘successful’ areas or marks in other art you initially thought wasn’t good.

Art doesn’t have to be a masterpiece to move us. It can be a fun and uplifting tool to help reflect on your creativity.

Fun is more than just fun and laugher

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

How can you adopt a more playful attitude towards your art making practice and why would that be beneficial to you? Aside from experiencing the joy that being playful creates — which could be argued is the main purpose of life and therefore automatically a worthwhile trait — it allows you to be more creative and thus create (over time) more value to your work, life and the contribution to other peoples lives.

On a Freakonomics podcast on creativity, Mitch Resnick speaks about Lifelong Kindergarten, one of the M.I.T. Media labs research units: “We focus on four guiding principles that I call the four Ps of creative learning: projects, passion, peers, and play. So we feel that the best way to support kids developing as creative thinkers and developing their creative capacities is to engage them in working on projects based on their passions in collaboration with peers in a playful spirit… Often when people think about play they just think about fun and laughter. And I have nothing against fun and laughter but that’s not the essence what I’m talking about. I see play not just as an activity but a type of attitude and approach for engaging with the world. When someone has a playful approach, it means they’re constantly experimenting, trying new things, taking risks, testing the boundaries. And I think the most creative activities come about when we’re willing to experiment and take risks.” [emphasis added]

How can you introduce more experimentation into your practice? Do you regularly try new things such as working in a new medium, drawing with your non-dominant hand, seeking out different films, books or media you’d not normally watch or visit a different part of town to find something that sparks a new creative idea? Do you take risks by using colours combinations that don’t traditionally go together, try using trash to make something or draw outside the lines to purposely make messy or ‘bad’ art? Can you find a way to test your boundaries and go outside your comfort zone? It could be as simple as trying to draw on paper that’s double the size you’re used to or using a pen instead of a pencil you can erase to make permanent marks.

Try adopting a playful approach to making your art and focus on the fun of experimenting.

We’re supposed to be playing

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Playing as a child is encouraged, but what about when you’re all grown up? The short answer is an enthusiastic YES! The philosopher Alan Watts in The Tao of Philosophy suggests “the physical universe – is basically playful. There is no necessity for it whatsoever. It is not going anywhere; that is to say, it does not have some destination at which it ought to arrive.” But we can forget to be playful amidst the noise of our everyday lives, work, chores and duties.

“We thought of life by analogy – as a journey or a pilgrimage – which had a serious purpose at that end. The thing was to get to that end, success, or whatever it is, or maybe Heaven after you are dead, but we missed the point along the whole way. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played” (After Skool made this illustrated video of the longer insightful monologue).

If play is what are supposed to be doing, using creativity and making art IS a worthwhile use of time. It’s a way to create more joy in your life and therefore a very meaningful exercise. Make life a little less serious by reconnecting to your inner child who spent endless hours making things just for fun.

Embrace play as an adult

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Play is something that many people believe is a childhood pastime, but given the many benefits of playing, it’s something you should embrace as often as possible as an adult. Kirsten Miliken in Playdhd explains why we stop playing: “As adults we believe we have to be taken seriously to be successful. But research shows that, like kids, adults benefit enormously from playing – in all aspects of their lives and relationships.”

Lloyd P. Rieber suggests “the word “play” can invoke so many misconceptions” and “There is also a sense of risk attached to suggesting an adult is at play. Work is respectable, play is not.” Other misconceptions he describes include that play is easy and that playing doesn’t contribute towards learning.

But life doesn’t need to be serious all the time and making art is just one of the ways you can play more regularly. Miliken writes “By definition, play is ‘purposely, all-consuming, and fun.’ Research with both humans and animals also demonstrates that play is a biological drive as crucial to our health as sleep or nutrition. Play is critical to healthy physical, mental, social, and psychological development.” She talks of research in the field showing the following benefits of play:

  • Builds ability to solve problems, negotiate rules, and resolve conflicts
  • Develops confidence, flexible minds that are open to new possibilities
  • Develops creativity, resilience, independence, and leadership
  • Reduces stress
  • Helps grown strong, healthy bodies

That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits. The bottom line is that play can add a lot of joy and meaning to your life, if you allow yourself permission to spend time playing and making your own art is a wonderful way to get started.

“Playfulness can help us do our jobs better and find more innovative solutions to problems. Play can help us be more adaptive, collaborative, spontaneous, and joyful.” — Kirsten Miliken

Goofing off and being lazy

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Two examples of men at the very top of success in their fields, who talk about goofing off and laziness playing a role in their work lives. This goes against the grain of what we imagine work life to be when you’re at the top of your game, but doesn’t it sound nicer than the alternative of your nose constantly to a grindstone??

In a Malcom Gladwell Revisionist History podcast, Cliff Asness, a billionaire hedge fund manager, talks about not working hard: “This is not a secret. I don’t work as hard as people think. I goof off a lot.” Malcom Gladwell describes him as liking “puzzles, games, problems that engage the imagination.” And Asness confesses “I have been caught several times playing internet chess in my office…”

In a Freakonomics interview, behavioral economics and novel prize winner Richard Thaler discusses his reputation for being lazy:

DUBNAR: You’ve you’ve been accused – or really, praised – by your collaborator and mentor and friend Danny Kahneman as being extremely lazy, and furthermore, he argues that laziness has in fact been a big part of your success. What does he mean by that, and should we all try to be a bit lazier?

THALER: Well, I don’t know if I can recommend laziness… I have little patience for working on things that aren’t, at least to me, both interesting and somewhat important. And so compared to many economists or academics, I haven’t written a super large number of papers, and I don’t follow the habit of writing 20 versions of the same paper, or on the same topic, because I get bored. And the fourth paper on some topic is not nearly as interesting as the first one…

DUBNER: And the mechanism of that benefit is what? Because you’re lazy you just don’t want to waste time on things that aren’t going to be potentially important and/or interesting?

THALER: Yeah, that’s that idea. [emphasis added]

Productivity and play

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Creativity is fuelled by a sense of play but as adults, do we have to give up play in order to “grow up?” Productivity and play can be viewed as polar opposites on an imaginary ‘success’ scale. At one end there’s productivity which provides an outward marker of how ‘successful’ you are by ticking off goals and getting stuff done. At the other is play, with many people seeing as being a kids-only activity and a silly and frivolous use of time. But with so much research pointing to play being a vital component in a fulfilling personal life, as well as in business, it would be silly to ignore the benefits.

Brené Brown in The Gifts of Imperfection says “If we want to live a Wholehearted life, we have to become intentional about cultivating sleep and play, and about letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth.” In Present Over Perfect, Shauna Niequist explains how, “Productivity became my idol, the thing I loved and valued above all else. We all have these complicated tangles of belief, identity and narrative. And one of the earliest stories I told about myself is that my ability to get it done is what kept me around… The world that made sense to me was a world of earning and proofing and I was getting it out just like everyone around me, frantically trying to prove my worth.”

Being seen as productive is so highly valued because of the myth that ticking boxes – i.e. on a daily basis via a to-do list – somehow relates to worthiness and self-value. The more you achieve, the more valuable you are perceived as being to others and therefore the more loveable and attractive you become. Productivity becomes a quantifiable measure of your ‘success’ in life’s uncertain chaos.

Kirsten Miliken in Playdhd suggests “As an adult there is a stigma about play. We’re trained to take things seriously, work hard and not ‘goof off.’… it is likely that you were ever encouraged to play to meet your potential, much less to have fun in an effort to be more creative, happy, energetic, and productive.” The idea that play can actually help you to achieve more, as well as being a vital tool for living a good life is an exciting one. “Play is a biological drive as crucial to our health as sleep or nutrition. Some of the key descriptions about play according to Miliken is that its purposeless (it’s done for the fun of it), voluntary, you loose track of time whilst engaging in play and your self-conscious is diminished (you don’t censor or judge yourself while playing).

Spending time playing “just because” may be the best thing you could do to improve the quality of your daily life. With creativity being fuelled by play and playing around with new ideas, play is one of the best tools you have available right now.

“It’s about playing. It’s like being innocent enough to just play without an outcome in mind.” – Sofia Munson, painter

Not working, play and fascination in the creative process

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Interesting insight into the writing process from author/musician/screenwriter Jeremy Dyson via an interview on The Comedian’s Comedian podcast. While he speaks from a writers perspective, it’s relevant to any creative field. ‘Not-working,’ incorporating play and being fascinated with what you’re doing are key themes.

Preparing the soil:

“So much of the work of writing happens when you are not doing it… you’re not actually doing the work, you’re preparing the soil and the work happens when you’re not thinking about it.”

Balancing work and play:

“…the creative process, it’s always a dance between both [work and play] and you’ve got to get them in the right amount. You can’t just have the hard work without the play because it’s deadly and you can’t just have the play without the discipline of a tangible date when the show’s going to be on… because you won’t do anything.”

Your best work:

“It’s about what have you got to offer, what’s particular to you that’s gong to be interesting to other people. And again it’s not mild interest, it’s passion, absolute fascination. What’s your obsession? And that’s where you do, I think, your best work, that’s where you’ve got to be.”

Creatives constantly sat at a desk ‘working hard’ is an outdated idea when it comes to producing good art. Engaging in conversations, thinking, dreaming and pottering around can allow your brain to think more divergently compared to actively thinking hard about what you should make next. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Creativity explains “This does not mean that creative persons are hyperactive, always “on”, constantly churning away… They consider the rhythm of activity followed by idleness or reflection very important for the success of their work… a strategy for achieving their goals.”

Also the interviewer and comedian Stuart Goldsmith made an interesting comment about the joy of discovery:

“The first half is very enjoyable, it’s a strong show. The second half… does occasionally make me think that I should just do work-in-progress for the rest of my life. I think it suits my energy. As soon as something becomes fixed I find myself going “Well that is fixed and I know how this works.” And it works, it really works, it’s great fun, but it doesn’t contain the same joy of discovery for me and I think maybe I’m a joy of discovery person.”

Can you learn to find joy in the journey of creating where learning and developing is the goal, instead of just focusing on the finished, final artwork? The process of discovery is a richer experience when you haven’t figured everything out.