A while ago I watched a documentary called The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1981) which focussed on the life of Richard Feynman, a physicist who has widely been called a scientific genius. I was delighted to hear him describe how valuable ‘doing things just for fun’ was to his work. He told of how, at a certain moment, he let go of trying to make his work ‘useful’ and started doing things ‘just for the fun of it’. It was then that the insights started to flow which eventually led him to winning the Nobel Prize.
His story resonates strongly with my own experiences practicing InterPlay – as InterPlay provides me with a forum where I can play with issues by simply following what feels like fun at the time. Even though we often play with issues from our life or work in an InterPlay session, there is no intention to solve anything, no intention to learn anything, and certainly no intention to do anything ‘useful’ – heaven forbid! Paradoxically, it is when I can let go of these types of intentions that I often achieve them the most easily.
Over time, I have learned that the intention to improve, solve or resolve is a heavy weight to bear and the expectation that you should have ‘achieved something’ by the end of a session can actually be a huge block to the arising of authentic and useful insights. I remember the day that I first came to this realisation and the smile that spread through my whole body as I thought through the implications: If this was true, I could achieve many of the things I want by just following what feels like fun to me.
The pressure to achieve something useful can push us out of our play mode and into solution mode too soon. This can sometimes be counter productive as it can often take quite some time for us to see a deeper relevance to our play, as Richard Feynman described in the documentary. I would like to quote from him so that you can see in more detail what his process was like…
“So I decided I’m going to do things only for the fun of it. And [just] that afternoon when I was eating lunch, some kid threw up a plate in the cafeteria, which has a blue medallion on the plate (the Cornell sign). And as he threw up the plate and it came down, it wobbled and the blue thing went around like this [makes turning movement with finger]. And I wondered… It seemed to me the blue thing went around faster than the wobble and I wondered what the relation was between the two. See, I was just playing, no importance at all! So I played around with the equations of motion of the rotating things and I found out that if the wobble is small, the blue thing goes around twice as fast as the wobble goes around.”
He goes on the explain how this ‘playing around’ with the dynamics of the plate wobble eventually led him back to quantum electrodynamics (his field of work). He started to see how this could be relevant to another problem he was working on relating to “the rotation of the spin of an electron”. He describes how he continued to play with the electron problem in this relaxed fashion and that it was “like taking the cork out of a bottle, everything just poured out, and I had (by the way – in a very short order) worked the things out for which I later won the Nobel Prize.”
In the beginning Feynman couldn’t see the connection between the spinning plate and the rotation of an electron, he even describes how he showed a colleague what he had found out about the dynamics of the spinning plate – introducing it to him as something “amusing”. When his colleague questioned what the use of this amusing information was Feynman said that he didn’t see any use in it and he was just doing it for fun. It wasn’t until later that he saw how this was relevant to another problem he was working on.
In my experience this happens quite often. When we switch of our analytical minds and spend some time just playing with things that we find engaging and fun, our subconscious doesn’t necessarily stop working on problems from other areas of our lives. I think this is especially relevant when the task I am working on is a creative one, where I am creating something new, trying to solve a problem or trying to understand something. For a menial task like filling in my tax return, on the other hand, I guess I would have to admit: it is probably just avoidance tactics!
In this way, play can be so much more that just a distraction, it can allow your subconscious the space to do its own investigations. This may happen as you find yourself attracted to play that builds skills or knowledge relevant to issues in your life. Or, doing things for pleasure can also simply allow your intellectual focus to led go of the reigns for a little while so other processes in the background can take some more space. There are many stories about how it was when people stopped working on a problem and did something less mentally taxing, that this was the moment when when a flash of insight appeared.
So, the next time you are distracted from your work and start doing something that doesn’t seem related, push aside any guilty feeling that comes up and take some time to notice if anything about the distraction could be relevant to the task you were diverted from. Are you just avoiding the task, or are you actually still working on it in a different way which might yield something wonderful? If you have the time for it, let go of any intentions and simply allow yourself to follow the distraction for a while and see what happens…