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Kids play, and adults … “adult”? False. You’re not playing enough.

Even when you have your work, your health, and your love life in order — you’re still missing something

Dominik Nitsch
6 min read
Kids play, and adults … “adult”? False. You’re not playing enough.
Ever seen this much excitement in an adult’s face? Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash
A regional train on a sunny day. Could be worse. Photo by the author.

„Welcome to the RE 9 to Aachen, via Brachbach, Wissen (Sieg) and Cologne Central Station.“

The announcer of the train continues then to rattle off the subsequent stops of the regional train I’m sitting in. Except that it’s not the announcer, but a 6-year-old boy running through the train, beaming with excitement.

The Italian girls sitting across the aisle frown. They’re obviously annoyed, and would prefer to not be distracted about — paradoxically enough — cute baby videos. The kid keeps coming back before every stop, announcing where the train is going to stop next. Most other guests don’t even seem to notice.

I’m smiling. I used to be that kid who got super excited about riding on trains, dragging my parents to walk through the whole train again and again … and to their dismay, again. It was awesome. I could’ve been on trains for hours on end. My little brother’s obsession with it was arguably even bigger.

But I’m not just smiling because of those childhood memories. I’m smiling because what I just witnessed was a display of pure, sincere feelings of joy.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
The laughter of a baby thrown in the air and being caught again by its dad. The joyful screaming of children playing catch, or hide and seek, or soccer. The excitement of children on the morning of their birthday, ready to unpack all their presents.

Think back to your own childhood. What did you feel like in these situations?

Back then, I felt joy — and nothing else. No voice in the back of my mind that I be careful so I don’t injure myself again. No reminder on my phone to hang the laundry. No pressure to unpack the birthday gifts but in a timely manner so I can get to the office. Just joy and excitement.

Particularly in Germany, people walk around with stressed, frowning faces every day. Play and joy aren’t part of their daily routines anymore. Life is about working, not disappointing your friends, making ends meet. The question „how are you?“ is usually answered with „good, thanks — lots of work.“

Are you sure you’re „good“? Because it sure doesn’t sound like it.

In the book „Designing Your Life“ by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, the authors introduce the concept of a „life dashboard“ that is divided into four categories: work, health, love, and play. They look like gauges on a dashboard, and out of those four, you can construct your own dashboard to evaluate your current status. During the initial assessment, I gave myself pretty solid values: I enjoy the responsibility and freedom of running our own company, and believe in the greater cause that we work for — creating perspectives for people through language and education. I have no illnesses, no injuries, am performing athletically at a very high level and am mentally composed most of the time. I also had a girlfriend whom I loved at the time, so the love life was going pretty well.

Life dashboard from the book. Source.

But „play“? What the hell is that?

Burnett and Evans define „play“ as: „Play is about activity that brings joy just for the pure sake of the doing of it. It can include organized activity or productive endeavors, but only if they are done for fun and not for merit. We contend that all lives need some play, and that making sure there is some play in our day is a critical life design step.

„Shit“, I thought. „My play gauge is almost empty.“ While I do a lot of things in my free time, such as playing Lacrosse, lifting weights, reading and writing, none of it is done purely because of play. I enjoy doing these things, but they always serve a bigger purpose: getting better at something. I go to practice because it’s fun — but also because I want to be better at Lacrosse. I read books because I enjoy learning stuff — but also because I want to become a better entrepreneur.

Outside of meetings friends for beers (where I really don’t have any agenda of getting „better“), I didn’t do anything simply because of pure joy. The last time I went to a Magic: the Gathering tournament (which I don’t play competitively … anymore) was 8 months ago.

Yet, that’s precisely what children do. They don’t have a secondary agenda — they just do stuff because it’s fun, and they fully embrace the joy that comes with it.

How can you add that joy back to your life? How can you increase the „play“ gauge?

There are so many ways to „play“ in life. Here’s a few:

  • (re-)learn how to play an instrument: I picked back up my guitar. Not for the sake of becoming a rockstar (probably not gonna happen, but who knows), but simply for the sake of making music. It’s fun, enjoyable, fulfilling. I may have enjoyed a little too much, almost ending up with tendonitis in my left wrist from using too many barré chords. 😄
  • go outside and move, but not because you „have to“: this doesn’t mean „go to the gym“. A while ago, I stumbled upon an article about „running like a child“ (unfortunately, I can’t manage to find it again). In it, the 60-something author describes his new workout regimen. He just runs as fast as he can, as long as he can, with no distance or time measurement or anything like that — just like a child would run. He does this seven times, and his workout is done. I enjoy going out to the park, throwing around an (American) football and catching it. That’s just so much fun — and I’m certainly not planning on playing American football, ever. I’ll still need my brain and body later in life.
  • play board games with friends: I’ve always considered playing board games as something only children and boring adults do. You know, these „board game circles“ who meet up to play board games. How boring, dull, adult is that? It actually turns out to be quite fun — and again, with absolutely no agenda attached to get better. Just to enjoy the moment (and well, maybe win — you can’t always take the competitor out of yourself).
  • go on an adventure: I was in Georgia recently (the country in Europe, not the state — although they both have Wendy’s). It’s a beautiful country, with lots of untouched nature, incredibly friendly people and … a lot of abandoned buildings. Together with a few travelers I met on the way, we set out to discover the city of Tskaltubo, a former Soviet bathhouse city, where the wealthy from Moscow would go to relax and have treatments. The Soviet Union isn’t around anymore — and neither are the bathhouses. Just their corpses. Walking through those abandoned bathhouses and hotels, I felt like a child again. It was mysterious. It was a bit dangerous. It gave you the thrill of adrenaline, not knowing if it’s actually legal to walk through there or if there are trespassing laws in Georgia. But most of all, it was hella fun — so fun, that the next day, we set out again to discover the old, rusty cable cars of Chiatura.
The joy of finally finding the damn rusty cable car. Photo of, not by, the author.

Doing these things, my play gauge has recovered a bit, but still has a long way to go. I have a packed schedule, take on more obligations than I need to and even during my downtime, I do productive things — I’ve spent this train journey learning about Sales techniques and writing this blog post.

Maybe instead, I should have walked back and forth on the train, announcing the next stops to my fellow passengers just like my 6-year-old friend. Who, coincidentally, just reminded me: „next stop: Köln-Ehrenfeld“. I need to get the hell outta here.

Now that my play time is over, one question remains:

What are you going to do to ensure enough play in your life?

One thing to increase your weekly enjoyment would be to subscribe to my newsletter. Give it a shot. ;)

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