What do you spend the most time at – work or play?
And by play, I mean an activity that serves no solemn purpose other than for pure enjoyment.
If you have left childhood behind to enter the sophisticated world of adults, I suspect you answered “work”.
What are you better at – work or play?
Alas, you most likely answered “work” because, given your answer above, you probably allotted your creative energies and prime time to developing your “work” skill-sets.
When was the last time you played with Legos or an Erector set (Meccano set for Canadians or Britains)?
When did you build something out of wood just for the heck of it – not because it was needed?
When was the last time you did math problems simply because it was fun to do so?
When was the last time you let your mind think about things for the sheer pleasure of thinking about things?
These questions came to me as I finished the wonderful biography of Claude Shannon by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman, titled “A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age”
While you may not recognize his name, Claude Shannon, has influenced your life in ways that you would never have imagined. Whenever you make a phone call, watch a streamed movie or send an email – or basically anything with digital information – a large share of the credit for these indispensable technologies goes to Claude Shannon.
Claude Shannon was a mathematician who worked at the famous Bell Labs. His ability to see problems in a new light were legendary. He virtually created the conceptual underpinnings that transformed analogue systems to digital, allowing us to watch our movies and communicate through our smart phones from anywhere, at any time.
Claude Shannon was legendary for his playing. Shannon used the uniquely relaxed and undemanding work atmosphere at Bell Labs to not necessarily work on the problems at hand. Rather, he would let his mind – and his body play. Although an extreme introvert, he was well known for juggling while unicycling down the narrow hallways of the Bell Labs complex. He liked to develop robots – including one to juggle – and perhaps is most famous for developing a robot mouse that could work its way through a maze to find a magnetic piece of cheese. He created an early computer playing chess device and fashioned a wide variety of bizarre unicycles. His house was filled with gadgets, many of which he built from his Erector set that his wife bought him as a Christmas gift.
You might ask why did Bell Labs allow this mathematician so much leeway?
One can only guess at the answer, but it may Bell Labs recognized Shannon’s play produced novel insights that changed the world and generated tremendous profits for their company. Make no mistake though – Shannon was not into playing for profit – he was a person of very modest expenditures and repeatedly turned down lucrative opportunities. Shannon was into play solely for the sake of play. He understood the obvious – playing is fun. The delightful unintended consequence when his mind was at play produced significant outcomes.
Claude Shannon demonstrates that play and success are not mutually exclusive, but in fact are likely highly correlated.
Now, you are probably sitting there with a stacked inbox and a set of looming work deadlines. You may be wistful, even slightly envious, that Shannon received compensation for engaging in juggling and unicycling. Indeed, it is a sad truth that few, if any, of us will get directly compensated for playing. However, no one controls your mind on your off-time.
Here is my challenge to you. Let your mind play.
Instead of watching a mindless TV show, turning to a computer game – including solitaire, or reading a formula-written pulp-fiction novel, go back in time and awaken your four-year-old brain. It’s time you had fun! It’s time you embraced play again!
Ask yourself the silliest question you can think of and then try to work your way through it – simply for the absolute delight of doing so. While you may not develop ideas as path-breaking as Claude Shannon did with his mind play, you will open yourself up to innovative opportunities.
Dr. Rick Nason is an associate professor of finance in the Rowe School of Business at Dalhousie University. Rick’s research interests are enterprise risk management, complexity, financial crisis, financial risk assessment, derivatives and hedging strategies. His recent book, It’s Not Complicated, published in 2017 offers a paradigm shift for business professionals looking for simplified solutions to complex problems.